Even cows deserve a shot at the good life
To ancient Koreans, a cow was not just another animal. It was an essential part of the family that helped with farming and carrying loads. When a cow was given a nose ring and a yoke, it was a saenggu, or member of the family.
Lee Ok, a man of letters during the reign of King Jeongjo, wrote about cows. In one piece, he wrote: “When a cow slips while climbing a steep hill and pulling a heavy cart, the master reproaches it. So the cows in Gyeonggi are haggard and boney. The skin on the neck becomes hardened and the back hollow. But they don’t look tired even after traveling hundreds of miles with heavy loads and working in the fields for hours.”
One day, Lee was in Chungcheong and spotted a farmer who was working in a field with a plump cow idling nearby. Lee suggested that the farmer have the cow do the work, but the cow had been bred for its meat. It got exhausted before taking 10 steps with the yoke. In the evening, the cow did not eat and rested for a long time. The farmer worried that he would lose money because the cow had lost weight.
Of his experience, he wrote: “In the Hoseo region, a cow is an asset. Cows are given three meals a day, with barley and beans, and a daily bath. People don’t ride the cow or make it carry heavy loads or work in the fields because it may cause the cow to lose weight.”
Even in the old days, cows had different fates. The cows that did hard work lived for a long time, but the cows that enjoyed good food lived only a few years. Butchering was banned at the time, but cattle were slaughtered in secret in order to meet the growing demand for meat.
The Annals of King Jeongjo say that beef should only be used in ancestral rituals and feasts and served to the elderly and the sick. In the document, King Jeongjo is quoted as lamenting: “Once, a member of the royal family broke the law and secretly slaughtered cows to sell the meat. I am so ashamed that I am speechless.”
These days, not many cows are considered part of the family. Instead, they do field work. These cows live less than three years but enjoy good food during their lifetimes. Some cows, however, are starved to death when the price of cattle drops and the price of feed rises. It’s not the cows’ fault. The cows are always cows, but now they are made to die instead of being allowed to work or being given a few comfortable years of life. Why? It’s all because of the greed and folly of humans.
The author is a culture and sports news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.