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Art&CultureHistory
Jeju Island’s noble beast
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승인 2011.02.12  06:27:03
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▲ Oxen laden with wood, circa 1900. Courtesy Robert Neff Collection

Koreans often mention that Jeju is famous for three things — wind, rocks and women. If you give them a second to think about it, they might also mention tangerines/oranges and horses/ponies. Historically, horses and ponies were not the only animals to live here. So too did cattle grace the shores of Jeju.

When Alexander A. Pieters and Eugene Bell visited Jeju in early 1897 they were already well-acquainted with the Korean bull — an animal that was described as being noble and so gentle that even a small child could manage it with little problem. Pieters and Bell are, however, probably the first two Americans to describe in some detail the cattle of the island.

According to Pieters, herds of cattle and horses roamed Jeju the island fending for themselves – stone walls barring them from entering the farmers’ fields. During winter, the herds concentrated in the fields along the coasts but in the spring they were driven up to pastures on the mountain slopes.

Pieters observed that the island cattle were not as big and strong as those on the mainland but were still quite valuable and sold for, on average, 25 American dollars. In 1889, a British diplomat reported that in the Seoul area bulls sold for $20-30. Horses, on the other hand, were only $16 a head.

There were no tigers or bears in Jeju, so the only predators that the horses and cattle faced were humans. “A good many of the horses and cattle belong to the government and an official is kept there for the purpose of taking care of them … [but] as there is no watch kept, the islanders have no hesitation in catching and utilizing a government cow or horse whenever they have need for it.”

Pieters seems to indicate that the cattle were used not only to pull crude plows in the field but also for transport.

Timber and firewood were harvested from the unowned interior forests, transported by oxen to the towns, a distance of some 10 to 12 miles, and then the entire load was sold for the equivalent of 12 American cents.

While misuse of government horses and cattle was tolerated here, it wasn’t so in Seoul. At about the same time Pieters was on Jeju, a Seoul judge sentenced an oxen thief to be hanged in the city jail. Fortunately for the thief, the Law Department thought his punishment was excessive and adjusted his punishment to a flogging (50 blows). The original judge was given a reprimand “for ignorance of common law.”

Cattle were also part of the islanders’ diet in addition to pork; horse and dog meat; fish; and wild game including deer, rabbits and fowl.

It seems rather remiss of Pieters not to have mentioned the Korean butchering technique — especially of cattle. In her book, “Korea and Her Neighbors,” Isabella Bird Bishop, a spry but elderly British explorer who traveled throughout Korea on a couple of occasions during the mid 1890s, described Korean butchery – she is one of the few Westerners to do so. However, for this article I prefer to use an 1897 editorial from The Independent, an English-language newspaper in Seoul operated by a Korean-American. It said:

“The method in vogue here is simply horrible from a humanitarian point of view and distasteful from an epicurean standpoint. Briefly speaking, the butcher tortures the poor animal to death by various manipulations. First, the animal’s trachea is cut with a knife and a wooden peg is inserted in the opening thus made. Then the butcher takes a hatchet and beats the animal on the rump several times until the animal dies. This process lasts nearly an hour, and the animal suffers agony before it loses consciousness. The hide is then taken off and the meat is divided at different joints. All this time, a very little blood is lost, therefore the Korean beef is full of blood when it is brought to the house from the store. The reason of not bleeding beef is a trick of the butcher’s business. By leaving the blood in the meat, it weighs more, hence it becomes profitable to the dealer. The cause of the disagreeable odor from Korean beef when it is cooked is due to the decomposition of the elements in the blood by the action of the heat.”

Despite the less-than-savory description, beef (“good steak and roast”) sold in the local markets of Seoul for 14 cents a pound, much cheaper than a pound of American bacon, 20 cents; American ham, 50 cents; or smoked salmon, 55 cents.

Pieters described the islanders as being “strikingly poor” with clothing “much worse than on the mainland.” If we are to believe his and other early Western visitors’ accounts, leather from cattle, for the most part, was not used for clothing.

“Dog skins are extensively used for making clothes. Hats, the shape of a teacup, overcoats, leggings, like those worn by the Chinese, and stockings are all made of dog skin with the hair outside, which for greater warmth are used untanned. A suit of such clothes is handed down from generation to generation, and the smell of it is far from being sweet.”

Pieters did note that the men’s pants and the women’s clothing were made from cloth that was dipped into the juice of wild persimmons, causing it to turn a “dirty brown color, which saves the trouble of washing it. The cloth is worn until it falls to pieces.” The clothing he described is known as galot and is still manufactured on the island [see Colleen Hyde’s Jeju Weekly article “Secrets of persimmon-dyed cloth revealed,” June 20, 2009].

However, cow and horse hides were major export items and were sent to the markets in Fusan and Chemulpo (modern Busan and Incheon) where they were then traded to Japanese merchants who in turn exported them to the British markets in Europe. Before the age of tangerines and dolhareubang statuettes, contemporary exported abundances, came a much simpler age.


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