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The outside toilet in Park Wan-suh’s childhood memories – part 1

To coincide with the Korean garden at the Chelsea Flower Show this coming week, which features an outside toilet, here’s the first of two extracts from Park Wan-suh’s Who ate up all the shinga? The outhouse, it seems, was much more than a place for moving the bowels. Park Wan-suh was born in 1931 and lived in the countryside near Kaesong.


Of all the spots I played in during childhood, our outhouse excited the imagination most.

In my village, every tale in which an outhouse figured involved goblins – not scary goblins, but silly and jovial ones, as in the story about a goblin with a stuffy nose who can’t smell anything and spends all night in the outhouse making sticky brown millet cakes out of poo. The goblin believes that the ash there is bean flour and rolls his cakes in it over and over again, carefully moulding each one. But he wants to be sure to have all his cakes at the end, so he resists the temptation to taste any while making them. When he finally finishes at dawn, he bites into one, only to spit it out, retching. Then he stirs the pieces back into the original muck, furious. It was said that if you opened the door without a warning cough and surprised the goblin at his work, he’d hastily offer you the largest cake of all in embarrassment and urge you to try it. If you didn’t, there was no telling what mischief he’d play on you.

There’s another outhouse tale I recall vividly. One winter solstice, a daughter-in-law makes some delicious red bean porridge for that festival. Not satisfied with one bowl, she ladles out more for herself and ducks off to the outhouse. Meanwhile, her father-in-law has absconded there to sneak some porridge as well. When she dashes in, he is startled and tips the bowl over his head. The daughter-in-law rises to the occasion, however. Thinking quickly, she offers her own bowl and says, “Father, I brought you some more.” The father-in-law replies, “Child, I don’t need it. Look! My sweat is already running down just like porridge.” Grown-ups used to tell these stories frequently to teach us to give some warning before we opened an outhouse door.

Children nowadays, what with their phobia about countryside outhouses, would probably gag at that tale, but in fact the outhouses where I grew up were clean enough to eat porridge in. They were very roomy, sometimes as big as three or four kan, with a wooden frame in one corner where adults would take care of their business. Kids just squatted on the dirt floor. This area resembled a shed, and its floor slanted to allow turds to roll downward, not into a deep pit, but into a section where ash from the kitchen furnace was dumped. In outhouses, people kept handy a long stick with a rectangular board attached, which children also used to sweep their droppings into the ash (this is why a gangly person is sometimes called a “shit stick”). You need to be aware of all this to follow the story about the goblin rolling millet cakes in flour.

Photo source:

From the translation by Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein, Columbia University Press, 2009

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