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.
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 Heungseong (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.” The word “rang” is a homonym for wife and 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 Heungseong. 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” (魚遊河 我難離, 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 “Arirang.”
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 Heungsong and also the reconstruction of Gyeongbok Palace. To rebuild the palace, Regent Heungsong “asked” for donations (願納金, 원납금) several times around the country. Peeved, someone wrote a Classical Chinese poem (漢詩, 한시) complaining, “Dan-won-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 Heungseong 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. 兒朗偉(아랑위) – A-rang-wi (Onomatopoeia)
This conjecture also dates the origin of the song to the Regent Heungsong’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. 俄美日英(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 Heungseong. 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 “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 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.)
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. 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.