[KS] Travelogue: Book on Seoul and First Movie ever Filmed and Played in Korea by E. Burton Holmes, 1901

Kwang On Yoo lovehankook at gmail.com
Wed Feb 22 07:13:43 EST 2012

Renowned, Chicago born travel writer, photographer, and filmmaker, E.
Burton Holmes (1870-1958) traveled to Seoul, Korea in April and May of
1901. His documentation of life in Seoul resulted in a 112-page limited
edition book, *Seoul, The Capital of Korea, The Burton Holmes Lectures:
Volume X*, published later that year. The complete book is attached hereto,
as a free e-book, courtesy of Google.

In the book, right off the bat, he poses the following unanswerable
question about Seoul, "*That big city in Korea*."

"A word as to the pronunciation of the name of the capital of Korea will
not be amiss. It is variously misspoken. English travelers offend the ear
with* Sowl. *The French say *Sayoull*. Americans, when cornered, compromise
on *Sool*, but usually just call it, *That big city in Korea*."
"And the form *Seeyoul* is not unknown. If we turn to foreign residents, we
find that every old settler has a pet pronunciation of his own, usually
backed by an article contributed to that unique and interesting local
publication, The *Korean Review** (*formally, *The Repository*), a
veritable repository of quaint bits of information about this curious
country. To whom "then" shall we turn if not to the natives themselves? I
give as my authority, countless Korean lips, when I assert that the people
Cho-Sen call their capital city *So-ul*, the sound being precisely that of
the English word *soul*, dis-syllabified." (page 15-16, page number appears
on top of each page)

The book captures a rare moment in Korean history, when Koreans struggled
to improve themselves without foreign interference; Doing such thing as
installing electric trolley cars, building new roads, improving
infrastructure, etc. until their efforts were curtailed by the Japanese in
1905 and on. Thanks to the words and photographs by Holmes, that moment has
been immortalized, however brief it was.

Another contribution Holmes made was that he filmed and played the first
ever movie in Korea.

He had hoped that " - - - if those who read these words appreciated the
value of motion-picture as a mean of recording life as it is lived in this
century, that those who live in the next may actually *see* the *living *
figures of man and women who lived in the same world a hundred years
before?  - - -To record life in such a way that every gesture, movement,
and expression  of one men or of a hundred men may be reproduced at will
and make that man or that multitude appear to live again and reenact their
parts, this is the end and aim of the art-science of motion-photography,
Motion-photography is, in the truest sense - biography. Is it not the
writing of life in a universal language  - that of action." (pages 62-64)

Holmes had no need to worry, 111 years later we are still studying and
enjoying his movie, as he had wished.

A chance meeting Holmes had with Yi Jae-sun (이재순, 淸安君 李載純, Emperor Kojong's
팔촌, 八寸,  second cousin, twice removed) led to Holmes screening the movie he
shot in Korea for the Emperor and princes. Holmes describes the

"We entertain His Highness (Yi Jae-sun) with our portable machine for
showing miniature motion-pictures, like of which he has never seen before.
He grows enthusiastic and bags to allow him to take the instrument to the
palace to show it to the Emperor. We gladly acquiesce, and after teaching
him how to operate the equipment." (page 86)

"It was retained two days at the palace and sent back in the dead of night
by Imperial messengers, who came with Torches and Lanterns through the
street, roused hotel, and delivered the mailing box accompanied by several
presents from His Majesty, including twenty yards of rich green silk and
half a dozen fans, together with an explanation of the delay, due to the
fact that the baby prince, youngest son of the Emperor and actual palace
tyrant, had been fascinated by the toy and had wept when they attempted to
take away it from him, falling asleep still griping it firmly in his chubby
hands. Next day there came an invitation from the Fat Prince (Yi Jae-sun)
to appear at the palace to see the Imperial Dancing Girls; but a postscript
begs us to bring the picture machine. Mr. Park (Holmes interpreter) remarks
in a warning tone: 'If you take machine one time more, please think you
lose them.' We went, prepared to part with the covered box, gladly
presenting it to little prince to stop his weeping, receiving in return
twenty yards more of rich green silk, two kakemonos, and other gift of
silver, and what we prized most of all, a peep at a portion of Imperial
corps-de-ballet." (pages 106-108)

Here are some of the highlights of the three-minute movie, as described in
the book; it is interesting to note that he was absolutely unimpressed with
the dance that the court Kisaeng (Gesang,기생) performed for him.

"Near the hotel (the English run Station Hotel, only a few paces from the
railway terminus) we find a gang of laborers beginning an excavation; there
are nine men in the gang: they have only one shovel among them, and yet the
entire gang is hard at it operating that solitary shovel. One plants the
blade deep in the earth, his eight companions, to the measure of a chanted
song, give vigorous yankings to the ropes attached, jerking the shovel free
and thus shooting the clods of earth to a considerable distance." (pages

*Ladies' Coats*
We see comparatively few women in the streets. Most of them are shrouded in
coats of brilliant green, which are not put on like coats, but merely
thrown over the head and clutched under the chin, concealing the faces as
do the veils and hails of Moorish women. The sleeves which dangle free and
empty have white cuffs, while long red ribbons add a dash of brilliancy to
this striking costume. Sometimes the coat is folded and worn like a
tam-o-shanter on the head; and this reveals the fact that the dress beneath
the overcoat is not a dress, for it is a pair of baggy trousers.

*Hats & Topknots*
Korea is indeed the land of hats, and every hat has its significance. But
first of all, whence comes the conventional headgear of the Korean
gentlemen? - that curious cone of horsehair or split bamboo on a bamboo
frame, so delicate, so inconvenient, so picturesque!  - - -No male Korean,
no matter what his age, is regarded as a man till he has duly donned the
hat that enshrines the sacred topknot. No man may don the hat until he has
assumed the topknot and is prepared to marry. A professed bachelor is not
regarded as a man even though he lives a hundred years..." (pages 68-74)

"....and thither gentlemen of Seoul resort for the archers, the target on a
terraced hillside, beyond a broad green-clad depression where passers-by
may walk in safety beneth the high curvings of the feathered shafts, for
the Korean gentlemen aim high, as if intent on hitting unseen stars. And
they are accurate of aim; for nearly every arrow as it decends from the
cleft skies strikes the msrk or at the worst, falls very near it. We spend
an interesting hour watching the gentlemen of Seoul contending in friendly
rivalry in this dignified and
medieval exercise."

*Gesang (기생)*
"The dancing-girls of Korea, called 'gesang', occupy about the same place
as the geishas of Japan, save that most of them are employed chiefly in the
palace, there being an established troupe of over eighty coryphees, constantly
in readiness to dance before the Emperor. They ride about the town in
elegant sedands, attended always by a woman servant. They are sometimes
pretty, in a mild and featureless sort of way, but always immaculately
dressed, with faces powdered and made up until they look like placid masks.
As for their art, its charm is not apparent to the stranger; monotonous,
stiff, and automatic in their posturing, and quite expressionless of
visage, they dance to the dull music thumped on a double-drum. And this
sort of thing is regarded as the height of gaiety at the Korean court. The
Emperor spends hours every day in watching the gyrations of his fourscore
automations. We are happy to have seen it, for so much mystery surrounded
the celebrated Palace Gesang that we should have been as bitterly
disappointed in another sense had not our magic pictures gained us entrance
to the palace courts. But even the magic pictures that have bewitched the
Imperial circle from the Emperor to the Baby Prince do not awaken the
slightest spark of interest in impassive coryphees, who look into the
instrument with uncomprehending eyes."

*The Gates of Seoul*
The South Gate is the chief landmark of Seoul, a busy meeting-place for the
tides that flows from the city to the suburbs and from the suburbs to the
city. Gates in the Orients are held in high respect. They usually
bear bombastic names; and the gates of Seoul which we call simply the West,
East, or South Gates, are known to the natives as the Portals of "Bright
Amiability." "High Ceremony" or "Elevated Humanity." (pages 74-75)

Even before he left Korea he expressed that "We register a vow that
sometime we will come to this strange land with that most precious asset of
the travelers - time, plenty of time - and invest it wisely, sailing away
up a wide river into the almost unknown interior provinces, into the Korea
of yesterday, to which few echoes of the outer world have penetrated."
(page 77).

Later, he did return to Korea, even though it was under Japanese colonial

*1. Seoul, The Capital of Korea, The Burton Holmes Lectures: Volume X*,
E. Burton Holmes, 1901


2. The first movie ever filmed and played in Korea by E. Burton Holmes, 1901

His understanding of some facts regarding Korea and Korean history was
flawed and his pro-Japanese sentiment is annoying, but his prose, and
especially his photos, are priceless. Please enjoy.

Kwang-On Yoo
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