As "Paris is France," so Seoul may be said to be Korea, for it is the centre from which nearly every thing for the country either originates or is disseminated. Officers ruling over country districts usually have their "house in town," and expect to spend a portion, at least, of their time within the walls of the capital. "While some of the provincial capitals are said to contain more people and to be more celebrated for certain reasons, Seoul is the home of the King and the Mecca of his faithful subjects. A description of this city may, therefore, answer for all. The capital is a city of some 300,000 inhabitants, half of whom, perhaps, live in the extensive suburbs without the walls. It lies in a basin of granite sand, surrounded by high mountains 15 and their projecting ridges, over which climbs the high, thick, encircling wall of masonry; pierced at convenient points by massive, pagoda-roofed gates, amply strong enough for defense against the weapons of war in use at the time of building this great relic of seclusion.
The city is traversed by broad avenues from which runs a perfect labyrinth of narrow streets. Originally none of these streets were less than twenty feet wide, and some of the avenues leading up to the imposing gates of the palaces are even now a good two hundred feet in width. But the streets have all been encroached upon by the little temporary thatched booths of the petty retail dealers, so that, with the exception of the approaches to the palaces, the line is broken, the streets made tortuous, and only here and there a broad open spot indicates the original width of the thoroughfare. Originally every street was furnished with its' sewer - open in the smaller streets, while the avenues were drained by great covered sewers of stonework. Occasionally the proprietor of one of the little temporary booths would put a foundation under his structure, bridging over the sewer, until now the streets have in many cases become mere crooked alleys, and but for the bountiful rain, the excellent natural drainage, and the character of the soil, the mortality would he very great instead of being less than in ordinary American cities. No attempt is made towards street decoration, as that would attract the attention of thieves. The magnificent grounds of a nobleman, with their artificial lakes, flower gardens, water-worn pillars of ancient rock and quaintly twisted trees, may be enclosed by a row of tumble-down, smoke-begrimed servant-quarters that would never indicate the beauty to be found hidden within its forbidding exterior.
Travellers never seem to realize that a street in the East is apt to be but a "way" between two points, and as the usual Oriental odors greet their nostrils and their eyes rest on the dirty servants and their dirtier hovels, they at once denounce the whole town.
There is attraction enough, however, in a Korean street for any one who is in search of strange eights. Looking down one of the broad thoroughfares of Seoul from a point on the city wall, the sun's rays, falling on the light-colored gowns of the pedestrians as they saunter along amid the bulls and ponies, produce a kaleidoscopic effect that is certainly charming. Passing down into the throng it will be seen to be made up mostly of men, with here and there a group of common women, each closely veiled with a bright green gown, made like the long outer garment of the men, and possessing little sleeves of crimson. This strange garment is never worn, but is always used as a covering for the fair (?) face. Tradition teaches that in ancient times, when wars were frequent, veils were discarded and these gowns were worn by the wives and sisters, that, in case of sudden call to arms, they could be given to their husbands and brothers to be worn to battle - hence the red sleeves, upon which the gory sword was to be wiped.
The peculiar gauze "stove-pipe" hat of the men, about which so much has been said, also has its origin in tradition, as follows: In ancient days conspiracies were common; to prevent these an edict was issued compelling all men to wear great earthenware hats, the size of an umbrella (type of the mourner's hat in Korea today, except that the latter is made of finely woven basket-work). This law became very odious, for in addition to the weight of the hats, not more than a very few men could come close enough together to converse, and even then spies could hear their necessarily loud whispering. Little by little, therefore, the law began to be infringed upon till the people got down to the present airy structure of horsehair, silk, and bamboo.
Another story is, that petty wars being too frequent between rival sections, all men were compelled to wear these umbrella hats of clay. In case one became broken the possessor was punished by decapitation - naturally they stopped their fighting and took good care of their hats till the law was repealed.
The custom of wearing white so extensively as they do is also accounted for by tradition. Mourning is a serious business in Korea, for on the death of a father the son must lay aside his gay robes and clothe himself in unbleached cotton of a very coarse texture. He wraps his waist with a rope girdle, and puts on the umbrella hat, which conceals the whole upper portion of his person. For further protection against intrusion he carries a white fan, and, should he smoke, his pipe must be wrapped with white. For three years he must wear this guise and must do no work, so that the resources of even a large and prosperous family may be thus exhausted.
Should a king die, the whole nation would be compelled to don this mourning garb, or rather they would be compelled to dress in white -the mourning color. Once, during a period of ten years, three kings died, necessitating a constant change of dress on the part of the people and a great outlay of money, for a Korean wardrobe is extensive and costly. Tradition has it, therefore, that, to be ready for the caprice of their kings in the future, the people adopted white as the national color.