Rhee Syngman on Time Cover

President Rhee Syngman on the cover of October 16, 1950 edition of Time Magazine (Source)

Rhee Syngman (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965) was a Korean independence activist, the first President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai, and the first, second, and third President of the Republic of Korea — and a controversial one at that. He was of the Jeonju Yi Clan (全州李氏, 전주이씨); his childhood name (兒名, 아명) was Seungryong (承龍, 승룡); and his pen name (號, 호) was Unam (雩南, 우남).

Like so many did before him, Rhee Syngman started his studies at a Confucian school on the path to taking the civil service examination. However, when the Gabo Reforms of 1894 (甲午改革, 갑오개혁) abolished the examinations, he enrolled at the American Methodist founded Paichai Academy (培材學堂, 배재학당), where he learned English and adopted Protestantism. He also began taking an active role in the independence movement. With the outset of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, he went with a delegation to the United States to request aid from President Theodore Roosevelt. Although the delegation failed its objective, Rhee Syngman stayed behind and received education, eventually obtaining a doctorate from Princeton. Shortly after graduating, he returned to Korea, which had now become a Japanese colony, but fled for America just two years after. In 1919, Rhee Syngman was elected in absentia as the first president of the Provisional Government of Korea then based in Shanghai. He spent most of his presidency, however, back in the United States, repeatedly asking for aid but to little avail. In 1925, the Provisional Government impeached Rhee Syngman for abuse of powers and removed him from office.

With Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, Rhee Syngman returned to Korea along with American forces. In 1948, he was elected in landslide victory in the National Assembly and inaugurated as the first President of the Republic of Korea. Upon taking office, Rhee Syngman took a very harsh stance against Communists, and actively attempted to root out Communism wherever it was perceived to exist. His government oversaw several massacres of civilians, the most infamous of which occurred on Jeju Island from 1948 to 1949. (The threat of Communism was arguably quite real, but his methods against civilians are still of much controversy.) When North Korea invaded on June 25, 1950, he fled Seoul only two days after and moved the capital temporarily to Busan (釜山, 부산). Rhee Syngman requested for American intervention, and this time was successful in securing assistance under the banner of the United Nations. He directed the government and war efforts from Busan for most of the war.

After the war in 1954, knowing that he was unpopular in the National Assembly, Rhee Syngman amended the constitution to allow for direct election of the presidency, and in 1956 won the presidential election after his opponent passed away shortly before the vote. With the vice presidential elections in 1960, Rhee Syngman was accused of rigging the elections, when both opponents coincidentally died before the vote. This sequence of events triggered the widespread protests of the April 19 Movement. Just eight days later on April 27, 1960, surrounded by protesters, Rhee Syngman resigned and fled Korea to America. He spent the remainder of his life in Hawaii where he passed away in 1965. Rhee Syngman is survived by no direct descendants, as he did not have children of his own. He did, however, adopt a distant family member who is still currently alive as of this post.

However controversial his legacy, little known even in Korea is the fact that Rhee Syngman was well-versed in Classical Chinese. While Rhee Syngman is not the last Korean president to have received traditional Confucian education (the much more favorably remembered President Kim Daejung was), he is the perhaps the last Korean head of state to have an extensive collection of Classical Chinese poetry. The following poem is from the Korean War, the 65th anniversary of which is this week. Rhee Syngman composed this poem during the spring of 1951 while in Busan.

戰時春 전시춘

Wartime Spring

半島山河漲陣烟 반도산하창진연 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
胡旗洋帆翳春天 호기양범예춘천 平平仄仄仄平平(韻)
彷徨盡是無家客 방황진시무가객 平平仄仄平平仄
漂泊誰非辟穀仙 표박수비벽곡선 平仄平平仄仄平(韻)
城市遺墟如古壁 성시유허여고벽 平仄仄平平仄仄
山川燒地起新田 산천요지기신전 平平平仄仄平平(韻)
東風不待干戈息 동풍불대간과식 平平仄仄仄平仄
細草遍生敗壘邊 세초편생패루변 仄仄仄平仄仄平(韻)

The peninsula and its mountains and rivers brim with the encampments’ smoke;
Brutish Chinese standards and Oceanic Barbarians’ sails cover the spring sky.
Wandering and itinerant, all are homeless travelers;
Roaming and vagabond, who is not a grain-refusing hermit?
The remnant ruins of the town’s market are like old ramparts;
The smoldering grounds of the mountains and streams give rise to new paddies.
The easterly winds do not await the resting of spears and lances.
Thinly spread grass sprout all around, surrounding the fallen fort.

 Notes:

  • Heptasyllabic regulated poem (七言律詩, 칠언율시). Riming character (韻, 운) is 先(선). The poem generally complies with the rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시).
  • 胡(호) – Refers to the Chinese. Before the fall of the Ming dynasty, the character was used to refer to northern peoples such as the Mongols and Manchus. However, after the Ming dynasty was conquered by the Manchus, many Korean writers believing themselves to be last remnant of Sinitic civilization used this character to refer to all Chinese in general. The People’s Republic of China intervened in the Korean War in October 1950.
  • 洋(양) – Refers to Westerners, more specifically, the Americans.
  • 辟穀(벽곡) – Refers to refraining from grains, and instead eating jujubes, pine needles, dates, and the like.
  • Korean translation available here. More of Rhee Syngman’s Classical Chinese poetry categorized by theme can be found here.
Heo Baekryeon - Four Seasons

Four Seasons’ Mountains and Rivers (山水 春夏秋冬, 산수 춘하추동) by Heo Baekryeon (許百鍊, 허백련, 1891-1977), one time student of Jeong Manjo (Source)

Jeong Manjo (鄭萬朝, 정만조, 1858-1936) was a late Chosun dynasty bureaucrat and colonial era historian and scholar. He was born in Seoul into the Dongrae Jeong Clan (東萊鄭氏, 동래정씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Daegyeong (大卿, 대경); and his pen name (號, 호) was Mujeong (茂亭, 무정). In 1889, he passed the civil service examination and arose quickly through the ranks, becoming the Third Minister of the Six Ministries (參議, 참의) by 1894. In 1896, however, Jeong Manjo was implicated in the assassination of Empress Myeongseong (明成皇后, 명성황후, 1851-1895), and was sentenced to a 15 year banishment to Jindo (珍島, 진도), an island off the southwestern corner of the Korean peninsula. While in exile, Jeong Manjo established a Confucian school (書堂, 서당) to teach Confucian classics to the locals (including the painter above). He was released early from his banishment in 1907 by the Japanese. He was soon reinstated to what remained of the Chosun bureaucracy as the First Counselor at the Gyujanggak (奎章閣副提學, 규장각부제학), and tasked with compiling a history titled The Precious Mirror of Succeeding Dynasties (國朝寶鑑, 국조보감) for the reigns of King Heonjong (憲宗, 헌종, 1827-1849, r. 1834-1849) and Cheoljong (哲宗, 철종, 1831-1863, r. 1849-1863). When Korea was annexed in 1910, the Japanese colonial general-government (朝鮮總督府, 조선총독부) offered him positions in the Office of Managing the Rites of the Yi Dynasty (李王職典祀官, 이왕직전사관), Central Directorate (中樞院, 중추원), and the Chosun History Compilation Committee (朝鮮史編修會, 조선사편수회). As part of the History Compilation Committee, Jeong Manjo was tasked with compiling the records of Emperors Gojong (高宗, 고종, 1852-1919, r. 1897-1907) and Sunjong (純宗, 순종, 1874-1926, r. 1907-1910) to lend legitimacy to Japan’s occupation of the peninsula. He also later became a professor at Keijou Imperial University (京城帝國大學, 경성제국대학) (now Seoul National University) and the Director (大提學, 대제학) at the Institute of Confucian Classics Studies (經學院, 경학원), an association of pro-Japanese Confucian scholars.

While Jeong Manjo is formally recognized by a Korean government commission responsible for investigating colonial era activities as a pro-Japanese collaborator, like many other collaborators, some of his works are still considered valuable. He excelled at Classical Chinese, especially in composing poetry and a specific type of prose known as four-six character lines (四六文, 사륙문 or 駢儷文, 변려문). During his exile in Jindo, Jeong Manjo composed a poetry collection detailing the customs of the islanders titled The Kind Waves’ Drippy Brush (筆, 은파유필). In the poem below, he describes the scenery of the island and its people during the Dano Festival (端午, 단오). It falls on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Lunar Calendar, which is June 20 this year on the Gregorian Calendar. While seldom celebrated today, the festival is associated with various traditional Korean customs including women washing their hair in water that was boiled with sweet flags (菖蒲, 창포), which is hinted below.

端午 단오

Dano Festival

家家楊柳彩繩飛 가가양류채승비 平平平仄仄平平(韻)
隊隊菖蒲寶髻輝 대대창포보계휘 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
映街紫奈朱櫻實 영가자내주앵실 仄平仄仄平平仄
烘日香羅細葛衣 홍일향라세갈의 平仄平平仄仄平(韻)
此鄕不識繁華好 차향불식번화호 仄平仄仄平平仄
遠客飜疑節序違 원객번의절서위 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
出色石榴花一樹 출색석류화일수 仄仄仄平平仄仄
短墻西甬對斜暉 단장서용대사휘 仄平平仄仄平平(韻)

House by house, the willows’ beautiful twines fly;
Bunch by bunch, the sweet flags’ precious topknots gleam.
Covering the streets are purple crab apples and red cherry trees’ fruits;
Shimmering in the sun are fragrant silks and thin arrowroot clothe.
These villagers do not know how to indulge in luxuries;
Travelers from afar fall flat in confusion over their etiquette transgressions.
The streaming, colorful pomegranate flowers on one tree,
Along the street bounded by low walls on the west, face the inclining sunshine.

Definitions:

House • house • willows • willows • color • string • fly
Group • group • iris • iris • treasure • topknot • shine
Cover • streets • purple • crab apples • red • cherry tree • fruits
Shimmer • sun • fragrant • silk • thin • arrowroot • clothe
This • village • not • know • luxury • extravagance • enjoy
Distant • traveler • fall • confuse • order • order • transgress
Special • color • stone • pomegranate • flower • one • tree
Short • wall • west • street • face • aslant • sunshine

Notes:

  • Heptasyllabic regulated poem (七言律詩, 칠언율시). Riming character (韻, 운) is 微(미). The poem generally complies with the rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시), except for the loss of inversion and adhesion rules (反粘法, 반점법) between the first and second and between the second and third couplets (失粘, 실점 or 失簾, 실렴). The second character of each line is: //////仄/平. The inversion and adhesion rules were not considered set-in-stone rules until the late Tang dynasty period, and most poems from pre- and early Tang dynasty times did not follow them. Regardless, there are many examples after this period.
  • 甬(용) – The character by itself refers to a street surrounded by walls.
  • Korean translation available here.
  • Korean newspaper article on Jeong Manjo’s legacy here.
(Source)

Big Dipper asterism, part of the Ursa Major constellation (Source)

Quan Deyu (權德輿, 권덕여, 759-818) was a mid-Tang dynasty period (唐, 당, 618-907) bureaucrat and poet. He was born in Tianshui (天水, 천수); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Zaizhi (載之, 재지); and his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Wengong (文公, 문공). From an early age, Quan Deyu was recognized for his literary talents. By the age of 15, he had already published a volume containing hundreds of his poems in the Collection by a Child Ignoramus (童蒙集, 동몽집). When Tang Emperor Dezong (唐德宗, 당 덕종, 742-805, r. 779-805) heard of him, he appointed Quan Deyu to the prestigious positions of the Scholar of the Ministry of Ceremonies (士, 태상박사) and Drafting Official of the Secretariat (中書舍人, 중서서인). During his time at the Ministry of Rites, Quan Deyu was tasked on three occasions with selecting qualified candidates from the imperial examination. He especially excelled at choosing candidates from the countryside, who were often overlooked, thereby earning the nickname “Obtainer of [Talented] Men” (得人, 득인). By being favored at the imperial court, Quan Deyu was promoted to higher positions later on. During the reign of Tang Emperor Xianzong (唐憲宗, 당 헌종, 778-820, r. 805-820), he became the Minister of Rites (禮部尚書, 예부상서) and Regional Governor of the Shannan West Circuit (山西道節度使, 산남서도 절도사). Few years into his last post, Quan Deyu became gravely ill, and decided to return to his home village but passed away en route.

His own literary talents were recognized well after his death. His works appear in both the Complete Literary Works of Tang (文, 전당문) and the Complete Tang Poems (全唐詩, 전당시), anthologies that were compiled in the 19th and 18th centuries respectively. In the poem below, Quan Deyu tersely describes the celestial order in relation to the Earth’s seasons, in particular reflecting upon the Summer Solstice (夏至, 하지). The Summer Solstice marks the day when the Sun is at the celestial longitude of 90 degrees, and falls around June 21 or 22 on the Western Gregorian Calendar. 

夏至日作 하지일작

Written on Summer Solstice Day

璇樞無停運 선구무정운 平平平平仄
四序相錯行 사서상착행 仄仄平仄平(韻)
寄言赫羲景 기언혁희경 仄平仄平仄
今日一陰生 금일일음생 平仄仄平平(韻)

The celestial pivot, without stopping, translates;
The four orders, mutually staggered, travel.
Send a message to the bright, shining sun:
Today, the first of the Yin (陰, 음) arises.

Definitions:

Star gauge • pivot • without • to stop • to move
Four • arrangement • mutually • to stagger • to travel
To send • message • bright • bright • sunlight
Today • day • one • Yin • to arise

Notes:

  • Pentasyllabic truncated verse (五言絶句, 오언절구) with an invocation of an exception. Riming character (韻, 운) is 庚(경). This poem has — I believe — two examples of broken form (拗體, 요체), which refers to specific types of violation of the conventional tonal meter that were considered acceptable, and were frequently employed in recent style poems during the Tang and Song dynasty periods in China.
    • The first couplet exhibits a doubly broken form (雙拗, 쌍요). In the first line, the fourth character (停, 정) should be an oblique tone (仄, 측), but is a plain tone (平, 평) thereby breaking (拗, 요) the tonal meter (平仄, 평측); however, the couplet is “saved” (救, 구) with the use of a plain tone in the third character (相, 상) of the second line.
    • The third line exhibits a singly broken form (單拗, 단요). In this line, the third character (赫, 혁) should be a plain tone, but is an oblique tone; however, the line is saved with the use of a level tone in the fourth character (羲, 희).
  • 樞(구) – Literally “pivot.” Refers to Alpha Ursae Majoris, which is also referred to as Dhube in English. It is at the front of the Big Dipper asterism.
  • 四序(사서) – Literally “four orders.” Refers to the four seasons.
  • 今日一陰生(금일일음생) – Under the Yin and Yang duality (陰陽, 음양), the Yin is said to arise between during the the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice, as the days become shorter.
  • Korean translation available here.
4-19 Democracy Movement

Students carrying the banner “Defend democracy to the death!” (民主主義死守하자!) in front Seoul City Hall during the April 19th Revolution that culminated in the resignation of President Rhee Syngman.

On May 2, not too long after the anniversary of the Sewol sinking, an article in the Korean news website OhmyNews seriously asked, “If we said 인양(引揚) instead of 인양, would we know what that means?” (‘인양’을 ‘인양(引揚)’이라 하면 알까). This was in reference to the government’s plans to recover the sunken Sewol. The article’s main target, however, is about the Education Ministry’s discussions to bring back Hanja mixed textbooks. Predictably, the article is so poorly thought out that it is difficult to consider where to begin the rebuttal. Besides the invocation of the Sewol tragedy (which I will assume for the benefit of the doubt to be misguided and not opportunistic), the editorial makes a number of ridiculous contentions, including misleading statistics regarding support of Hanja education (48.5% support is still a lot) and hypocrisy over English education. This post will focus on the article’s imaginings about the link between Hangul and democracy (“한글민주주의”):

거칠지만 민주주의를 계층이나 연령의 차등과 차별을 최소화한 이념 체계로 정의해 보자. 이를 전제로 할 때 한글은 일부 지배층의 언어인 한자나 한문보다 민주주의의 보편성에 상대적으로 더 잘 부합하는 문자 체계라고 볼 수 있지 않을까…

Let us roughly define democracy as the ideology that most minimizes the discrimination and ranking by socioeconomic class or age. Under this premise, can we not consider that compared to Hanja or Hanmun, the language (언어) of the ruling class, Hangul is not the script (문자) that relatively better conforms to the egalitarianism of democracy? …

The article’s primary basis for equivocating Hangul to democracy is that “Hanja was traditionally the ruling class’ script.” The article seems to be blind to Korea’s linguistic policies in the modern era, and has to lackadaisically stretch all the way back to days of the Chosun dynasty to look for a blanket argument. While it may be true that statistically literacy was largely limited to the ruling classes prior to the modern era in Korea, this was the case all over the world before the industrial revolution — even with Hangul, which first spread among the noblewomen. Due to its infatuation with pre-modern Korea, the article misses the fact that Hangul exclusivity is primarily a legacy of autocratic regimes in both North and South Korea.

October 9, 1969 Edition of the Dong-a Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보).

An article announcing President Park Chunghee’s plans for Hangul exclusivity in the October 9, 1969 Edition of the Dong-a Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보).

Contrary to the article’s imaginings, Hangul exclusivity came at the behest of not-so-democratic strongmen. In North Korea, President Kim Ilsung banned Hanja from official texts beginning in 1948. In South Korea, the military dictatorship of Park Chunghee embarked on a “Five Year Hangul Exclusivity Plan” (한글전용 5개년 계획 안) starting in 1968 and banned Hanja from all public education that year. While both men are remembered for many things (e.g., the latter for vastly improving South Korea’s economy), neither are remembered as being champions of democracy. President Park Chunghee’s original plan was to completely eliminate Hanja by 1972, but because of public backlash had to adjust course. He tweaked his original plans by making Hanja education optional in middle and high schools. Nevertheless, he maintained the ban on use of Hanja outside of Hanja textbooks and the prohibition of Hanja education in elementary school. Moreover, subsequent military dictatorships continued President Park Chunghee’s Hangul exclusivity policy. The result was that large portions of the Korean populace never formally learned Hanja, contributing to its precipitous decline during this time period.

In stark contrast to the underlying presumptions of the article, this anti-Hanja policy changed only after the end of the military dictatorship and transition to democracy. For example, the ban on Hanja education in elementary schools was lifted in 1992 (shortly before I started learning Hanja in an elementary school where it was taught). Not to mention, Nobel Peace Prize winner President Kim Daejung, remembered for his advocacy of democracy, spent some time during his presidency actively attempting to reverse Hangul exclusivity, and introduced incentives for students to study Hanja.

It should be noted that it is not as if other Hangul supremacists are wholly unaware of this dark side of Hangul’s modern history. Indeed, some Hangul supremacists do not even pretend at all that there is such a link between democracy and Hangul. A few years ago, one Hangul exclusivist linguistics professor from Seoul University in fact told his fellow exclusivists, “I very much hated President Park Chunghee because he was a dictator. But I can forgive all of his misdeeds because he imposed Hangul exclusivity,” and urged them to do the same (“나는 박정희 대통령이 독재를 했으므로 아주 싫어했다. 그러나 한글전용을 시행했으므로 그의 모든 것을 용서해 줄 수 있다”). Essentially, they are so fervent about Hangul exclusivity that they would excuse the trampling of democracy and human rights.

Given Hangul exclusivity’s recent history and concession by other Hangul supremacists, the article’s assertion that Hangul is somehow linked to democracy is laughably contemptible. Furthermore, from a democracy aspect, Hangul exclusivity is especially troubling because it is so closely tied to expression. Indeed, Hangul exclusivity has severely limited the degrees of freedom in Korean expression in writing by two orders of magnitude, from 2,000 plus to little over 20. If democracy is seriously to be considered in linguistic policy, this distressing statistic should be taken into account.

Jeong Yakyong (丁若鏞, 정약용, 1762-1836) was a late Chosun dynasty philosopher, bureaucrat, poet, and civil engineer. He was of the Naju Jeong Clan (羅州丁氏, 나주정씨); his courtesy names (字, 자) were Miyong (美鏞, 미용) and Songbo (甫, 송보); his pen names (號, 호) were Dasan (茶山, 다산), Sammi (三眉, 삼미), and Yeoyudang (與猶堂, 여유당), among several others; and his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Mundo (文度, 문도). At the age of 21, in 1783, Jeong Yakyong passed his first civil service examination. Thereafter, he continued his studies at the Sungkyunkwan (成均館, 성균관) and also rose through the bureaucratic ranks. Through his studies, he became introduced to Western Learning (西學, 서학), i.e., Catholicism, through fellow scholar Yi Byeok (李蘗, 이벽, 1754-1786). While there is no proof that Jeong Yakyong himself had ever converted, some of his close family members and friends were baptized into the Catholic Church. His associations with early Korean Catholics and more importantly with the Southerners’ Faction (南人派, 남인파) would later embroil him. Beginning in 1791, members of the rivaling Old Doctrines Faction (老論派, 노론파) started accusing him of being Catholic, an assertion that he repeatedly denied. For some time, however, Jeong Yakyong was still favored on the royal court. In 1792, for instance, already known for his knowledge of Western civil engineering techniques, he was asked to supervise the construction of Hwaseong (華城, 화성), a fortress in Suwon (水原, 수원). This changed with the start of the Shinyu Year Persecutions (辛難, 신유교난) in 1801, when Jeong Yakyong was arrested and banished for his associations with Catholics. During his banishment, he devoted himself to studying Confucian classics and started writing several notable works, including Remaining Thoughts on Managing the Nation (經世遺表, 경세유표) and Mind of Governing the People (牧民心書, 목민심서). He was released in 1818, but remained out of politics and passed away in 1836 near Seoul. 

From an early age, Jeong Yakyong was recognized for his Classical Chinese poetry. By the age of 10, he had already amassed a collection of his own poetry. Jeong Yakyong’s style was somewhat unconventional in that he explicitly disliked the strict rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시) and preferred freer archaic style poetry (古體詩, 고체시). In one particular poem from his banishment, he remarked, “I am a man of Chosun / Gleefully writing Chosun poetry” (我是朝鮮人 甘作朝鮮詩 – 아시조선인 감작조선시). This line is surprising, because he brazenly ignores conventional tonal meter. (Also note that Hangul and Korean vernacular poetry written in Hangul had existed for well over three centuries when he wrote this line.) The poem below also does not conform to the strict rules of recent style poetry. In it, he describes farmers threshing barley. In Korea, the agricultural custom of threshing the barley (–打作, 보리타작) was traditionally associated with Grain in Ear Day (芒種, 망종). As a solar term, the day marks when the Sun is between the celestial longitudes of 75 to 90 degrees and falls around June 6-7 on the western Gregorian calendar every year. Barley has a long history in Korea, as the grain was introduced to the peninsula already domesticated from either China or Central Asia sometime during prehistoric times.

打麥行 타맥행

Threshing the Barley

新芻濁酒如湩白 신추탁주여동백
大碗麥飯高一尺 대완맥반고일척
飯罷取耞登場立 반파취가등장립
雙肩漆澤飜日赤 쌍견칠택번일적

The new hay and cloudy wine are milky white;
The large bowl is with barley feed one feet high.
Having finished their meal, they grab flails and go out to stand in the yard.
Twin shoulders, lacquered with sweat, overturn in the redness of the sun.

  • 濁酒(탁주) – Literally “cloudy alcohol.” Refers to an unrefined rice wine known as Makgeolli (막걸리).

呼邪作聲擧趾齊 호아작성거지제
須臾麥穗都狼藉 수유맥수도랑자
雜歌互答聲轉高 잡가호답성전고
但見屋角紛飛麥 단견옥각분비맥

Oh, alas! Making noise, their feet are in lockstep.
For a brief moment, barley ears are stacked all over the place.
Various tunes call and answer in antiphony, with their voices becoming gradually louder.
But only seen are the barley flying scattered about upon the corner of the ceiling.

  • 須臾(수유) – Binome word (連綿辭, 연면사) meaning “briefly.”
  • 狼藉(낭자) – Binome word meaning “to be messy.”

觀其氣色樂莫樂 관기기색락막락
了不以心爲形役 료불이심위형역
樂園樂郊不遠有 락원락교불원유
何苦去作風塵客 하고거작풍진객

Having observed their complexions, they cannot be any more joyous:
In the end, they do not regard their spirits to be servile to their bodies.
The paradisaical garden and paradisaical purlieu do not exist afar.
Oh, how I agonize over having left to become a traveler amid the windblown dust!

  • 樂莫樂(낙막락) – Literally, “joy unlike joy.” Refers to extreme joy.
  • 風塵客(풍진객) – Literally, “windblown dust’s guest.” The term “windblown dust” refers to the mundane world (俗世, 속세). The phrase as a whole refers to someone in bureaucracy.
  • Heptasyllabic archaic poem (七言古詩, 칠언고시) with no riming scheme. The poem has been broken into three parts for the purposes of presentation.
  • Korean translation available here.
Hanja Private Education Deliria

A May 6, 2015 op-ed warns readers of greedy private Hanja educators, highlighting one particular Hagwon that charges 10,000 won (less than $10 USD) for one year of lessons. The author of the op-ed is not being sarcastic, and his arguments are sadly quite typical of other anti-Hanja proponents. (Source)

One of the primary arguments against Hanja education asserted by Hangul supremacists is that it will increase onus of studying upon students and will further exacerbate private education commonly known as Hagwons (學院, 학원). As someone who attended many Hagwons while growing up in Korea, I do find this argument worthy of consideration. Upon closer examination, however, there are many signs that such arguments are less than sincere. Take for example an op-ed from the Korean news site OhmyNews from May 6 titled, “The Largest Pro-Hanja Education Association Holds Hands with Private Education” (‘한자병기 주도 최대 조직, 사교육업체와 손잡아), which is emblematic of this type of argument.

Its author warns readers of the supposed danger that money-grubbing (“돈벌이” and “장삿속”) Hanja Hagwons poses upon Korean students. The article begins with an advertisement from one of the largest publishers of Hanja books promoting Hanja lessons for elementary school students. (For the sake of full disclosure, I do have a few books of theirs intended for older audiences on my bookshelf.) The author describes that the lessons cover Chinese classics such as Elementary Learning in Four Characters (四字小學, 사자소학) and Analects of Confucius (論語, 논어) as well as elementary school level Chinese characters. The cost for all of this? The author will lead you to believe that this is a whopping 150,000 won (about $130 USD) for one year. But staring readers right in their face is the article’s introductory image showing the price as 10,000 won. That is less than $10 USD. 

If Hangul supremacists were actually genuinely worried about avaricious Hagwons, they would be up in arms over English private education. It is well documented that English private education is a multi-billion dollar industry in Korea. Some of its owners and teachers are millionaires. The average cost of an English Hagwon is over 1,000,000 Won (almost $1,000 USD) per month, 100 times more than that of the advertised Hanja Hagwon highlighted by this op-ed charges per year. There are even ones that go for many more that target even younger ages. Not to mention, for the price, the quality of its teachers do not seem to be that great.

Yet there is only silence over English Hagwons from these Hangul supremacists. In fact, one earlier op-ed from OhmyNews states that it is not worried over English education while attacking Hanja education. In doing so, they seek to vilify old, retired grandpas and grandmas who make up a great proportion of Hanja teachers and many of whom who teach for free — or almost free in the case of the highlighted Hagwon.

Hagwons and the education system in general pose serious challenges for Korea. To exploit them as a bludgeon so lightheartedly against Hanja education as Hangul supremacists do is not only absurd and reckless, but also shows their lack of actual concern over this issue and further underlines their intellectual bankruptcy.

 

아리랑, 아리랑, 아라리요 Arirang, arirang, arariyo.
아리랑 고개로 넘어간다   Arirang, crossing over the hill,
나를 버리고 가시는 님은  My dear who has abandoned and left me
십리도 못가서 발병난다   Has not even traveled ten miles before having feet pains.

Introduction

Arirang (아리랑) is the most famous folk song of Korea. In fact, the song is so well-known that it is often described as the unofficial anthem. Yet, despite its popularity, no one seems to sure about what “Arirang” means or even exactly when or where the song first came to be. Indeed, there are hundreds of theories on the etymology of Arirang (語原百說, 어원백설). There are even theories as to the origins of other words that are seemingly benign in the song. This post will cover some of the more accepted, conventional theories that have been studied by Korean scholars on the etymology of the song’s name.

Theories on the Etymology of “Arirang”

1. 閼英(알영) – Al-yeong (Personal Name)

The first theory purports that the song originates from the founding of the Shilla Dynasty (新羅, 신라, 57BC-935). The dynasty’s first king was Bak Hyeokgeose (朴赫居世, 박혁거세, 69BC-4AD, r. 57BC-4AD). His wife’s name was Alyeong (閼英, 알영), which was taken from the name of a nearby well where she was born. She is said to have showed great generosity to farmers and silkworm rearers while traveling around the country. The peasants in gratitude started singing praises about her magnanimity with her name prominently in the lyrics. Over the ages, the word “Alyeong” morphed to “Alliryeong” (알리령) and then finally to “Arirang.”

2. 阿娘(아랑) – A-rang (Personal Name)

Another hypothesis is that the lyrics emerged from 16th-17th century Milyang (密陽, 밀양), where one of the more popular variants of the song comes from. The local folk tale states that there was a lady named Arang (阿娘, 아랑), who was a daughter of the local magistrate. She was kidnapped, but was killed by her captors while fighting them off in an effort to preserve her chastity. The locals in praise and in commiseration with the magistrate created the song. Arang’s name in the song eventually changed to Arirang. There is a shrine to Arang at the Yeongnam Pavilion (嶺南樓, 영남루) in Milyang, but its construction only dates to the 19th century. It should be noted that in contrast to Milyang, the other regions that often claim to be the origin of the song, such as Jindo (珍島, 진도) and Jeongseon (旌善, 정선), do not have a theory as to its etymology.

3. 我離娘(아리랑) or 我離郞(아리랑) – A-ri-rang (“I Part from My Dear”)

This theory proposes that the song dates to 19th century Chosun during the reign of Regent Heungseon (興宣大院君, 흥선대원군, 1829-1898, r. 1863-1873). The Regent is widely remembered as a tyrant who increased burdens on peasants by imposing compulsory labor, forcing families to leave their villages and live apart from one another. As these peasants parted from their families and villages, they expressed their angst in song, crying “A-ri-rang” a phrase coined from Classical Chinese (漢文, 한문). Here, “a” (我, 아) means “I”, “ri” (離, 리) means “to part from”, and “rang” (娘 or 郞, 랑) means either “dear wife” or “dear husband.” Together, Arirang would mean “I part from my dear wife” or “I part from my dear husband.” (Surprisingly, even though this would make “Arirang” a Sino-Korean word, it is the theory most favored among North Korean historians.)

4. 我難離(아난리) – A-nan-ri (“Our Escape Is Difficult”)

The fourth conjecture would also pin the etymology of Arirang to developments during the reign of Regent Heungseon. More specifically, the song alludes to the reconstruction of Gyeongbok Palace (景福宮, 경복궁), which had been destroyed during the Japanese invasions (1592-1598) and laid fallow between then and the 19th century. According to this theory, during the reconstruction, the conscripted laborers recalled forced laborers centuries ago who had toiled under Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇, 진시황, 260-210BC, r. 246-221BC) in constructing the Great Wall (萬里長城, 만리장성). The Qin laborers had sighed, “Eo-yu-ha, A-da-go” (魚遊河 我多苦, 어유하 아다고), meaning “The fish can play in the streams, but our pangs are many”. In remembrance of their toil, the Chosun laborers lamented, “Eo-yu-ha, A-nan-ri” (河 離, 어유하 아난리), meaning “The fish can play in the streams, but our escape is difficult.” Under this conjecture, the latter half of their lamentations would eventually turn from “Ananri” to “Arariyo.”

5. 我耳聾(아이롱) – A-i-rong (“My Ears Become Deaf”)

Yet another theory would also date the origin of Arirang to the reign of Regent Heungseon and also the reconstruction of Gyeongbok Palace. To rebuild the palace, Regent Heungseon “asked” for donations (願納金, 원납금) several times around the country. Peeved, someone wrote a Classical Chinese poem (漢詩, 한시) complaining, “Dan-weon-a-i-rong Bul-mun-weon-nap-seong” (但願我耳聾 / 不聞願納聲, 단원아이롱 / 불문원납성), meaning “If only I could, I would wish that my ears became deaf so that I do not hear words ‘please donate.'” According to this theory, this poem became widely circulated by word of mouth, and the last three syllables in the first line eventually morphed from “Airong” to “Arirang.”

6. 啞而聾(아이롱) – A-i-rong (“Mute and Deaf”)

The sixth hypothesis also attributes the etymology of Arirang to the reign of Regent Heungseon and reconstruction of Gyeongbok Palace. Under this hypothesis, it is said that able-bodied men that wanted to be exempt from being conscripted had others state that they were “mute and deaf” (나는 귀가 먹어 듣지도, 말하지도 못한다), or in Classical Chinese “Airong” (啞而聾, 아이롱 or 아이농). The phrase “Airong” eventually morphed to “Arirang.”

7. 兒郞偉(아랑위) – A-rang-wi (Onomatopoeia)

This conjecture also dates the origin of the song to the Regent Heungseon’s reign, although the phrase itself predates this period. When traditional Korean houses for the gentry were built, the gentry owners would celebrate by posting Classical Chinese poems on the ridge beams and reciting them. The poems dedicated for the completion of construction often had the phrase “A-rang-wi, po-ryang-dong” (兒郞偉 抛樑東, 아랑위 포량동) repeatedly. “A-rang-wi” was an onomatopoeia in Classical Chinese that depicts laborers’ grunts while constructing and “Po-ryang-dong” means “To turn the crossbeam eastward.” Under this conjecture, during the reconstruction of Gyeongbok Palace, buildings were completed so frequently that the conscripted laborers were able to memorize and sing the poems among themselves. Eventually, “Arangwi” morphed to “Arirang.”

8. 英(아미일영) – A-mi-il-yeong (“Russia, America, Japan, and England”)

This theory also pins the song’s origin to the late 19th century and references colonial powers that were trying to grab a hold of Korea: Russia, America, Japan, and England. Or in Sino-Korean, “a” (俄, 아) (“Russia”), “mi” (美, 미) (“America”), “il” (日, 일) (“Japan”), and “yeong” (英, 영) (“England”). The embassies for these countries for constructed incidentally during the reign of Regent Heungseon. Under this theory, “Ami’ilyeong” turned to “Arirang.” This theory was first forwarded by Japanese scholars during the colonial period.

9. 樂浪(낙랑) – Nak-rang (Geographic Name)

Under the last theory, the word Arirang originated from a name of hill named Nakrang (樂浪, 낙랑). This hill was supposedly located near a path between Pyongyang and Gaesong between two peaks. Under this theory, the song is said to have originated from homesick travelers. The word “Nakrang” eventually morphed to “Ara” and finally to “Arirang.” There are other explanations that similarly propose that the word refers to a geographical location. Under one alternative explanation, “Ari” (아리) is a native Korean term that means “to be bright” and that “rang” (랑) is a corruption of the word “ryeong” (嶺, 령) meaning “hill” or “peak.” (This explanation seems to be the most popular in English sources.)

Conclusion

Arirang is by any measure a unique and integral part of the Korean cultural patrimony. One reason why it is so popular is that it seems to be an expression of “pure” Korean culture. For that very reason, the song plays well to the tendencies unfortunately held by many Koreans today: (i) that only the “pure” parts of the Korean cultural patrimony are worth preserving to the neglect of others and (ii) that Korean culture ought to be portrayed as wholly distinct from its neighbors. In particular, many who hold such notions often like to minimize sinitic influences on Korean culture and portray them as being limited to the upper crust of previous generations of Koreans. This attitude, however, is certainly regrettable and would be amiss even with Arirang. Indeed, most of the more accepted, conventional theories on the song’s etymology point to Sino-Korean or Classical Chinese. Even the “purest” explanation of the term relies on a corruption of a Sino-Korean word. These explanations, though hypotheses, demonstrate that Korean cultural patrimony without its sinitic elements would paint an incomplete and hollow picture of the Korean experience throughout the ages.

Sources:

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