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Words by Robert Neff
Photos courtesy of the Robert Neff collection

For the high and mighty in Joseon Korea, moving around was no simple affair, often requiring the assistance of numerous servants and retainers.

Korean woman and horse in Seoul in 1884

For the man of means, traveling in Joseon Korea was quite an affair. Whenever a yangban (양반, nobleman) passed down the streets, people of lower social status were forced to dismount and bow. Failure to do so usually resulted in a severe beating or even imprisonment. The only exception to this rule was a young man on his way to get married – he was not required to dismount.

Korean high officer on outing circa 1900-1910

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In the capital city of Seoul, it was nearly impossible to go any great distance without encountering a nobleman. Thus Pimatgol (피맛골) was invented. Pimatgol was the long alley that ran along Jongno, one of the main streets of Seoul, and allowed the common people to carry on their normal activities away from the view of the nobility. This alley soon became a popular place to drink and eat.

Obviously the worst way to travel through the soggy streets of Seoul was on foot. Not-so-affluent nobles were forced to strut down the street with an attendant supporting each of their arms. Of course, nobles weren’t the only ones, as an American visitor observed in 1888:

“The more money [the Koreans] have the more servants they keep, and the generals of the army among the most pompous of them. One of these silk-gowned, black horse hair hatted Corean generals was going up one of the hills about the capital the other day. He had two men behind him to push him and two others held his arms, when General Dye [an American advisor], who by the way is twice the man’s age, walked by him with a springing step and asked him as he passed if he expected to have that retinue with him in battle. It took some time for the Corean to appreciate the sarcasm in this remark, but it finally crept through his top knot that among the Western people, laziness and inability were not marks of honor and the next time the two came together the yang ban general walked alone.”

The next class of travel for a nobleman was by donkey or horse. The exalted one rode upon what one Westerner described as “a ridiculously elevated saddle” and was supported by a man on either side while another man led the animal. But noblemen were not the only ones to use human supports. In 1901 a British diplomat wrote, “I saw only two officers on horseback, the older officer of the two had a soldier on each side of him, while the horse of the younger man was led by a servant. I was told that it is in strict accordance with Corean etiquette for a great man to be supported when mounted.” Considering the Korean pony’s reputation for orneriness, the Westerner felt the officers’ precautions were “fully justified.”

The highest form of travel in Seoul was by chair. While some of the chairs were pretty plain – basically a chair with two long poles – other chairs were elaborate affairs and were covered with leopard or tiger skins. In addition to the chair were the staff accompanying it. There was at least one runner in front to warn the common people of the nobleman’s approach. In addition, there was “a custodian of the seals of his master which would be borne along in a brass-bound box. Another man would bear in a case strapped to his back, the uniform to be donned at court before going into the presence. There would be the pipebearer, whose duty it is to light his master’s pipe – wiping off the mouthpiece on the inside front breadth of his skirt thereafter.”

And, there was one other man that no noble of any standing could do without, especially when out and about: the chamber pot carrier.

Nobleman and horse circa 1900-1910

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History: Risks and Rewards on the Han River

History: The Haunted Streets of Seoul

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