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Tobacco in Joseon Korea
A blessing and curse
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-09-24 03:08 (KST)   
For many of us of in Korea, and for that matter -- any part of the world, cigarette smoke is anything but pleasant. WHO (World Health Organization) reported in 2002 that nations in the Far East and the Pacific had the highest growing rate of tobacco usage in the world with nearly two-thirds of men smoking. For anyone who has lived in Korea for any amount of time, Korea's passion for tobacco, at least in the past, is well known. According to the Korean Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, 75.1 percent of the Korean male population in 1992 smoked; fortunately, over the past 16 years the rate has dropped to a low of 40.4 percent, and is expected to drop even lower.

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Why and when did tobacco become so important in the lives of Koreans?


Tobacco, according to Hendrik Hamel, a Dutch sailor marooned in Korea in 1653, was introduced into Korea in the early 1600s just after the Imjin War (1592-1598). It was thought to have medicinal properties and was extremely prized by the Koreans. When it was first introduced "a measure of silver [about 4 grams] or its equivalent" was given for each pipe, but as the cultivation of the plant grew the price accordingly fell and its usage increased. Within 50 years of its introduction, tobacco usage had become so widespread that Hamel observed children as young as four or five years old smoking and it was rare to encounter a Korean who did not partake in the habit. Except for a brief period in 1692 and 1717 when smoking was banned in some urban areas in an effort to prevent devastating fires, the popularity of smoking continued to increase.

About two and a half centuries later, William Elliot Griffis, an early historian who denounced Korean smoking as a national habit and a waste, insisted that the rich vocabulary of Korean terms relating to the culture, curing and preparation of tobacco indicated just how highly it was valued by the Korean population whose average citizen felt undressed without his well-filled bag of tobacco at his side. He ended his discourse on tobacco with: "Into the forms of hospitality, the requisites of threshold gossip and social enjoyment, and for all other purposes, real or imaginary, which nicotine can aid or abet, tobacco has entered not merely as a luxury or ornament, but as a necessity."

Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Corea, p. 16, plate 2, 1818
©2008 LG/Myoungji Library
During the Joseon period, tobacco was grown throughout the country and sold in small farmer markets and fairs. Three American naval officers who visited a market in Pusan in 1882 observed that the Korean "tobacco leaf was about ten inches long, in color darker than American or Japanese tobacco in the natural state." They further noted that the Koreans sometimes tightly rolled the tobacco leaf up and smoked it like a cigar. The officers rolled some of the tobacco into cigarettes and found it "very agreeable, much resembling Cuban cigarette tobacco."

The Pipe

Besides tobacco, tobacco related paraphernalia were also sold in these markets. Common pipes, tobacco pouches and German matches were often found for sale in the small stands. "Matches were sold in single boxes, and even in little bunches of about a dozen matches tied round with thread." Not only were the matches popular, but so too were the cases they were packed in. A report on Korean trade in 1901 noted that "one of the brands imported is packed in cases with hinged lids, the empty cases being eagerly bought by the Koreans and used as clothes boxes."

Pipes were an essential part of the Korean smoking culture. The style and material of the pipe often indicated one's social status and wealth. Initially the pipes were short and patterned after the Japanese style, but eventually evolved into longer pipes -- the longer the pipe, the greater the pipe-smoker's social status. For the common people the pipes were made of bamboo and base metals such as copper and brass, but for nobility, the pipes were made with silver, gold, jade and other precious materials. One early observer, an American missionary, wrote that the pipes he had seen were "from one to three feet long with a bowl five or six times as large as that of a Japanese pipe, but still only as big around as a two cent piece." The same writer noted: "The Koreans have a decidedly original use for spittle. They put a dried tobacco leaf in the palm, crumple it, spit on it, and then pulverize it for the pipe. Whether this keeps the fragments from blowing away or improves the flavor I cannot say." And, "when a Korean gentleman is walking he seems to be pomposity personified, for his baggy clothing, pouches for tobacco, etc., make him seem fairly to lean backward."

As evidenced by the "copious testimony of all visitors" to Korea, the pipe was indispensable. One visitor wrote: "Koreans are great smokers, and are rarely met, indoors or out, without their small-bowled, long stemmed pipes, which we took at sight for walking sticks." Another claimed, "Everyone that can walk wears a pipe," and then added, "The peculiarity is that a Korean is never without his pipe. A coolie carrying100 or 150 lb. of rice will walk along with his long unwieldy pipe in his mouth or if not there, stuck down his back alongside his pannier frame."

Smoking a pipe was seen as one of the few luxuries and comforts that even the common man could partake in. Part of a newspaper article that was published in the United States in 1889 describes the end of the day for the average working-class Korean: "It is pleasant, however, to see the little groups of the working class sitting around the fire which is cooking their evening meal and at the same time heating the platform of paper and cement covered stones which form the floor of their bed chamber, and on which they will spread their mats and sleep. They will all be found to be smoking, and if tobacco was ever a blessing to any people it is to the lower classes in Korea, who find in it their greatest comfort. No one could see the solid enjoyment taken by a Korean coolie with his pipe without blessing the weed. As the fires burn low, and one by one the smokers have knocked the ashes from their pipes and sought the warm stone floor, a deep stillness settles over the profoundly dark city."

Smoking Etiquette

While tobacco may have been a blessing to "lower classes of Korea" it occasionally caused them to run afoul of Korean social etiquette. There were a number of rules of etiquette that were associated with smoking. Yangbans, the noble class, were to refrain from puffing hard on their pipes as it was seen undignified and, according to professor Andrei Lankov, in 1614, King Kwanghae-gun forbade anyone to smoke in his presence. This eventually evolved into a custom that is yet followed today, not smoking in the presence of socially senior people. In the early 1890s a British explorer described an incident involving the approach of a Korean official and over-indulgent pipe smokers.

"A respectful demeanour is required from the bystanders when the great man passes by, and we were amused to see one of his 'soldiers,' every now and then, rush at a man who had not left off smoking, seize his pipe, break it in pieces and throw them away, at the same time whacking the smoker over the head with his fan."

Even Beggars Smoked Pipes

In 1885 a couple of Englishmen claimed: "During our whole stay in the country we saw not one beggar; all appeared to be provided with a long straight pipe and an unlimited supply of tobacco." The earlier mentioned missionary jotted this down in his diary: "I have seen a few travelers without walking sticks, but scarcely a one without a pipe. Old, young, sick or poor, they all have them and have them always."

Despite tobacco being so readily available, apparently not everyone had easy access to it, some had to be inventive to obtain enough for themselves. A French crew of whalers who were marooned on a small island off the southwest coast of Korea in 1851 managed to keep supplied in tobacco by levying a small toll for the large number of Koreans who came to observe them. They also taught French to some of the villagers.

Notwithstanding the claims of the English visitor above, there were some who were not above begging for their tobacco. During the British occupation of Port Hamilton, a group of Korean islands off the southwest coast, British officers who visited the villages were often followed by a dozen Korean boys who pestered them in broken English for tobacco. If they were refused, the youths cursed at the officers in "volleys of British oaths" that they had undoubtedly learned from previous visitors.

Nicotine and Modernization

Professor Lankov noted that "one of the major reasons for the 'yangban' (gentry) preference for very long pipes was actually their impracticality. It is difficult to light such a pipe without help, so in order to afford a really long pipe one had to be accompanied by a servant. Thus, long pipes became a sign of wealth and privilege." While it may have been viewed as a social status by Koreans others saw the pipe as the source of Korea's failure to adapt and keep pace with the rest of the world.

Kirk Munrue, who visited Korea in 1904, wrote: "Both men and women smoke pipes having tiny metal bowls, and stems so long that generally assistance must be summoned to light them. As they are inveterate smokers, and their pipes hold so little tobacco that they must be refilled and relighted every few minutes, the greater portion of their time is thus consumed. It is, therefore, safe to say that one of the prime causes of Korea's backwardness in the development is the national pipe."

But it wasn't only Westerners who felt this way. Professor Todd A. Henry cites several Japanese writers in the early 1900s who demonized the use of tobacco by the Koreans. One writer he cites was Okita Kinjo, the author of Rimen no Kankoku (Korea behind the Mask) published in 1905. Okita was convinced that "the reason for the lack of mettle in today's Koreans and for their being the world's laziest people is due to the poisonous power of nicotine." Hypocritically, Okita spent only a short time in Korea and advocated the incoming Japanese immigrant farmers to capitalize upon Korea's addiction to tobacco by more and improved cultivation of the plant.

By 1903, pipe smoking, at least among the Korean working class, had fallen into disfavor and was replaced with the more convenient and cosmopolitan form of tobacco usage -- the cigarette. The next article will look at the introduction and popularity of cigarettes in Joseon Korea.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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