Controversy Over Limit of Chinese Characters Permitted in Korean Personal Names

I sometimes get asked by some of my older Korean (and even Korean-American) friends who are now of that age about Chinese character recommendations for their soon-to-be-born children. Cognizant that there is a whole field of experts and numerous conventions behind naming (作名法, 작명법) that I am unaware of, I politely decline to give them any suggestions and recommend that they confer with their family members.

Occasionally, I inform them that South Korea has a limit to which characters can be used in personal names (人名用漢字, 인명용한자), which increased from from 5,761 to 8,142 last year, so that they can go and look for characters for their children themselves. Some of my friends are actually surprised that there are any restrictions. I had just assumed that such limitations were natural and necessary, and so was surprised that they were surprised. I looked into it further recently, and turns out there is a bit of controversy over this issue.

The video above is a news clip from last year discussing the issue of “intrusion of naming rights” (作名權 侵害 漢字 論難, 작명권 침해 한자 논란). In the clip, one of the reporters reveals that one of the characters in his name is not on the list, 熚(필), which is pronounced “pil” and means “to blaze furiously.” Until recently, whenever he had to list his Hanja name on public documents, the reporter had to explain that the character consists of the 火(화) radical and 畢(필) body and had his name listed as “金필奎.”

The news clip then went over the brief history of the regulation of characters in names. The Korean Supreme Court first introduced the list of permitted characters in personal names with just 2,731 characters in 1990, as family records maintained by the government were being digitized. Over the years, the number of characters permitted increased. Characters included in the list were based in part on the frequency of characters in personal names that appeared in telephone directories of Seoul residents. The justifications given were that using complicated Chinese characters would be inconvenient to everyone in society and would be detrimental to the well-being of children with such names (e.g., harassment).

At that time, the new list was controversial, especially because there were characters in the list that were contrary to the government’s stated justifications. Chinese characters, such as 死(사) (“to die”), 盜(도) (“thief”), 魔(마) (“evil spirit”), and 禍(화) (“calamity”), that would never likely appear in actual personal names were on the list. Furthermore, with the expansion of the list last year, peculiar names such as “Pikton” (腷噋, 픽톤), “Goektung” (馘佟, 괵퉁), and “Hul’e” (欻恚, 훌에) were possible, thereby undercutting the justification of child well-being. Even with the increase, however, the reporter noted that the character 熚 in his name was still not included. While he stated that he personally was not inconvenienced, the reporter noted that there were many others that complained to the Supreme Court about the restriction. There were efforts made by a National Assembly member in 2012 to eliminate the restriction entirely, but these attempts failed.

In responding to these complaints, the Korean Supreme Court stated that allowing all 50,000 plus Chinese characters would invite chaos and observed that there are many characters that have not been standardized. (I would like to note the list of characters already allows for variants, including some simplified ones.) The reporter countered by pointing out that there are over 70,000 characters already digitized and that any technical limitations that existed in the 1990s are now obsolete.

As for me, I am still of the opinion that there should be some practical restriction, although not quite sure where to draw that line.

Further Reading:

Notes:

  • It should be noted that limitations to characters used in names are not new, e.g., naming taboo (避諱, 피휘). In pre-modern times, people and even geographical places were renamed to avoid having the same character as that of the Korean king or Chinese emperor. It is a custom in some Korean families even today to avoid using the same characters (and even homonyms) as that of an ancestor within three generations.
2 comments
  1. New Reader said:

    Well, the line might very well be drawn, just like Japan does (and I reckon China does so too in uncouth hanzi such as rape 姦, feces 屎, corpse 屍 and such; but I do concur with you in that I’m all in for naming freedoms (inasmuch as they are sensible)

    • 歸源 said:

      Japan has had a list of permitted Chinese characters since 1948, and it is currently almost 3,000 characters. I do remember reading that Japan also has an issue with characters on the list that aren’t really suitable for personal names, such as the ones you mentioned.

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