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Useful And Fantastic: Korea As It Once Was -1

Val Yule tells of arriving in Korea before the 1951-52 war as a 21-year-old with her husband who was going to teach at Seoul University. This is the first of a six-part account of life in the Korea of that era.

We had arrived in Korea in the week of the miracle. The first day ashore had been sunny, cold winter. On Tuesday only the crows’ nests hung in the bare rigging of the trees. On the Wednesday every twig was knobbly, and suddenly, where no tree had been suspected, cherry-blossom was leaning over dung-hills. By Sunday the wind was warm, old clothes were cast, the blossom was snowing. It was the setting for a great Cup-Tie Final, to see the people streaming to the old East Palace Gardens in Seoul. They were going to View-the-Cherry-Blossom.

Beggars were peering through the great, barbaric wooden gate with curving roof and carvings once painted blue and gold; they could just see the vista of white-clouded trees. Inside were avenues a hundred yards long, lined with cherry trees as huge, it seemed, as oaks, and every breeze blew down mists of petals, down on children bright as hundreds-and-thousands, white-clad elders, women in soft pastels and young men in their black and white. Happy people were going up and down the paths among the summer-houses along the slopes, like angels on Jacob’s ladder. All the little angels were bobbing and skipping.

Youths with cameras were taking snapshots, sometimes of the gawky Westerners, who also had cameras. But the Westerners found that when they tried a snap with some local colour in it, the local colour would rise and move courteously away, afraid of blocking the view.

Loudspeakers were perched in cherry-trees, wafting out Brahms and a Beethoven symphony. Surely for George, heaven would be complete. He was not satisfied; the recording had reduced the orchestra to one piano.

There was a zoo in one corner, which still had a few monkeys, birds and other creatures in its cages. In another part of this Arden an open-air theatre played stylised burlesque and Korean music with the noise of groans and kettles. The only indication, to a foreigner, that this music is premeditated is that the players tend to make the same noise at the same time. And there seems to be much more interest in the noise for itself than in the Chinese music, which makes me melancholy.

On the lawns poor men were getting drunk on rice-wine and singing sad choruses. Kim Khayyam himself was flat on his back with his jug and his book, asleep under a peach tree. On the small brown lake people were dreamily rowing little boats. Inside the Old Palace Garden is the Walled Secret Garden, where an Emperor dallied with his concubines while an Empire drew to its end outside. The muttered magic word “Meguk” (American, but synonymous with Westerner) let the foreigners through guarded gates into the old, half-wild grounds, where little stepping-stone paths led nowhere and the shrubberies of past emperors were shrouded with dry grass. Everywhere were little lily-ponds reflecting summer-houses and faded pavilions with the beauty of a feudal age. Each was surrounded by gateways and ornamental walls, as if imperial Courts, instead of specialising in say, a couple of stodgy pyramids, had a hobby of constructing as many ceremonial gates as possible. There was a different type of gate for each rank that approached the various buildings. Here stone figures had been carved, circling two trees of which only rotten stumps remained.

While we looked, two pairs of long-bodied, graceful white herons flew so slowly above us that they hardly seemed real. They might have been the two heraldic birds that, curled in mid-air, are a national emblem of Korea.

Through another little gate was a maze of old examination rooms where, in the classical past, candidates for government office were examined in the Chinese classics. Each candidate would be immured in one of the little rooms for several days until he produced his answers. Now there were only bees buzzing in the yellow flowers over the courtyard gate.

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