Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fifteen Years Among the Top-Knots: Life in Korea, by Lillias Underwood

Lillias Horton was a doctor who went to Korea in 1888 as a Christian humanitarian missionary, whereupon she married one of the first Presbyterian missionaries to land in Korea, Horace Underwood. They traveled throughout Korea for fifteen years, and were connected to the Korean court, having had several audiences with the Kojong and Queen Min. This memoir of her travels is revealing and important for its eyewitness viewpoint, provincial as it is, of Korea in an era so few Westerners were familiar with. They lived through and witnessed the Japanese incursion into Korea, Queen Min’s murder, and the ongoing jockeying of power between the king and his father the Daewongun, the Tonghak uprising, birth of the Independence movement via the Independence clubs—virtually the dawn of the end of the kingdom and the dawn of the Japanese occupation. Her point of view, while prejudicially reflective of the attitude of that era, and her eye for detail bring a unique and fascinating account of Korea at the end of the 19th century. She mentions the work of many early missionaries by name, the scope including translations of tracts, the bible, and creation of Korean-English dictionaries. She especially focuses on the many smaller towns they visited in their mission work, and the hardship of the lives of the women, the “unsanitary filth” of the homes and streets, the lack of medical care, and the hunger for Christian salvation. She describes mobs of villagers when they first traveled into the country, folks so eager to see the foreign lady that they would poke fingers into the paper windows to peek in. Like James Gale’s THE VANGUARD, this memoir is an important description of daily life in the hermit kingdom at a tumultuous time, and is the female version of the Western vanguard into Korea. © 1903/1908. American Tract Society.

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