This is one post in a series on Hangul Supremacy and Hangul Exclusivity. Hangul Supremacy (–優秀主義, 한글우수주의) is the widespread belief that Hangul is superior, especially in opposition to Chinese characters. Hangul Exclusivity (–專用, 한글전용) is closely related and refers to writing exclusively in Hangul. The purpose of these posts is to introduce Anglophone readers to the Korean debate over Hangul and Hanja.
Hangul Exclusivity’s Basis in Pure Blood Theory
One of the many beliefs of Korean nationalism is the pure blood theory (純血主義, 순혈주의). According to this theory, all Koreans descend from one blood line (한핏줄) originating from Altaic peoples that settled on the peninsula and have been untainted by foreign races ever since. Hangul exclusivity and Korean linguistic purism were and to some extent are explicit and conscious applications of this theory: if the Korean race is pure, then should not its writing and language be pure as well? It is not a coincidence that the South Korean military dictatorship implemented Hangul exclusivity at the same time it heightened the pure blood theory. The string “linguistic pure blood theory” (言語純血主義, 언어순혈주의) is an actual term in Korean discourse on language. There are many problems with this theory — other than the blaring irony that there is no “pure” Korean word for the word “pure” (純–, 순하다) –, a few of which are discussed here.
This theory is fairly modern. It originates from Japanese colonial period, when the colonial administration attempted to propagandize Koreans into believing that they were the same race as the Japanese. After the liberation, both North Korea and South Korea adopted the theory kicking out the Japanese and continued disseminating it to instill nationalism and legitimize their rule. (South Korea has since mostly stopped, but North Korea still holds to this theory.) In contrast, in previous generations many Koreans acknowledged that they had ancestors from outside the peninsula. Although Korea was never quite a “multicultural” country as some of its neighbors, in their genealogy books almost half of all established Korean family clans recognize that they were descended from those who moved to Korea from China, Japan, Manchuria, Mongolia, Vietnam, and even Arabia. Historical records further confirm that there were periods of increased migration into Korea.
It is not just written, recorded history that is problematic for the theory. Recent genetic studies, which can peer back further into human history, have also undermined it. Although the pure blood theory is not entirely off in recognizing that there are actual genetic variations among races, such findings show that it is empirically false. For instance, the genes responsible for the “Asian glow” during alcohol consumption are most prevalent among the Chinese (southeastern Chinese, in particular, where it is thought to have originated), Japanese, and Korean, but drastically less so in other geographically proximate groups including Altaic peoples such as the Mongols. Conversely, the gene attributed to both dry earwax and lower sweat odor production is most frequent among Koreans (among whom it is almost 100%), Northern Chinese, Japanese, and other Northern Asian groups, but gradually less with groups further out from the region. (This might partly explain why many Koreans and other Asians today do not wear deodorant, as some ostensibly non-East Asian commentators have derisively noted.) These studies and others indicate that there was plenty of mixing between Koreans and neighboring peoples.
The contemporary Korean lexicon tangentially reflects this history: 60-70% of Korean words are based on Chinese characters, only 25% “native,” and the rest from other sources. This composition is also indicative of Hangul’s place. Hangul is provincial, primarily limited to one peninsula for only one language. Attempts to export the alphabet are quixotic. In contrast, Chinese characters, which are often portrayed in opposition to Hangul, are cosmopolitan. For almost two millennia, Classical Chinese was used among the intelligentsia in the Sinosphere. As late as the 1980s, most Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese could read one another’s newspapers and deduce the gist of any article. (Older generations of Koreans still can with Japanese and Chinese newspapers.) Today, the term “Hallyu” (韓流, 한류), meaning “the Korean wave,” quite frequently thrown around when discussing the popularity of Korean culture in other parts of Asia is of Chinese coinage.
Against this backdrop, it should be readily apparent that in an ever regionally integrated Asia, Hangul exclusivity and the underlying pure blood theory look quite out of place and outdated. While Hangul exclusivists continue to portray Chinese characters as in tension with Hangul and deride them as “anachronistic,” in the end it is they who hold the truly anachronistic belief. The creation of Hangul was no doubt a proud moment in Korean history, but it should be properly celebrated and the accompanying beliefs surrounding the alphabet ought to be reconsidered.