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Color, crowds and bustle: Market day in Joseon

The market in Daegu was one of the largest in Korea. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
The market in Daegu was one of the largest in Korea. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

By Robert Neff

Once again Gimjang (the season for making kimchi) is upon us and the markets are bustling with people trying to buy the cabbages and other ingredients needed.

Mounds of cabbages, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables are prominently displayed but there are stalls selling beef and pork (a surprisingly large amount of it is imported), old-fashioned deep-fried whole chickens, noodles, fishcakes and, smelt before seen, fish and seafood. There are also blankets and pillows, tables filled with BYC underwear ― a sign declaring a close-out sale ― and socks for 500 won a pair. It is noisy and colorful but invigorating. But what were the markets like in the late 19th century?

Many of the early Westerners wrote about these markets in their letters home or in the articles and books they published ― and their descriptions were generally the same. There was, however, one writer that stood out ― Isabella Bird Bishop, an intrepid British writer who traveled throughout the Korean Peninsula describing everything she witnessed.

Pottery and clay ware on display in the market. Robert Neff Collection
Pottery and clay ware on display in the market. Robert Neff Collection

Her descriptions were what you would envision coming from the pen of an elderly English woman in the 19th century ― biased and blunt. While traveling from Seoul to Pyongyang, she described one of these markets:

"At the weekly market the usual melancholy dullness of a Korean village is exchanged for bustle, color, and crowds of men. From an early hour in the morning the paths leading to the officially appointed centre are thronged with peasants bringing in their wares for sale or barter, chiefly fowls in coops, pigs, straw shoes, straw hats, and wooden spoons, while the main road has its complement of merchants, mostly fine, strong, well-dressed men, either carrying their heavy packs themselves or employing porters or bulls for the purpose."

Some of the more important merchants set up little stalls but most merchants ― including the farmers ― displayed their wares on small tables or mats. If they chose a location in front of a residence, they would pay the owner a small amount of money to soothe any inconvenience.

Bishop noted that the market she was describing was not the usual market, for a large amount of Korean pottery was on display. One type ― mainly small jars and bowls ― was made from clay "with a pale green glaze rudely applied."

Women making kimchi in the family courtyard. Robert Neff Collection
Women making kimchi in the family courtyard. Robert Neff Collection

The other type was "nearly black and slightly iridescent, closely resembling iron [and was] of universal use among the poor for cooking-pots, water-jars, refuse-jars, and receptacles for grain…" But there was one type of this pottery that especially caught her attention ― the pickle jars. They were massive ― "roomy enough to hold a man, two of which are a bull's load" ― and were in great demand.

"[The] peasant world was occupied, the men in digging up a great hard white radish weighing from two to four pounds, and the women in washing its great head of partially blanched leaves, which, after being laid aside in these jars in brine, form one great article of a Korean peasant's winter diet."

Roaming about the market she noticed "long pipes, contraband in the capital, and Japanese cigarettes, coming into great favor with young men and boys, with leather courier bags and Lucifer matches from the same country." At this time, long pipes were banned in Seoul and cigarettes were quickly becoming popular ― Japanese brands were the most affordable but the Western brands were the most prized.

The grittiness of a country market. Robert Neff Collection
The grittiness of a country market. Robert Neff Collection

Paper was especially prominent in these markets and these dealers usually set up in small stalls. The best Korean paper came from Jeolla Province and all kinds were procurable including the "beautiful, translucent, buff, oiled paper, nearly equal to vellum in appearance and tenacity, used for the floors of middle and upper-class houses," as well as wallpaper, writing paper, frothy gauze for wrapping fabrics and heavy packages, and also string.

Straw and bamboo goods were also on display. Straw shoes were always on display as they were a part of daily life and had to be replaced often. There were also hats and brooms but none of these elicited much comment from her.

Bishop may have had an adventurous spirit but not when it came to Korean food. And she certainly wasn't shy in giving her honest opinion of the food and produce.

In the market were "sticks of pulled candy as thick as an arm, some of it stuffed with sesamum seeds" and sweetmeats were sold "in enormous quantities."

Fish for sale on mats, with a couple of young merchants peddling candy in the background. Robert Neff Collection
Fish for sale on mats, with a couple of young merchants peddling candy in the background. Robert Neff Collection

She described Korean fruits and vegetables as tasteless and untempting, "great hard pears much like raw parsnips, chestnuts, peanuts, persimmons which had been soaked in water to take the acridity out of them, and ginger."

There were also coops of chickens ― which she did not bother to describe ― and "piles of pheasants" that she seems to have been impressed by and noted six pheasants could be purchased for a yen (about 50 American cents).

She may not have imbibed in these delicacies; others did and sometimes to the extreme. Alcohol was always available at these markets and it wasn't uncommon for people to over-indulge.

At the end of the day, when the market closed, they would start on their way home. But not all of them made it home safely. Considering tigers and leopards often prowled the wooded slopes of the hills surrounding these villages, they too probably looked forward to market day.

Chicken and eggs on display. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Chicken and eggs on display. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection



The market in Daegu was one of the largest in Korea. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
The market in Daegu was one of the largest in Korea. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

By Robert Neff

Once again Gimjang (the season for making kimchi) is upon us and the markets are bustling with people trying to buy the cabbages and other ingredients needed.

Mounds of cabbages, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables are prominently displayed but there are stalls selling beef and pork (a surprisingly large amount of it is imported), old-fashioned deep-fried whole chickens, noodles, fishcakes and, smelt before seen, fish and seafood. There are also blankets and pillows, tables filled with BYC underwear ― a sign declaring a close-out sale ― and socks for 500 won a pair. It is noisy and colorful but invigorating. But what were the markets like in the late 19th century?

Many of the early Westerners wrote about these markets in their letters home or in the articles and books they published ― and their descriptions were generally the same. There was, however, one writer that stood out ― Isabella Bird Bishop, an intrepid British writer who traveled throughout the Korean Peninsula describing everything she witnessed.

Pottery and clay ware on display in the market. Robert Neff Collection
Pottery and clay ware on display in the market. Robert Neff Collection

Her descriptions were what you would envision coming from the pen of an elderly English woman in the 19th century ― biased and blunt. While traveling from Seoul to Pyongyang, she described one of these markets:

"At the weekly market the usual melancholy dullness of a Korean village is exchanged for bustle, color, and crowds of men. From an early hour in the morning the paths leading to the officially appointed centre are thronged with peasants bringing in their wares for sale or barter, chiefly fowls in coops, pigs, straw shoes, straw hats, and wooden spoons, while the main road has its complement of merchants, mostly fine, strong, well-dressed men, either carrying their heavy packs themselves or employing porters or bulls for the purpose."

Some of the more important merchants set up little stalls but most merchants ― including the farmers ― displayed their wares on small tables or mats. If they chose a location in front of a residence, they would pay the owner a small amount of money to soothe any inconvenience.

Bishop noted that the market she was describing was not the usual market, for a large amount of Korean pottery was on display. One type ― mainly small jars and bowls ― was made from clay "with a pale green glaze rudely applied."

Women making kimchi in the family courtyard. Robert Neff Collection
Women making kimchi in the family courtyard. Robert Neff Collection

The other type was "nearly black and slightly iridescent, closely resembling iron [and was] of universal use among the poor for cooking-pots, water-jars, refuse-jars, and receptacles for grain…" But there was one type of this pottery that especially caught her attention ― the pickle jars. They were massive ― "roomy enough to hold a man, two of which are a bull's load" ― and were in great demand.

"[The] peasant world was occupied, the men in digging up a great hard white radish weighing from two to four pounds, and the women in washing its great head of partially blanched leaves, which, after being laid aside in these jars in brine, form one great article of a Korean peasant's winter diet."

Roaming about the market she noticed "long pipes, contraband in the capital, and Japanese cigarettes, coming into great favor with young men and boys, with leather courier bags and Lucifer matches from the same country." At this time, long pipes were banned in Seoul and cigarettes were quickly becoming popular ― Japanese brands were the most affordable but the Western brands were the most prized.

The grittiness of a country market. Robert Neff Collection
The grittiness of a country market. Robert Neff Collection

Paper was especially prominent in these markets and these dealers usually set up in small stalls. The best Korean paper came from Jeolla Province and all kinds were procurable including the "beautiful, translucent, buff, oiled paper, nearly equal to vellum in appearance and tenacity, used for the floors of middle and upper-class houses," as well as wallpaper, writing paper, frothy gauze for wrapping fabrics and heavy packages, and also string.

Straw and bamboo goods were also on display. Straw shoes were always on display as they were a part of daily life and had to be replaced often. There were also hats and brooms but none of these elicited much comment from her.

Bishop may have had an adventurous spirit but not when it came to Korean food. And she certainly wasn't shy in giving her honest opinion of the food and produce.

In the market were "sticks of pulled candy as thick as an arm, some of it stuffed with sesamum seeds" and sweetmeats were sold "in enormous quantities."

Fish for sale on mats, with a couple of young merchants peddling candy in the background. Robert Neff Collection
Fish for sale on mats, with a couple of young merchants peddling candy in the background. Robert Neff Collection

She described Korean fruits and vegetables as tasteless and untempting, "great hard pears much like raw parsnips, chestnuts, peanuts, persimmons which had been soaked in water to take the acridity out of them, and ginger."

There were also coops of chickens ― which she did not bother to describe ― and "piles of pheasants" that she seems to have been impressed by and noted six pheasants could be purchased for a yen (about 50 American cents).

She may not have imbibed in these delicacies; others did and sometimes to the extreme. Alcohol was always available at these markets and it wasn't uncommon for people to over-indulge.

At the end of the day, when the market closed, they would start on their way home. But not all of them made it home safely. Considering tigers and leopards often prowled the wooded slopes of the hills surrounding these villages, they too probably looked forward to market day.

Chicken and eggs on display. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Chicken and eggs on display. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection





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