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Korea's Humble Fowl With a Noble Past
A look at the history of the long-tailed chicken
Robert Neff (neff)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-12-06 14:54 (KST)   
A long-tailed chicken in Paju, Korea
©2008 Lee Seong-woon
During Japan's occupation of Korea (1910-1945), much of Korea's natural wealth and material treasures were stolen or exploited. Precious books, scrolls, antiques, and even pagodas were taken and moved to Japan. Some have been returned, but many have been lost either through greed or negligence. Not all of the treasures lost during the Japanese occupation were material -- apparently even a breed of chicken was stolen from the palaces and has been lost forever.

In 1912, Saburo Matsumoto, a Japanese merchant in Seattle, Washington, imported six chickens and about 100 chicken eggs from the Far East in hopes of breeding them and eventually marketing them to American poultry fanciers. These chickens were unique, not only because they were alleged to have come from the royal gardens of Korea, the only place they were known to exist, but also because of their extremely long and beautiful tails.

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One of Matsumoto's roosters had a tail 19 feet long while the remaining chickens had tails between 12 and 17 feet long. Apparently this was quite normal for this breed of chicken. A New York Times' article from April 24, 1904, described this breed of Korean chicken and the similar Japanese one as:

"These chickens are like our own chickens in body. Their plumage is exceedingly gorgeous but what makes them wonderful is the fact that their tails are immense. A small chicken will have a tail of resplendent feathers from twelve to fifteen feet long. No breeder thinks much of a fowl with a tail less than a dozen feet long and tails from 12 to 14 feet are common."

Origin and Myths of the Korean Chicken

It is widely believed that chickens, originating in Southeast Asia, were introduced into Korea from China over 2,000 years ago. Stories of birds, possibly chickens, are associated with the rulers of the early Korean kingdoms. The Buddhist monk Ilyon wrote in Samguk Yusa (History of the Three Kingdoms) that the founder of Silla (one of the three kingdoms of Korea) and subsequent head of the Pak clan was hatched from a huge egg guarded by a white horse. Another member of the Silla royal court and head of the Kim clan was found as a baby in a golden chest guarded by a strange bird. Some claim it was a chicken whose crowing assisted in his discovery in the chest.

Chickens were often used to help ward off evil spirits. The sound of a chicken crowing was said to instill fear in even the worst of Korean evil spirits. The crowing dispelled the darkness of night and summoned the light of dawn. Chickens were also able to locate the spirits of the dead, and rituals for victims of drowning were held in the vicinity of a crowing chicken.

The origin of these long-tailed Korean chickens is also steeped with uncertainty and myth. One account claims that the chickens were first bred prior to 1000 A.D., and that certain Korean families "did nothing, generation after generation, except to breed [these] long-tailed fowl." The families were generously supported by the palace.

Another account claims that these chickens were first bred about 400 years ago, and are the deliberate result of cross breeding a wild chicken with a pheasant. After much experimentation, once the desired strain was obtained, the Korean king placed a huge bounty on these chickens so that they became extinct throughout Korea except in the royal palace. According to the article, "this left the king the exclusive possessor of the long-tailed birds, and for generations it has been a royal pastime to care for and fondle them."

The Japanese Long-Tailed Chicken

A Japanese long-tailed chicken
©2008 www.btinternet.com
The Japanese, who had their own long-tailed chickens and were apparently introduced to that country from Korea, also honored the breeders of these regal fowl with "extravagant generosity." According to the New York Times:

"In the island of Shikoku, one of the biggest of the Japanese group, the ruler of the Province of Tosa, the Saimyo, used the best tail feathers as decorations for his spear and every tail feather had a deep significance, so that quite a little system of heraldry and etiquette was built up around the long-tailed fowl."

A long-tailed chicken in Paju, Korea
©2008 Lee Seong-woon
The care for these chickens was intense. Because of their long tails feathers they could not be kept in normal cages but required cages that were exceedingly tall and spacious. The roosts for the birds were built up high so that the tail feathers never touched the ground and, in wet weather, the tails were carefully wrapped.

"These tails are almost always magnificent, shimmering in rich bronzes and crimsons and gold; and the breeders keep them wrapped in thin rice paper to protect them, so that they shall not be bruised or smirched."

The Present

Long-tailed chickens are still found in Japan, but apparently the Korean long-tailed chickens, taken from the royal gardens and "widely distributed" by the Japanese, are now extinct. Few people are even aware that these chickens once existed. I could find no anecdotes in any of the Western accounts of Korea during the late Joseon period, and have only seen one picture of a Korean chicken with a tail of at least 10 feet long, but unfortunately did not retain a copy of it.

Lim Joeng-bu of the Institute of Sun Yung Poultry Research in South Korea agrees that these chickens probably existed but conceded that very little information exists because most scholars have little interest in this fowl that was once held in high esteem by the Korean court. Lim confided that many of his friends think he is crazy because he raises and exhibits nearly 100 breeds of chickens -- domestic and foreign. But Lim's passion is to make his fellow Koreans aware of the plight and history of the chickens of Korea -- a simple but important bird in Korea's past and future.


Notes
I wish to thank Mr. Lee Seong-won for introducing me to Mr. Lim Jeong-bu and for providing the picture of the long-tailed chicken in Paju which is believed to have the longest tail in Korea (about five feet long)

The picture of the Japanese chicken comes from www.btinternet.com
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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