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Korea's Feline Fears
Many mistook them for harbingers of evil, disease and death
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-01-09 11:26 (KST)   
A cat gets its marching orders from a man in the Joseon era.
Up until several years ago it was rare to see a cat, domestic or feral, in Seoul. When Westerners began living in Korea in the late 19th century, many of them were surprised at just how poorly cats were treated. Cats were often the subjects of abuse not only from young mischievous Korean boys who threw stones at them, but also from the adults who viewed the cats as malignant spirits -- harbingers of evil, disease and death.

For many of the early Western observers this might have seemed somewhat ironic considering cats played such an important role in Korea's war against disease and pestilence. Korean homes, especially the roofs, were notorious for their infestations of rats. These rats not only spread disease they also inadvertently caused fires by building their nests too close to the hot chimneys. Cats, along with snakes, were used to help keep the rat population under control, but unlike the cats, the snakes were left relatively unmolested.

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One of the deadliest diseases to plague Korea was cholera. Frequent cholera epidemics decimated the Korean population and no one was safe from its ravages. In 1886, 6,000 to 12,000 people died in Seoul alone. For many Koreans, cats were the only defense against the dreaded disease.

Korean mudangs (shamans) were convinced that the cramps in the legs and lower extremities caused by the disease were actual rats slowly gnawing and crawling their way up through the victim's body in an effort to devour the heart. The skins of cats were used to massage and rub away the victim's cramps, and paper images of cats were placed on the doors to prevent cholera rats from entering. To further frighten the cholera rats away, mudangs used a pair of baskets to mimic the sound of a cat scratching.

In 1901, an article appeared in The Korea Review, an English publication in Seoul, that espoused the belief that cats were protection from cholera:
"The little village of Po-gang on the bank of the Han River about three miles from Seoul claims the distinction of being the only village or town in the country that is quite safe from cholera. The denizens of this quiet village point to the hill above them and say it is shaped like a cat's back. Now every one knows that cramps in the legs, that attend cholera in its first stages, are due to the cholera "rats" which enter at the feet and force their way up through the tissue of the legs. How else should these horrible wrenching pains arise? But living on the cat's back makes them safe from these rats. If, as is sometimes said, fear adds greatly to the danger of taking this disease, then it may be that their belief in the story adds to their safety since they surely feel quite safe."
Cats had other medicinal uses as well. Cats were, and allegedly still are, boiled -- sometimes alive -- with various herbs to make a rheumatism medicine.

Foreign Cats

For the early Westerners it was often difficult to obtain a cat in Korea and they were forced to look elsewhere. Horace Allen, the American Minister to Korea, "secured a foreign cat from one of our ships and established a fine breed of cats that soon rid our own house and the house of our friends from the plague of rats."

In the beginning, the foreign cats lived charmed lives. Living in the legations and homes of the missionaries, the cats were protected -- their only enemies were the dogs and the ever-present magpies. According to Allen:
"[The magpies] seem to dislike cats as do the Koreans and ... will attack a cat on sight. It used to be amusing to see a young and venturesome foreign cat try to stalk a magpie, to the evident delight of the latter who would surely lead the cat on until in good position away from the house, when the bird would turn and before the cat knew what had happened fur would be flying and he himself would be dashing for safety under the house. One such encounter was usually enough to teach a cat caution."
But as the foreign cat population increased, their popularity decreased. They soon found their foreign patrons were as dangerous, if not more so, than their Korean hosts. Horace Allen, angered by the large number of abandoned cats that had taken refuge in the deserted house near the legation, put out meat poisoned with strychnine.

A big one-eyed black cat caused Allen quite a bit of annoyance. The cat had started out as one of his pets but, when she started knocking down roof tiles in the middle of the night in search of nesting birds, she became an unwanted nuisance. Allen, dressed in his night cap and pajamas, indicated his displeasure by heaving half a brick at her. In a letter to his sons he explained: "I have sent her to the country for her health today, as otherwise I should have to give her a dose of medicine as she has become a nuisance. Charlie [Allen's Chinese cook] won't hear to my killing a black cat lest I bring bad luck to the house."

Not only were cats an occasional annoyance, they were sometimes deadly. On Dec. 22, 1901, John Joseph Newell, the constable at the British legation in Seoul, died after a painful battle with hydrophobia (rabies) following a bite he received from a wild cat. He was buried Christmas eve and left behind a young wife and two daughters.

Koreans' Fear of Cats

While many Westerners feared cats and the possible diseases that they might carry, much of the Korean population seemed terrified. The fear of cats was not limited to only the common Korean people; some noblemen were literally paralyzed with fear even when they could not see their feline tormentors. William Franklin Sands, an American who first came to Korea as secretary for the American Legation in Seoul in the late 1890s and later resigned to take employment with the Korean government as an advisor, wrote:
"Into the room burst the emperor's uncle, the 'Fat Prince,' panting and perspiring and gasping 'that child will be the death of me,' and after him the baby [Lady' Om's son] with a cat in his arms and a flock of disturbed palace eunuchs. I knew the Fat Prince's weakness, an aversion to cats so strong that they made him ill. I had seen him faint once at dinner at the legation because of a kitten hidden behind a curtain, which he could not see, but felt it to be there."
Horace Allen was apparently describing the same incident when he wrote:
"I have seen high Korean officials faint at dinner at a foreign legation when the family cat accidentally strayed into the room. One of these men, who was sitting next to me, on one occasion suddenly pitched over, his wide hat brim upsetting his glasses while his face fell in his plate. I carried him out and as he revived in the air he exclaimed the native word for cat. A kitten had strolled unobserved into the dining-room, and as the Korean was sitting where its mistress usually sat, the kitten climbed the ample gowns of the Korean and ensconced itself in his lap. Imagine looking down and finding a snake curled up in your lap at a dinner table in some strange place and you will appreciate how the Korean felt."
The Demonic Cat

But why were cats so feared and thought of as harbingers of evil, disease and death? Perhaps it has something to do with this Korean New Year's superstition.

On the last night of every year, a powerful evil spirit from the netherworld was said to assume the shape of an enormous cat and prowl the streets of Korea's villages and cities. The demonic cat stealthily makes its way from one household to the next seeking shoes left on the Korean porches unguarded. When it finds a shoe it promptly places its fetid paw into it and seals the fate of the shoe's owner. According to the belief, the owner of the shoe tread upon by the cat will suffer great misfortunes, including death, the coming year.

For this reason shoes, even those worn out and useless, were locked away in some secure box, usually in the sleeping rooms and out of reach of the cat. As added protection, human hair was burned in front of the house -- its horrible stench was thought to be a powerful deterrent to the cat. One Western visitor to Korea in the 1890s wrote:
"The Korean carefully saves up during the year, every stray strand of hair from the pates of each member, young and old, of the household, and as all have long and luxuriant locks the hair crop is by no means small; this he burns at twilight on this night in the street in front of his gate or door, it being well known that the spirit cat cannot endure the scent of burning human hair and will give any house in front of which a liberal supply of hair has been burned a wide berth."
He rather caustically noted, "I am assured on good authority, that there is no well authenticated case where this cat has been seen in any house thus protected by these pungent fumes."

Fortunately times have changed, and cats are far more visible than they were a decade ago. Markets and stores occasionally employ cats to keep the rodent population in check, and, at least in my neighborhood, stray cats prowl the piles of garbage looking for a quick meal. There are still a large number of Koreans who do not like cats, but the number of Korean cat lovers is steadily increasing. Fancy breeds of cats are often sold in pet shops and pampered as much as their canine brethren. They are a logical choice for many busy people who live in small apartments and desire a semi-independent and quiet pet to keep them company.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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