When coming upon the phrase “pipe smoking in Korea”, you may well have pictured something like the image above, a photograph of the famous hero and U.S. Army chaplain Emil Kapaun, or this man, the renowned Captain Reginald Walter Saunders of Australia:
Well, they did smoke pipes, and they were in Korea. The subject of this entry, however, reaches farther back and deals with the common-day. The common-day practice, that is, of smoking pipes by Koreans, in Korea – the country, not just the war. Some may be surprised how ubiquitous not only the pipe, but the growing of tobacco once was on the peninsula. Introduced shortly after the end of the Imjin War (1592-1598), tobacco quickly became highly prized amongst Koreans. Though initially a rare and costly import, anyone who could manage it set about growing their own, until one could hardly throw a stone without hitting someone carrying a pouch of native leaf and a pipe.
Thus reported Consul General Allen in 1898:
“The Koreans are great smokers. Both sexes and all classes begin smoking early in life and keep it up most diligently. Tobacco is not used by them in any other method than smoking. The pipe is the constant companion of every Korean man and woman. However poor an individual may be, there always seems to be some method of obtaining tobacco for the pipe which he or she is sure to possess, whatever else may be lacking.
The tobacco used by the Koreans is almost entirely home-grown. Every farmer or gardener has his little patch of tobacco, much of which is very good in quality, but is injured in curing, being simply hung up under the wide eaves of the house to dry. It is quite strong. The supply seems to be ample, and the price is very low. No leaf tobacco is imported.”
As in the Americas, in Korea those pipes enjoyed by laborers in the field or alley, and pipes enjoyed by well-heeled merchants or persons who resided on estates, differed in design. Like your common cob or clay, the common Korean pipe was kept rather short. Like the elegant clays and Churchwardens of the Western well-to-do (the former not to be confused with clay “tavern pipes,” designed to be broken shorter with each use), a greater length of smoking instrument was as much an affection of status as it was a concern of cooling the smoke.
Reed, as you might expect, was not a material in short supply; the habit of a Korean pipe’s length increasing in proportion to a smoker’s social status (or, at least, pretentions to social status – there’s always one of that sort wherever you go) was a reflection of the inverse proportion of practicality it offered. A pipe three feet long could not very well be smoked by a person hauling a hundred and fifty-pounds of rice on their back. You had to sit down to enjoy it. This meant, of course presumably, that you were someone who had the luxury of sitting down. A pipe about two feet in length, on the other hand, might be enjoyed while on your feet, as long as you were someone who didn’t need their hands to do anything else.
Feel free to picture for a moment a young and swaggering fellow (or perhaps an older one who never quite got over that phase of his life) trying to haul a load or work with his hands while at the same time puffing on a yard’s worth of pipe. Now picture the frequent disaster this would likely produce. With nearly the entire Korean population of both genders, all classes, and all ages considering a pipe and a pouch of tobacco as much a daily necessity as the clothes on their backs, there were bound to be more than a few who insisted on trying it out. One wonders if the various bans on smoking in urban areas, occurring during the period from 1692 to 1717 in an attempt to reduce accidental fires, might not have been a consequence of those who, as it were, affected to carry more pipe than they could really afford.
Materials, naturally, differed with one’s place in society as well. The common pipe was patterned roughly after the Japanese kiseru, with a brass or copper bowl, the aforementioned reed of varying length, and a mouthpiece of, again, brass or copper.
A laborer might carry such a pipe of a foot in overall length; an urban artisan or village elder might have a pipe of the same simple materials, but long enough to need an apprentice or attendant to touch flame to the bowl as he or she puffed at the other end. Moving up into the more affluent circles, a greater range in materials became available to reflect a greater disposable income, less concern for durability, and more allowance for personal expression. While Consul General Allen observed that all who could manage a long reed-and-brass pipe affected one “both for coolness and for looks,” it was the instrument of jade, silver, gold and amber amongst other precious materials that an ambitious Korean dreamed of one day smoking.
Such pipes would be akin to a certain long Churchwarden that Adam once found on display in Charleston; originally the property of a late 18th century postmaster and made entirely of silver, excepting a short horn bit. Far more numerous in the same American museum, it should be noted, were shorter and handier clays, one of our Colonial-period equivalents to a Korean brass-and-reed of a foot or so.