The Old Kingdom of Corea was a mighty nation, steeped in rich tradition and culture. Due to its beauty, Korea was known as “chosun” or Land of the Morning Calm in English. Old archival photos of Korea from the Joseon Dynasty show a peaceful life for its dark-skinned inhabitants.
You know, the further I go back in my research of history, the more questions I have. The further I research familiar & strange lands, the darker their inhabitants get as you go back in time.
I realize, that I know absolutely nothing about our world.
Old Korea Photos from the Joseon Dynasty
The Joseon Dynasty of Korea extended from 1392 – 1910. All of the following images of dark-skinned Koreans in this post are circa 1895 – 1902.
The latest being an est. 1935. That was barely 100 years ago.
Where have these people gone?
I have way more questions than answers at this point, but I guess a great way to start a positive discussion surrounding this subject would be to pose a simple question:
Where did all of the dark-skinned inhabitants of the Old Kingdom of Corea, Land of the Morning Calm go?
What is the Skin Color of Koreans?
While today we know Koreans by the fair-skinned other East Asian peoples share, a mere hundred years ago that wasn’t the case for all Korean people.
In old photos pertaining to Korea: Land of the Morning Calm most ethnic residents can be seen with dark brown and even almost black skin tones and complexions.
Oak Pun-ie the Korean Child Slave
According to the Korea Times, Oak Pun-ie was a Korean child sold into slavery around the Great Famine of 1901. During life as a “nobi” Oak Pun-ie was routinely beaten and mistreated by her “masters”.
During the winter of 1905, Oak Pun-ie’s feet and hands had become frostbitten due to prolonged exposure to the cold. Denied medical attention, the young slave girl was taken to a foreign hospital in Seoul for care.
It was during the winter of 1906 that Oak Pun-ie met “The Happiest Girl in Korea” author Minerva Guthapfel. Ms. Guthapfel worked as a nurse in the hospital that had eventually amputated both of Oak Pun-ie’s hands and one foot.
Ms. Guthapfel states in the preface of her Happiest Girl in Korea book that “The Happiest Girl’ “ More About the Happiest Girl,” “ You-po-gie,” and the “Prince of Korea ” are true incidents reported from actual happenings, therefore true stories.”
The story goes that Oak Pun-ie noticed Nurse Guthapfel penning a letter to her friends back in the United States. Oak Pun-ie asked the nurse to pass along her season’s greeting from “the happiest girl in Korea”.
How the Missionaries Infiltrated Korea
Koreans sympathetic to Christian Missionaries and their cause visited with Korean children, babies, and others who had no choice but to listen.
Photograph of Letitia Belle Sparr Luckett taken in 1890. Ms.Luckett was a missionary to Korea and a distinguished member of The Red Cross.
The Foreign missionaries spoke very softly to them “[she] talked like my grandmother too;”.
Oak Pun-ie Speaks to Missionary Minerva Guthapfel
“Did you want me?” The missionary smiled into the eager brown face turned toward her.
“ Yes,” answered the fourteen-year-old Korean girl who had called after her.
Dropping her hand from the latch of the hospital door the missionary turned and sat down on the floor beside the girl.
“ What is it, Oak-pun-ie ? ”
There was a moment of shy silence, then a question: “ Are you going to your own country soon, Lady?”
“ Yes, dear, in one week’s time.”
“ Will you see the people, your friends, who sent all the things for this Christmas tree and the presents for all of us? ”
“ Oh, yes, if God spares me to get to them ! ” was the answer.
“ Well,” a pause, “ I just wanted to say,— tell them that Oak-pun-ie thanks them, will you?Excerpt from Guthapfel’s The Happiest Girl in Korea
A typical missionary visit to women and children is described in “The Happiest Girl in Korea” as follows:
“When I woke up we were in the strangest place, with lots of women and other babies, thought I’d cry at first but none of the rest did, so I just looked.
It was a big place, the white lady was sitting at a funny box, and the box made a funny noise, and the people tried to make a noise like the box, and then all the people made a noise out of a book.
A book is a funny thing, too. Then a man all white-faced like the woman got up and talked and talked, and I went to sleep.
When I awoke, we were home, where grandmother was quiet and gentle all the rest of the day, and mother seemed happy, too.
Father came in and said he had been in the big place, too, on the other side of the curtain. He said he thought he would “ do the doctrine,” whatever that means.
Said the white man had told him a lot about a man named Jesus.
Then after father said that, mother picked me up and said in my ear, so that nobody heard, only me, “ That’s it, Baby, they sung that to-day, ‘ Jesus loves ’ and the white woman said, ‘ He loves women and girls.’ Oh, I’m so glad ! ”
And she squeezed me tight, but no water splashed on my face that time. Her eyes only shone pretty and bright.”A Missionary sermon described in The Happiest Girl in Korea book
Oak Pun Ie Becomes Anna Song
Oak Pun-ie spent the remainder of her days in the hospital, believing in the missionaries that visited her’s words. Oak Pun-ie was later baptized and born again as the Christian Anna Song.
Through her work, Anna helped spread the missionary’s gospel while serving as a translator. Anna Song was remembered by missionaries and those in the United States as a symbol of hope to those experiencing sorrows and tribulations in life.
In the Korea Times writeup on the life of Oak Pun-ie, they cite an unnamed Korean woman who wondered [“why the doctors”] “didn’t take the knife they used to cut off her hands, and put it through her heart.” Going on to say that Oak Pun-ie’s death would have [saved] “lots of trouble and lots of expense.”
Christian Cults in South Korea Today
Today, South Korea is known for its aggressive Christian cults – Shincheonji being the largest and most well-known amongst them. The Sewol Ferry Tragedy was even linked to an alleged Christian Cult leader back in 2014.
After watching Save Me, a kdrama that depicts a young girl’s escape from a Christian cult, I have privately been digging into the matter. A year’s worth of research later, I have my own beliefs regarding the connection between the spread of Christianity in Chosun (Corea) and the depictions of dark-skinned Koreans lost through time.
Are There Dark Skin Koreans in the World Today?
There were Dark Skinned Koreans in the past, who are largely hidden or forgotten in Korean culture today.
There is a popular meme about the media’s depiction of the “public” and “private” faces of a country. As with most other countries around the world, Korea is no different.
While I am only an outsider looking in, it does appear that the Joseon Dynasty saw its dark-skinned residents fall out of favor.
Where are the dark-skinned Koreans now, and who currently stands in their place?
I will mention that there seems to be a correlation to the “disappearance” of ethnically dark-skinned Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans from historical archives and photos after major wars or more importantly – missionary work.
“…The lady, Returning to her own room,dropped on her knees, her heart leaping for joy, keeping time to the one strain,
“ Joy to the World, the Lord has Come,” sung in six different keys to six different tunes in six different times.
It was the sweetest music she had ever heard, and her last thought as she slept, with it ringing in her ears, was,
“ Oh, my Father, I thank thee, that thou hast let me be a missionary to Korea.”Excerpt from The Happiest Girl in Korea: And Other Stories from the Land of the Morning Calm by Guthapfel, Minerva L (1911)
What are your thoughts on the Korean Missionary Movement of the early 1900s? Or the Dark-skinned Koreans of the Joseon Dynasty?
Leave your thoughts and theories in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you! And as always, be sure to follow us for more history concerning Chosun – Land of the Morning Calm.
☆ In Asian Spaces