(84) The Call of Nature
In the past, the call of nature in Korea was often a dangerous affair ― especially for children.
In the countryside, Korean adults warned little boys not to urinate in the rivers and streams that provided water for their small communities. The boys were told that if they did, the guardian spirits would cause their male appendages to fall off.
In the cities, little boys often ran naked through the streets and would stop and squat wherever they pleased when nature called. Their little bottoms were sometimes licked clean by the many dogs that roamed the streets and, on occasion, these dogs became too zealous with their licking and ended up nipping away their young master’s manhood.
There were other dangers as well. In the 1890s, the streets of Seoul were filled with filth and sewage. Lillias Underwood described the chaotic nature of the streets:
“All sewage runs into filthy, narrow ditches, frequently stopped up with refuse, green slimy pools of water lie undisturbed in courtyards and alongside of the roads, wells polluted with drainage, soiled apparel washed nearby, quantities of decaying vegetable matter thrown out and left to rot on the thoroughfares and under the windows of the houses.”
Seoul wasn’t the only city with filthy streets. Sherwood Hall, apparently describing the streets of Pyongyang, wrote that the bathrooms were built so that they overhung the open ditches, but these bathrooms were only used by the women ― the men and children preferred to use the streets making these thoroughfares nothing more than open sewers.
But not all of the sewage was allowed to flow into the streets. Night soil collectors would take wagon-loads of the material into the countryside where it was sold to farmers to be used as fertilizer for their crops. Although it did help with the cultivation of vegetables, it also cultivated diseases such as cholera.
In the mid-1880s, Dr. Horace Allen printed up fliers warning the small number of Westerners residing in Seoul to avoid eating raw vegetables and melons as they were fertilized using human waste. It was partially out of this concern that by the 1890s many of the Western residences in Seoul had their own gardens to supply their vegetable needs.
In 1900, the young boys at the Home for Destitute Children, an orphanage established by Miss Jean Perry, raised vegetables and sold them to the legations and Westerners residing in the Jeongdong area. Apparently they were fertilized with the children’s own night soil.
By the early part of the twentieth century great progress in water treatment and waste disposal had been made in Korea led to a cleaner and safer environment. Yet, despite these great efforts made in sanitation, there was still some wariness amongst foreigners in eating Korean vegetables.
Mary Linley Taylor, the wife of a Seoul-based gold miner in the late 1910s, recounted:
“It had not taken me long to learn that nobody ate vegetables bought in the Korean markets, on account of the use of human fertilizer.”
Even at the gold mines in northern Korea there was a certain degree of hesitancy to eat vegetables grown by Korean farmers. When the wife of the manager of the Unsan Gold Mines gave a luncheon to a group of visitors she hurriedly tried to reassure them by noting that the vegetables in the salad were all grown in her own family’s manure.
The introduction of modern toiletry and chemical fertilizer has led to the disappearance, for the most part, of night soil from the fields of South Korea.