Saturday, September 24, 2011

Did you know that ... (26) Hair today, gone tomorrow

“The year 1896 opened for Korea in a gloom,” declared Isabella Bird Bishop, an intrepid British explorer, referring to the recent Gabo Reforms, a series of social and political changes carried out by pro-Japanese officials in charge of the Korean government.

Many of these reforms were strongly opposed by the Korean population but perhaps the one that met with the most opposition was the haircut reform.

The reformers declared that the topknot was a symbol of Korea’s backwardness and would no longer be tolerated. To the average Korean, the topknot was prized as a symbol of manhood and its “loss would mean a national humiliation far more real than that brought on by (Queen Min’s) assassination” by members of the Japanese legation and their Korean sympathizers only a couple of months earlier.

No one was exempt from having their topknots removed ― not even King Gojong.

Acting Home Minister Chun Yun-kil declared:

“The present cropping of the hair being a measure both advantageous to the preservation of health and convenient for the transaction of business, our sacred Lord the King, having in view both administrative reform and national aggrandizement, has, by taking the lead
in his own person, set us an example.”

Despite Chun’s claims, King Gojong did not willingly agree to lose his topknot. Sallie Sill, the wife of the American Minister to Korea, described the events that transpired in the Korean palace.

“The poor King was one of the first victims, and he resisted but it was of no avail. No Korean could be found who would cut his hair, knowing (how) he felt, so a Japanese barber did it. The old Tai-won-kun (the king’s father) felt so bad and considered it such a disgrace that he had a kind of a fit and had a hemorrhage from the nose in consequence.”

The king’s father was not the only one mourning the loss of his son’s topknot. James Gale, a missionary, described a Korean friend who “was scandalized one day by his eldest son coming home with his top-knot cut. He beat the boy, and then sat for three days in a sackcloth and ashes fasting for the son who had been lost to him by the severing of the top-knot.”

Bishop reported that “many men who prized the honor of entering the Palace gates at the New Year feigned illness” in an attempt to keep their hair but all were “sent for and denuded of their hair.”

Even the common citizens “were seized in the streets by the police and had their topknots hacked off with a sword.” Merchants and porters feared that their hair would be forcibly cut at the gates so they refused to enter the city with their loads of rice and wood. Consequently the prices of both of these commodities rose substantially. The Koreans whose locks were shorn feared to venture beyond the outskirts of the city for fear of being attacked by the rural population.

After about two weeks, the Korean government, “rather than have the citizens (of Seoul) freeze or starve,” issued another edict proclaiming that haircutting was no longer compulsory.

For many, it was too late and they were forced to invent excuses to explain the loss of their cherished topknots. Some were quite imaginative. They claimed that their hair had been hacked off by ghosts or goblins while they wandered the darkened streets of Seoul.
But Seoul wasn’t the only place that Koreans had felt pressured to cut their hair. A Korean traveling in Yokohama became so annoyed by the stares and comments he received because of his hair that “he was obliged to have it cut. The Japanese barber, smiling broadly, asked, ‘How can you ever repay the favor I do you?’ The (Korean gentleman) replied, in Korean, under his breath, ‘To behead you, you wretch, would be the only fit pay.’”

source: The Korea Times

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