(74) Cleanliness is next to godliness
Western accounts of early Korean-foreign encounters are often peppered with disparaging descriptions of the perceived lack of Korean hygiene. A sailor in the 1860s scathingly wrote that Koreans “appear to regard filthiness as a virtue” and that “their appearance would testify that water was unknown to them.” Others asserted that Koreans seemed wary of soap and water and were covered with lice. While some of these accounts may have had some degree of accuracy, others seem to have been overly-exaggerated.
During the late Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), several contemporary writers noted that while the Koreans were not as fastidious in bathing as the Japanese, they were not averse to it. Horace N. Allen, an early missionary and later the American representative to Korea, wrote:
“On the third day of the third moon all careful people take a bath in order to wash away certain impending trouble and prevent its return during the year.”
Another observer noted that bathing in Korea was not as uncommon as many people believed and that, as part of a ritual, the bather would face east and bow thirty times ― presumably in an attempt to dispel bad luck or omens.
Bathing certainly took place at the gold mines in what is now North Korea. By the mid-1910s there was at least one bathhouse at the Unsan Gold Mines that was very popular ― not just with the Japanese workers but the Koreans as well. There was also a very popular spa near the Gwendoline Gold Mine in the early 1900s. An English miner wrote:
“We arrived back at the mine after eleven days away, having come round from Kokul by way of the hot springs. These springs are well-known in Corea for their curative properties, and the small village where the baths are located depends for its support on visitors. Our men often used to go for a week-end to take a few baths, but they did not tempt me, and although they offered to clear everyone out of the public bath, I did not fancy a bathe in waters where every diseased person imaginable had bathed. The bath was quite a large one, built under cover, with the hot springs bubbling up continually inside, and with a steady overflow.”
Other visitors commented negatively upon Korean clothing. William Griffis, regarded as the leading expert on Korea in the 1880s, wrote that the simple white outfit of the Koreans “seemed snowy at a distance” but a closer examination revealed it to be “dingy and dirty, owing to an entire ignorance of soap.” He was not alone in his observation but was it accurate?
The “ignorance of soap” remark seems clearly out of place considering the number of Western accounts that emphasized the rhythmic “tap-tap-tap” of women doing laundry throughout the night ― a clear indication that the average Korean was concerned about their appearance. In truth, Koreans of the Joseon era were extremely fastidious about their clothing and spent large amounts of money to stay in style.
Of course, Koreans viewed their foreign guests and their clothing and hygiene with some degree of amusement and disdain but, for the most part, were polite enough to keep it to themselves.
In her book, “Challenged Identities,” Elizabeth Underwood noted that Korean visitors to the United States also found fault with the hygiene of their American hosts except they were more polite and forgiving. When a group of Koreans visited New York in the early 1910s, they found the smell to be “unendurable” but “with ever ready courtesy, resolutely suppress[ed] the look of disgust, and account[ed] for the strange effluvia by the charitable assumption that it must be due to our wearing woolen clothes so much and never washing more than the inner clothes.”
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.