I decided to post a clip from a book I read about the History of Korea - 1900's till today. I thought it was very well written and a very interesting read. It cited lots of sources, including clips from other books like the following. If you take the time to read this post, I bet you'll be glad you did.
From a the book, "Korea and Her Neighbors" - written by a very respected travel writer, Isabella Bird Bishop, published in London in 1898. Her conclusions were not hastily formed but were the fruit of "long and intimate study" during four separate trips throughout Korea between January 1894 and March 1897.
Her first impressions of Korea were mixed. She entered a peninsula through the southern port of Pusan (Busan)-- "a miserable place," similar, as she later found, to "the general run of Korean towns." When she arrived in Seoul, however, even though it was in the depths of winter cold, her reaction was much more favorable. She judged that its location, between North and South Mountains, was the most attractive setting of all the world's capitals. She admired the appearance of the typical Korean-- "resembling neither the Chinese nor the Japanese, he is much better looking than either, and his physique is far finer than that of the latter." She also learned, in her more than three years of traversing the peninsula, that the climate was "as nearly perfect as it could be," neither too hot in the summer nor too cold in the winter, with nine months of clear blue skies and pleasantly crisp temperatures.
She was surprised to find that Seoul, the capital of the nation, had no buildings with even a second story. Aside from its palaces and shrines, most other structures were small huts, with only one or no windows, and with walls of clay plastered on willow or bamboo frames, under thatched roofs. These houses had no running water and no toilet. Sewage was disposed of (as had been true also in Europe a century or so earlier) by dumping it in shallow trenches that ran along the streets, washed only by the rains. The air was polluted by human excrescence, causing the worst stench, Mrs. Bishop reported, that she ever had encountered except in Peking (which is in China).
Cooking was done in a dirt-floored hut attached to the main room of the house where the men entertained their male friends, and where the family slept on the floor. The floor was covered with oiled paper above flues that warmed the floor while it carried the smoke and heat from the kitchen fire. In the rainy season (which fortunately came in the spring and summer while the rice was growing in paddies) the women washed the family clothing by pounding on stones in the ditches--and during the rest of tee year in streams. Womens' work was interminable, from early morning until late at night. Men dressed in white garb; and to launder it the women ripped the garments apart to insure thorough cleansing, and after each wash had to sew them together again. Heat for cooking and for winter warmth came from small braziers, which required the gathering by women and children of small twigs, leaves, and branches, which they searched out from surrounding hills.
The role of women in the society was a curious mixture. Within the home, women exercised authority in all matters domestic, even over their husbands and sons. A wife was known as "the inside master," just as her husband was "the outside master." The family finances were managed by the women and, however meager these resources might be, the women were expected to stretch them to meet the family's basic needs. Young girls typically lived happily, but they were married very young and without a choice of their own. Generally they didn't even see the groom's face until after the wedding. Then they were taken to the home of the groom, where they came under the stern and normally harsh governance of his mother. Slavery, buy then nearly extinct, was restricted to females, except for a few males who had to sell themselves to pay their debts. A slave girl would be married by her master to a free male, who would be paid for his subsequent services with food, clothing, and a place in which to live. Daughters born of a slave mother were retained in slavery, but sons were granted their freedom.
The streets in the daytime were crowded with small Mongolian ponies and oxen loaded with huge bundles of straw, along with carts often pulled by hand. Men strolled the streets aimlessly or on errands, with many squatting by the roadsides to play the Korean chess game "go" or to chat. Other men carried on their backs, in wooden frames called "chiqes", loads weighing as much as two hundred pounds. Women were not allowed outside their homes except after dark, when men were forbidden to traverse the streets. To guard against occasional encounters the women wore shawls to cover their faces. Children rollicked in the streets or open fields, playing their many games with home-built toys, or flew kites, and young girls excelled in swinging on very high swings and in throwing one another into the air on teeter-totters. On street corners there often were story-tellers, groups of singers, fortune-tellers, or acrobats, surrounded by crowds of men and children. But Mrs. Bishop failed to note most of the fun and games. Seoul, she reported, "lacks every charm possessed by other cities. It has no ruins, no libraries, no literature, and lastly an indifference to religion that is wihtout parallel." This was her first impression. Later, she learned to love Seoul's easy relaxation and social friendliness. "I had known it for a year," she confessed, "before I appreciated it, or fully realized that it is entitled to be regarded as one of the great capitals of the world. Few capitals are as beautifully situated.