By Yang Sung-jin
The Choson society was deeply rooted in agriculture. Therefore, livestock were considered highly important items in everyday life. As for farmers, the highest rung on the animal ladder was always reserved for cows.
No wonder there were a number of articles about cows in the Annals. Many of them were not that positive, however.
For instance, on Sept. 21 of 1636, a cow disease hit the nation, and officials sent the precious cows to the slaughterhouse in a bid to prevent a further spread of the lethal infection.
In 1689, a similar plague broke out in Cholla-do, killing a herd of 4,100 cows.
During the reign of King Sejong, cattle slaughtering was the most popular superstitious act in northeastern Hamkyong-do, as demonstrated in an appeal by the local governor: “Local people worship female shamans too much, and they slaughter cows as an offering for ghosts on a massive scale. Last year, thousands of cows were killed for that matter. To correct the superstition, a law should be set up immediately.”
Of course, other animals caught the attention of the Annals writers. Amongst various animals, the most shocking incident in the eyes of the Choson people involved an elephant.
On Feb. 22, 1411, an elephant first set its feet on the soil of the Korean peninsula. The elephant crossed the East Sea as the Japanese king named Wonuiji presented the exotic animal as a gift to the Choson king.
“The agency in charge of court cows and horses took care of the elephant and the animal consumed on average four to five mals of beans (one mal is about 4.7 gallons),” the Annals article observed.
On Dec. 10, 1412, a government official named Yi Woo visited the site where the government employees fed the elephant.
Thinking it was a very strange animal, Yi Woo yelled and spat at the elephant. The poor elephant naturally became angry and trampled him to death.
After this incident, Yu Chong-hyon, Minister of National Defense, officially made a request that the animal be exiled: “The elephant was neither the king’s pet nor a benefit to the nation. Up until now, two people were killed by the elephant who is legally responsible for the accidental murders. Furthermore, the animal eats up an enormous amount of beans. Taking a cue from past incidents in China, we should expel the elephant to an island in Cholla-do.”
With a smile on his face, King Taejong granted Yu’s request and exiled the trouble-making elephant.
But the elephant found the conditions of the island harsh and hostile. According to a report dated May 3, 1414, the elephant would not eat grass and thus became visibly emaciated. It also shed tears when it spotted a human nearby, a local governor detailed the sorry situation of the elephant in exile.
Pitying the exotic animal, King Taejong ordered the elephant to be brought back to the land and reared up by the local administration.
The problem was that the elephant was distressingly hard to take care of. The chief governor in Cholla-do filed an appeal to the king, detailing the difficulties: “Currently, four local magistrates take turns taking care of the animal, but it is so unwieldy, it endangers the populace. To resolve the issue, other regions should take turns in tending to the elephant.”
As a result, three local administrations in Cholla-do, Chungchong-do and Kyongsang-do, teamed up to handle the animal.
In 1421, another man was victimized by the random kicking of the elephant, prompting the local governor in Kongju to file an appeal to relocate the ominous animal.
Despite continuing protests from officials, King Taejong maintained his position of pity for the ill-fated elephant. He ordered officials to release the elephant in a meadow to keep it alive.
Camels were another exotic animal for the Choson people. In 1486, King Songjong ordered the diplomat to buy a camel to test its quality for military purposes.
But the diplomats were perplexed at the king’s order since they did not know how much they should pay for the unheard-of animal.
Officials Lee Dok-ryang and Han On suggested to the king that the diplomat should be sent off with 30 rolls of cloth as a price for the camel.
As for the king, the recommended price appeared too small: “Camels are said to withstand a long journey with a heavy load on their backs. Therefore, they could be used as a carrier of food when the nation wages a battle. Give the diplomat 60 rolls of high-quality hemp cloth.”
Ranking official Lee Kyong-dong immediately protested the move, citing that camels are a luxury, not an essential item for the nation. In a powerful appeal, Lee argued that the costly price for a camel cannot be justified while the nation suffers from successive droughts, and people are mired in prolonged poverty and hunger.
King Songjong, deeply moved by the report spiced with strong patriotism and logic, gave up on the plan to buy the camel in China.
It was not until 1675 that the Choson people first laid eyes on the strange animal. A court servant bought a camel deserted by a Chinese diplomat and brought the animal to the Seoul palace, drawing keen attention from the citizens.
The camel also intrigued King Sukchong, as well. Finally, the king brought the camel inside the palace covertly, avoiding the scrutiny of conservative officials who strongly opposed any strange animals in the sacred palace.
But the king’s secret observation of the camel was known to the court officials, which sparked a wave of protests and appeals.
Facing vociferous opposition from the officials, King Sukchong gave up raising the exotic animal in the palace.