Hunting for many Westerners living in Korea during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not just to put food on the table; it was also considered manly entertainment. While large animals, such as deer, bears, wild boar and, for some of the braver individuals, tigers were often the prey, for the most part wild fowl was the game of choice.
It is no coincidence that some of the earliest Western canines in Korea were bird dogs — cocker spaniels seem to have been especially prized by the British Navy. During the British occupation of Gomundo Islands (1885-1887), British sailors and Marines imported pheasants from China and started their own hunting club.
For Westerners living in Seoul, ducks and geese were popular game birds. Horace Allen, the American representative to Korea (1897-1905), boasted that the geese and ducks were so abundant along the Han River that he had seen it fairly black with them. There were so many birds that some hunters were able to take four down with a single shot.
The truth of his boast is impossible to determine now but undoubtedly none of those Western hunters were as skilled or as unfortunate as a fabled hunter Homer Hulbert wrote about in 1902 (“Things Korean,” Horace N. Allen).
According to Hulbert, there was a hunter so skilled with a bow that he could shoot an arrow through a cash (a Joseon era coin with a hole in the center) without moving the coin. One day, a bystander noticed three geese flying overhead and challenged the hunter to bring the three of them down with a single arrow. Without hesitation, the hunter complied and the three geese fell from the sky.
Already proud of his feat, that night the hunter was further blessed with a portent of good tidings. He dreamt that his wife would soon give birth to three fine young sons and, by that winter, he was the proud father of triplet sons.
The boys were what any father could wish for: handsome, obedient and strong. Without a doubt the hunter was the envy of all of his neighbors but then tragedy struck. On the boys’ tenth birthday they all suddenly fell sick with smallpox and within a few days all died — almost at the same time.
The father was wracked with grief and “wrapped the bodies in straw and tied them as [was] customary to the branch of a tree on the mountain side to let the evil humors of the disease dry up before burying them; so that when buried the bodies would easily decay.” (“A Hunter’s Mistake,” The Korea Review Vol. 2)
In an attempt to smother the pain the father began to drink heavily and wail throughout the night of the injustices of the gods in taking his sons away from him.
One night, one of the hunter’s fellow drinkers became so intoxicated that he stumbled into the mountains and fell asleep beneath the very tree that the three boys hung from. He awoke with a start when he heard coming from the village the drunken wails of the hunter beseeching the gods. It was only then that he noticed that above him, hanging from the branches were the boys’ bodies and, much to his horror, he could hear them speaking amongst themselves. They were not true boys but the spirits of the geese that the hunter had slain so many years ago. They were basking in the hunter’s cries of sorrow and satisfied with their revenge.
The drunkard fled from the tree and immediately went to the hunter and told him of what he had witnessed. The hunter then broke his bow and never hunted again.