Monday, February 07, 2011

Land of the Morning Calm by Arnold Henry Savage Lander

In Seoul, a hundred years ago, a small bell in the king's compound indicated that another, larger bell should sound. This in turn roused the gate keepers into action and, ignoring the crowd of people now hurrying towards the main gate, would shut it. No one was allowed in or out of the city after sun set. The streets also were in curfew for the times of darkness were the women's hours. While men were expected to stay indoors (except for about 5 nights of the year) the women were given the freedom of the streets. It was a freedom not frequently exercised with any relish because around the city of Seoul were mountains, and in the mountains were tigers, bears and leopards to whom the thirty feet city walls were no obstacle, and so they would prowl those streets empty of men, and sometimes dab a paw through a paper window and carry off a sleep-drugged resident from his furnace-heated floor and dismember him before bounding back to his lair with a full stomach.

Arnold Henry Savage Landor spent several months in Seoul at the end of the nineteenth century, and although he claims to have no literary expertise he writes very movingly and interestingly about what he finds there in Land of the Morning Calm. One of the most poignant passages concerns an execution of several men convicted of conspiracy to commit treason. He details their parade around the streets on crosses on a cart, their eventual departure from the city through the Gate of the Dead and then the clumsy efforts of the drunk executioner to discharge his duty. Then he records how he encounters an old man accompanied by several terrified 'coolies'. They are terrified because the hills around Seoul, apart from being the refuge of carnivores also harbour spirits, and the ones emanating from freshly executed criminals were thought to be particularly malign and powerful. In vain the old man had tried to bribe them with strings of cash but they refused to go close.
Arnold Lander took pity on him, and together they inspected the bodies and then the heads, and then, retrieving those that used to be the old man's son, risked punishment themselves to give the boy a decent burial.

Mr. Lander, despite his modest protestations at the start of the book, is clearly a very good writer, and I suspect his artistry is impressive too. Throughout there are references to his drawings of the people and places that he sees, and the effect that his western art has on the royalty of 'Corea'. When he arranges for the prince to sit for him the young man comes four and a half hours early because he had been unable to sleep with excitement at the prospect, but unfortunately I cannot see them because the Kindle version does not contain the illustrations.

If I were going to Seoul I would find this a fascinating introduction to the place - although I am sure it is now changed beyond recognition, and I would be left imagining how it was just as much as I am now imagining the content of Mr. Landor's pictures.


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