Korea’s modernization through English in the 1880s
This is the 22nd in a 60-part series featuring 60 major events in Korea's modern history from 1884 till now. The project is part of the 60th anniversary of The Korea Times, which falls on Nov. 1.
By Robert Neff
Korea Times Columnist
In the early 1880s, Joseon Korea realized that it could no longer maintain its self-
imposed isolation and began making preparations for its impending opening to the West. Part of these preparations was to have officials learn Western languages, especially English.
In February 1881, a group of 62 officials and students were secretly sent to Japan for the purported purpose of studying Japan's customs and foreign trade.
In fact, they were probably sent, as one prominent historian notes, "to get a firsthand view of Japan's industrial and military superiority."
This delegation, known as "the gentlemen's sightseeing group", spent nearly four months in Japan where they were kindly treated and given tours of all of Japan's modernizations.
The Koreans were less than impressed and found "the Japanese nature fickle and untrustworthy."
Four members, however, elected to remain in Japan and study. One of them was 15-year-old Yun Chi-ho.
He studied English with some of the missionaries in Japan and became quite proficient. In 1883, he was made the secretary and translator for the first American minister to Korea, Lucius Foote.
But not all Koreans found English noble enough to learn. In February 1882, an English-language Japanese newspaper reported this alleged incident:
"Two Coreans are staying at a Japanese hotel in Tokio, and one of them, who speaks Japanese fluently, intending to learn English, told his companion of it, and said he wished to learn the real value of Western civilization through the reading of English books.
His companion said that although he was allowed to learn Japanese, as the Japanese were less barbarous than Western nations, yet he must not learn a Western language, as it would make him a barbarian too.
His enlightened friend, however, insisted upon learning English, till the other threatened to kill himself if he did not stop, and said that as Corea was a divine country, he could not think of his friend becoming a barbarian."
While some may have viewed learning English as a barbaric betrayal of Korea's superiority, others saw it as an opportunity to advance.
In September 1883, the Korean government, under the advice of Paul G. von Mollendorff, a German advisor to the Korean court, established Dongmunhak, an interpreter school, in Seoul.
English was initially taught by two Chinese instructors who had studied in the United States and came to Korea with Mollendorff.
They were soon joined by Thomas E. Hallifax, a 41-year-old Englishman who had come to Korea to establish a telegraph system but became a teacher by default.
The Korean government stipulated that students would be chosen by their academic aptitude only, irrespective of class, and would be provided with textbooks and Western-style paper. Those who excelled in their studies would be given free room and board.
According to Prof. Kim Eun-gyong, through this manner "the government showed a progressive approach in English language education."
Apparently, at least in the beginning, the school had no problem filling its classes. Students graduated after only a couple of months' of study and were then given good positions as interpreters.
But the success of the school is somewhat debatable. It has been disparaged as a tool of the Chinese government (Mollendorff was appointed by the Chinese) and staffed by unqualified teachers.
Hallifax's qualification as a teacher was questioned not only by his students but by the small foreign community as well.
Some described him as "agreeable, clever, and thoroughly conversant with the Far East" but others derided his checkered past noting that his "attainments were self-acquired" and he was nothing more than "a common sailor."
To be fair, Hallifax, prior to coming to Korea, had served as a sailor for only two years but had taught English part time in Tokyo for four years.
Later, in 1895, he became the assistant headmaster of the Government School for Foreign Languages in Seoul ― a position he held until his death in 1908.
Obviously, he had some teaching ability but some of the Korean students felt betrayed.
In September 1886, the Korean government closed down Dongmunhak and established a new school, Yugeong Gongwon, commonly referred to as the Royal English School.
The students, all sons of noble families, were taught by three well-educated Americans, Homer B. Hulbert, Delzell A. Bunker and George W. Gilmore.
The students were instructed in English and taught twelve subjects including medicine, mathematics, geography, and natural science.
At first the students were enthusiastic to learn. They had been promised government positions if they did well and threatened with punishment, both for them and their parents, if they did poorly.
But the novelty of the experience wore off and the students began skipping classes and eventually ceased to show up.
Even the government's enthusiasm for English waned and in 1891 only one teacher, Bunker, remained. He quit in late 1893 and the school closed shortly afterwards.
Missionaries also established schools, but unlike the Royal English School, they accepted students from all walks of life, rich and poor, and even of different nationalities.
On Aug. 3, 1885, Henry G. Appenzeller founded a small school in Seoul with only two students: Yi Kium-na and Ko Yung-pil.
Soon other students desired to enroll including Yi Sung-na, a former student at Dongmunhak who had quit, claiming Halifax had "disgraced us (the students)."
A little over a year later, King Gojong, pleased with Appenzeller's attitude and work, formally recognized the school and named it Baejae Hakdang (Institute of rearing useful men).
Appenzeller was very pleased with his efforts when he wrote in 1889: "Eighty-two students were admitted, representing Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, and Americans... the Korean students are not one whit behind their neighbors in ability to acquire a knowledge of English."
He did, however, acknowledge that, like the Royal English School, students tended to leave once the novelty was gone. "Some of the Koreans after faithful work for a month or two had the usual 'urgent business in the country' and have not been seen since then."
In May 1886, Mary Finch Scranton established a small school for girls upon which King Gojong "graciously bestowed the poetic name Ewha Hakdang" (Pear Flower School).
According to Louisa Rothweiler, one of the founding teachers, the Ewha Hakdang was more of a place where poor girls would be fed and clothed than a place of education.
It was for this reason "that for years only the very poorest brought their girls to the school." Eventually, the school became a great success and went from only 11 students in 1887 to more than 150 in 1909 and is now one of South Korea's most prestigious universities.
Foreign language schools weren't the only way Koreans learned English. Some Koreans learned through the military.
In March 1883, Henry A.C. Bonar, an English diplomat from Nagasaki, observed a group of Koreans soldiers engaged in small arms training near Mt. Bukhan.
He wrote, "The words of command in English were uttered by two Corean officers in the old military dress of long robes with red sleeves, while a Chinese officer superintended the whole."
The soldiers Bonar had observed had only been under Chinese tutelage for less than three months and were already proficient in the basic manual of arms and drills conducted in English.
Later, in 1888, General William Dye and three other former American soldiers instructed Koreans in English at the military academy in Seoul but less than two years later it failed ― partially due to the constant bickering of the American officers.
A naval academy was established on Ganghwa Island in 1893 where a British officer and an enlisted man taught 160 Koreans cadets. Like the American program ― it soon failed.
Not all who learned from foreign soldiers and sailors were cadets.
In March 1884, a group of sailors from an American warship in Jemulpo harbor went ashore for small arms practice.
A group of Korean children followed the sailors. One sailor wrote: "They were bright little urchins… and repeated all the English words they could catch, shouting out with great glee 'Two! Four! Zero!' as they heard the record of the firing. They were very curious about our jewelry and clothes, and wanted to know the name for each article, which they repeated over and over again."
Many early Westerners commented upon the remarkable ability Korean children possessed in learning English. This wasn't always a positive thing.
During the British occupation of Geomun Island (1884-1887), British officers who visited the villages were often followed by a dozen or so Korean boys who pestered them in broken English for tobacco.
If they were refused, the youths cursed at the officers in "volleys of British oaths" that they had undoubtedly learned from previous visitors.
English was also taught by moonlighters. Realizing that there was a market, some Westerners, especially those who worked for the Korean Customs Department, taught English on the side.
The secretary at the Customs House in Seoul, Jonathon Hunt, made an additional $20 per month teaching English to Japanese residents.
In Jemulpo (Incheon), Chesney Duncan, another Customs agent, also supplemented his income by teaching English to Japanese merchants.
And, in Busan, Jenny Lovatt, the wife of the Commissioner of Customs at that port, taught not only Japanese residents but a young Korean lad as well.
Jenny's motivation for teaching does not appear to have been for monetary gain but rather to alleviate her loneliness and boredom.