Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Ancient Yellow Fever Sold Here

Dear Korean,

Were there any intermarriage between Koreans and other ethnicities (during the 1500s-1800s) and if so, what were the ethnicities likely to be? I've been very curious to know if in fact we are mixed because we are often mistaken for Japanese or mixed with Caucasian. I know that this "mix" is not recent and was probably during that period.

Grace K.

Dear Grace,

The Korean thinks what you said is a little odd – how does “mixed with Caucasian” equate to Japanese? And how did you come up with those three centuries, when the history of Korea goes for several millennia?

At any rate, it may surprise people that Koreans did have some degree of genetic mixing (otherwise known as horizontal mambo) with non-Koreans, or even non-East Asians. Early Korean history is full of accounts in which heroic figures were born from an egg that floated from faraway land. Korean historians now believe that such legends are metaphorical indications that there were immigrations from Southeast Asia or South Asia to Korea. (It sounds silly written this way, but the evidence – in terms of artifacts or matches between legends of Korea and legends of South Asia, etc. makes it the theory sound at least plausible.)

Earliest case that concretely recorded a non-East Asian emigrating to the Korean peninsula happened around 11th century, when Goryeo dynasty established a trading post in Byeokran-do, an island at the mouth of Yeseong river (near Gaeseong, North Korea.) The picture is a re-creation of the Byeokran-do trading post, built for a historical drama. (Source)

Byeokran-do was frequented by hundreds of Arabian merchants, who were known to trade with China via sea. In fact, historians usually credit these merchants for the name “Korea”, a derivation of Goryeo. Koreans called the merchants saekmok’in, “people with colored eyes.”

Historical records show at least one Arabian merchant staying Korea, presumably marrying a local Korean woman. The Goryeo king awarded him a Korean name of Jang Sunryong, who became the starting point of Deoksu Jang clan. (More discussion about Korean surnames here.) The Korean would not be surprised if there were many more such cases not recorded into history. The picture is Goryeo people's rendition of the Arabian merchants. (Source)

Another instance of non-East Asian immigration is with a person named Seol Son. Seol was an ethnic Uyghur, who live in what is now western China, bordering the “stan” countries. He had an official position in China, and immigrated to Korea in order to run away from a rebellion in 1358. He received an official position and a surname from the Korean king.

Goryeo was clearly more open to overseas trade than the dynasty followed, i.e. Joseon dynasty. Joseon was dubbed the “hermit kingdom”, as it sought self-sufficiency with minimal foreign contact. But there was at least two prominent occasions in which non-East Asians came, stayed and got married in Korea. Interestingly, they were both Dutch.

The first was a man named Jan Janse Weltevree. He was a Dutch sailor working on a ship that sailed between Jakarta, Indonesia (which at that time was a Dutch colony) and Nagasaki, Japan. In 1627, he and two of his shipmates were shipwrecked on the coast Jeju Island, the southernmost island of Korea. They were caught and sent to Hanyang, i.e. modern-day Seoul.

Weltevree and his shipmates worked as firearms instructors for the Korean military, and fought in a war against China in 1636. Only Weltevree survived the war. The Korean king at the time recognized his bravery, gave him a name Bak Yeon. (Bak = Park in many cases.) He married a Korean woman, and had one son and one daughter.

The second occasion was another group of Dutch sailors, a whopping 35 of them. The most famous one was a man named Hendrick Hamel, who eventually left/escaped Korea to return to Netherlands after thirteen years along with seven of his cohorts. Hamel later wrote a book about his experience, which ended up becoming the first book in Europe about Korea. (Source)

Similar to Weltevree, they were shipwrecked in Jeju Island in 1653, when Weltevree was 58. In fact, when the Dutch sailors were captured, Weltevree was asked to be an interpreter. Hamel's journal indicates that Weltevree's Dutch, after decades of inaction, was so poor that Hamel did not recognize it as a language at first. Korean historical records indicate that at least 10 of the 35 Dutch sailors married Korean women and settled in southwestern Korea.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. That is so interesting! I never knew.

  2. Don't forget the Indian princess who was the first queen of Gaya: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heo_Hwang-ok

  3. brian,

    That would go under the "mythical heroic figures".

  4. Holy crap on a cracker. That is some serious research. Well done!

    (Don't you have a day job?)


  5. I thought that the first picture looked familiar, then I realized...it's the cover of my history textbook. The caption: "A ship crossing the Persian Gulf: detail from a 13th century illumination from "Maqamat," a collection of tales by the Arab scholar al-Hariri (1054-1122). Later: "In this illustration, Abu Zayd (fictional character, subject of the "Maqamat") sails aboard a ship with an Indian crew and Arab passengers as it plies the waters of the Persian Gulf en route from Oman to the great port of Basra."


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