By Robert Neff
In the early hours of Oct. 8, 1895, a group of Japanese and their Korean associates raided the Korean palace and brutally murdered Queen Min. Doused with kerosene and set on fire, her body was reduced to only a few bones and ashes.
In early 1896, just after King Gojong and the crown prince had found refuge in the Russian legation, rumors began to circulate that Queen Min’s spirit had grown restless. According to one newspaper, her ghost had appeared in the room where her remains were kept and frightened two of the servants to death.
In mid-August that same year, King Gojong ordered that a spirit house be constructed in Jeong-dong to house the remains of the queen until a suitable tomb could be built. In just two weeks it and the house of preparation were completed by a workforce of 800 men working day and night.
On Sept. 4, the queen’s remains were moved to the spirit house in a huge procession attended by the foreign diplomats and observed by huge crowds of people — Koreans lined up along the streets and the foreigners from the second story windows of the Seoul Improvement Company’s brick buildings at the entrance of Jeong-dong.
According to The Independent, an English-language newspaper published in Seoul:
“The hearse was carried by several hundred men in mourning uniforms, and on the platform in the front and behind the hearse stood an army officer in European uniform, and two others in old Korean mourning costume. Each of the latter held a bell in their hands and rang them vigorously — the meaning of which was unknown to us. The casket was 7 feet 8 inches long and 3 and a half feet in width, beautifully painted with lacquer and several lines of inscriptions in gilded letters stating the titles of the Queen. The whole casket was wrapped in white satin and placed in state in the main building of the new Palace.”
Philip Jaisohn (Seo Jae-pil), editor of The Independent, likened the ceremony’s procession to Korea’s transformation:
“First came a squad of soldiers dressed in foreign style and marching in some semblance of order. This might be called the New Korea and we are glad it marched in front for the moving illustration would otherwise have been incomplete, but behind them came a motley company dressed in all the gaudy hues and grotesque patterns that ever bedizened an oriental fete. All the old banners and standards and trumpery were resurrected and brought into requisition. The old Yangban (Korean nobles) strut, the inane bolstering up on either side by servants, the same childish vanity in their tawdry gewgaws. This is what was plainly visible. The New Korea in front dragged behind it the great mass of conservative, jejune, moss-back, old Korea.”
The editors of The Korea Repository echoed Jaisohn’s sentiment when they described the police as being neatly dressed in foreign uniforms and marching with a good step while their officer — dressed in the old uniform — wobbled behind them supported by his servants.
They likened the procession to the political situation between the conservatives and progressives. “The old and the new side by side. The one infirm, the other with elastic step; the one tottering to its grave, the other in the vigor of youth going to his work.”
Queen Min was known for her progressive views but was her spirit appeased by this procession of the old and the new? One pall bearer was crushed while carrying the hearse and a small boy was killed as the procession went past the front of the palace. A couple of days later, the main beam of the palace’s front gate fell and seriously injured a workman.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.