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Bears of Joseon part 1: Fanciful tales and deadly claws

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A statue of a bear in Gongju in 2018 Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In the late 19th century, Korea was a land filled with danger. Banditry was common, disease was prevalent, demons and ghosts haunted people's imaginations and beliefs (Korean and foreigners alike), and fierce wild beasts roamed the desolate mountains and forests. Tigers (and their smaller cousins, the leopards) were probably the most feared but they were not the only dangers to the Korean population and, by the first part of the 20th century, they became more legend than reality.

So what was the most deadly wild animal to humans in Korea in the 19th century? Despite the title of this article, it wasn't bears.

In 1928, the Japanese authorities in Korea reported 81 Koreans were killed or wounded by wild animals ― only one person suffered at the claws of a tiger and three fell victim to leopards. Another deadly animal, the boar, mauled four people. Judging from the report, the most dangerous animal was the wolf ― claiming 48 humans (I assume most victims of wolf attacks were children). Not only did these predators prey upon humans but also upon cattle. Wolves took 3,396 cows, leopards took 272, tigers 103 and boars 33.

So where do bears fit into this list of dangerous animals? In 1917, James Scarth Gale, a missionary, described Korean bears as being "very timid" and noted they rarely attacked people unless they were suddenly surprised or wounded. Reports by the Japanese authorities seem to support his claim. In 1928, bears were responsible for the loss of only 26 cows and no attacks upon humans were reported. The following year, however, a Korean hunter wounded a bear and fell victim to his intended prey.

Violent encounters with wildlife often occurred near small isolated communities and for the unwary, answering the "call of nature" at night, could be fatal Robert Neff Collection

But bears weren't always so timid nor were they passive prey. In the Veritable Records of Joseon, there are several accounts of attacks by bears and bear-like creatures. While these violent encounters occurred throughout the peninsula, Pyongan Province (in present-day North Korea) seems to have been the domain of an extremely dangerous bear-like creature.

In early 1671, a large creature "half gray and half black, sometimes red, and sometimes white, resembling a bear but not a bear" attacked and killed a man near the Amnok (Yalu) River. Sadly, there is no additional information about it so we are left to wonder if it was a native Korean beast or whether it crossed the river from China in search of food.

Another strange incident took place in 1747, when a strange four-legged monster attacked several people and terrorized the province. It was described as having tiger claws for its front legs, the rear legs had the soles of a bear, it was covered with fur like that of a mountain goat and had a head like that of a horse with a wild boar's nose. It is a fantastic account but what makes it even stranger is that a soldier reportedly killed and skinned it and then sent the pelt to the palace. When King Yeongjo showed it to his court, some speculated that it was a zebra or a tapir. Sadly, what became of the pelt is unknown but most likely it has been lost forever through carelessness or during one of the frequent periods of political unrest.

Pyongan Province was pretty but dangerous, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

In 1572, a very large bear terrorized the countryside around Chongjin in Hamgyong Province (also in North Korea). Apparently this bear was one of the largest that had been seen up to that time. Perhaps it was a Russian bear that was driven south by a shortage of food; according to George Mihailovich Yankovsky (who operated a hunting lodge on his extensive tract of land in northern Korea), in the summer of 1921 there was a shortage of nuts and acorns in Manchuria and the Russian maritime provinces that caused animals to migrate into northern Korea in search of food ― bears followed their prey.

In 1669 in Pyongan Province, a boy armed with a club rushed to the aid of his father who was being savaged by a bear. The boy managed to drive off the beast and save his father's life but lost his own life due to the injuries he received during his heroic act. His devotion to his father was later honored by the Joseon court.

He was not the only son who fought to protect his father's life. In Gangwon Province in 1722, another boy rescued his father from a bear attack using only his bare hands. Incredibly, not only did he live to tell the tale but he also killed the bear with one of his punches.

In 1783, there were so many bears in the mountainous regions of Gangwon and Chungcheong provinces that the palace ordered bounties to be placed upon their heads with suitable rewards given to the hunters.

And in 1821, a very large bear roamed the outskirts of Gaeseong City (North Korea) and attacked 11 people in a single day. It is not clear if his victims were killed and eaten but it seems very unusual for a healthy bear to wreak so much damage in a single day. A special hunting expedition was organized to kill the beast ― whether or not their hunt was successful is unknown.

One early Western writer provided an amusing and unbelievable account of how bears were hunted in Korea in the late 19th century:

"Those [Koreans] who hunt bears wait for the occasion when the mother bear leads her cubs to the seashore to feast them on crabs. Then the hunters bide their time till they see the mother lifting up the heavy rocks on edge, while the little cubs eat the crabs. The hunters usually rush forward and assault the bear, which, frightened, lets fall the rock, which crushes the cub."

The port of Cheongjin circa 1920s Robert Neff Collection

In the early 1900s, Horace H. Underwood provided a tongue-in-cheek tale of how bears sometimes killed themselves by watermills:

"It seems that the bear was attracted by the idea of using the grain in the mill for his breakfast. As he stooped to get it however the beam came down and struck him a heavy blow. He was annoyed and tried to return the blow only to find that the beam was up in the air beyond his reach. He stooped again, and again it came down and hit him. This time he was really angry and grabbing it, beat it soundly. But as the stream continued to flow it failed to learn a lesson and hit him again. This time he got hold of it and held it down. But not only did it take all his strength to hold it down, but when it was down, of course, the grain was under it and out of his reach. In the end the faithful mill administered a lucky blow on the head and when he arrived on the scene the miller found not only his grain intact but a dead bear into the bargain."

These are cute, fanciful tales, but hunting bears in Joseon Korea was a dangerous occupation and often ended not only with the bear's death but also the hunter's. Such a tale supposedly took place in 1791 in a small community in Jeolla Province that was terrorized by a man-eating bear.

Several men had fallen victim to its claws and had been badly mauled and were partially devoured by the great brute. The local magistrate, realizing the people were helpless to stop its predation, offered a very large bounty for the bear's hide. Within a short period of time, famous hunters from all around the Korean Peninsula gathered in the village. In all, there were about 30 hunters and with little hesitation they started stalking the great beast in its habitat ― the forested mountains.

For just under a fortnight the men hunted for and were hunted by the bear. The situation looked quite dire as several of the hunters ― including one of the most famous ― fell victim to the bear.

One day, a couple of the hunters stopped to rest and hunt something else ― wild mushrooms. One man, who was roasting the mushrooms, suddenly heard something heavy crashing through the underbrush. Turning, he was horrified to see the great bear racing towards him but fortunately for him, one of his companions was able to grab his weapon and fire but the bullet was unable to pierce the bear's thick hide and only succeeded in attracting its attention. The bear stood up on its hind feet and began to maul the hunter.

Another hunter, who had taken refuge in a tree, found his courage and leapt from the tree slashing the bear's head with the sharp blade he had been using to dig mushrooms. The bear turned to face off with this new attacker which allowed the other man to pick up and reload his gun and, despite the severe pain from his mauling, was able to accurately aim and shoot the bear directly in the head. The bear died and the two hunters who had actually fought it were rewarded for their daring deed ― which leaves me to wonder what became of the account's narrator, the mushroom griller.

It is a shame that this encounter did not happen during the reign of King Taejo, for the Korean monarch was an expert archer. If we are to believe the accounts, in 1372 ― while he was a Goryeo general ― Taejo, on horseback, "shot several large bears, killing them all with just one arrow."

Considering how numerous bears were in Korea, it seems odd that none of the Western writers in the late 19th or early 20th century devoted much ink to describe them. Usually they are mentioned only in passing, such as William R. Carles' account of traveling in the Korean countryside in 1884:

"The country looked so very favourable for deer that, regardless of cockroaches, I was anxious to spend a day in this village for the purpose of shooting. But I found it impossible to get any hunter to come with me. There was only one in the village, and he was crippled with wounds. In the summer he had been out with a friend after a bear, which they wounded and followed up. The bear had then turned upon them and killed one, while the other, in an attempt to save his friend's life, had nearly lost his own."

In 1891, an English military officer briefly described hearing about a large black bear that bothered a group of farmers with its presence as it hungrily eyed their crops. They eventually were able to drive it off with torches and fire. Very few, if any, of these Western writers seemed afraid of the Korean bears, but there was one bear that many of them were very afraid of and that was the Russian bear ― the military power in the north.

In tomorrow's article we will gaze at bears behind bars.

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.


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