One of my fond memories from my childhood in Korea was attending a Baduk academy, or Giwon (棋院, 기원) in Korean. Out all the Hagwons I attended, the Giwon was the only one I looked forward to. Through studying the game, I only reached intermediate strength: at my prime, I played at about a 5-6k (級, 급) ranking. This is enough to appreciate a substantial, but not all, of tactics and strategy in the game. During my studies in engineering, I was interested in artificial intelligence (AI), and did read a few research papers on Go AI. So, when I heard that Google had developed AlphaGo, an AI that could finally play at a professional level, I was somewhat skeptical knowing what I did, but nonetheless excited. I intently watched professional commentaries for each game and read a few technical articles on the algorithms powering AlphaGo.
Go is also one of many reasons I became interested in Chinese characters and Classical Chinese. Many of the terms in Baduk are Sino-Korean (e.g., 逐(축) for ladder). Some proverbs used in Korean Baduk books are whole Classical Chinese phrases (e.g., 我生然後殺他(아생연후살타), meaning “After I gain life, kill the opponent”). Knowledge of Chinese characters added an extra flavor to appreciating the game that I would not otherwise have had. These words also highlighted the board game’s antiquity, which has been repeatedly emphasized in the current media coverage.
It was thus very disappointing to see Hangul Supremacy, a belief held by many Korean nationalists, rearing its ugly head after the conclusion of the matches. The Korean Baduk Association (韓國棋院, 한국기원) planned to bestow its first ever honorary professional rank certificate to AlphaGo. It had previously only given honorary amateur ranks to people that had helped the development of Go. The Association initially was going to follow the customary mixed script orthography (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) for AlphaGo’s honorary certificate:
The original honorary certificate included the term, “entering the divine (入神, 입신),” that dates back to the 6th century during the North-South Period of Chinese history (南北朝時代, 남북조시대, 420-589). Emperor Wu of Liang (梁武帝, 양무제, 464-549, r. 502-549) devised nine rankings for Go (圍棋九品, 위기구품). Today, these names are used as nicknames for professional Go rankings from 1-dan to 9-dan (段, 단). They are from lowest to highest:
- 守拙(수졸) – “Defensible, but weak”
- 若愚(약우) – “Slightly foolish”
- 鬪力(투력) – “Pugnacious strength”
- 小巧(소교) – “A little cunning”
- 用智(용지) – “Applying wisdom”
- 通幽(통유) – “Passing through darkness”
- 具體(구체) – “Wholly prepared”
- 坐照(좌조) – “Sitting enlightened”
- 入神(입신) – “Entering the divine”
Not surprisingly, there was immediate controversy about using mixed script, which is often mischaracterized as a product of Japanese colonial era partly because of its similarity to Japanese orthography. Fearing backlash, the Korean Baduk Association bizarrely commented that “Hanja is too difficult (한자가 너무 어렵고)”, despite the fact that it regularly corresponds with Chinese and Japanese professional Go associations, and decided to pull the mixed script version. It instead gave AlphaGo a version of the certificate in English and Hangul:
To top it off, the English portion of the certificate was in rather obtuse English. The second sentence reads “Korea Baduk Association, in recognition of AlphaGo’s outstanding capacity and achievement, is hereby presenting honorary 9 Dan.” This phrase should have included the article “The” at the beginning and the participle should be “hereby presents.” The error is at the very least a small embarrassment to Korea while the world is watching. The Korean side is not any better. Compared to the original mixed script version, it is very dull, boring, devoid of anything suggestive of how dramatic and significant this accomplishment is.
At any rate, the controversy over mixed script particularly in this context is cognitive dissonance par excellence. No one is (or at least should be) under any allusion as to where Go originated. Everyone knows that the game came from China. Why some Koreans after following a week’s worth of matches on a Chinese board game would suddenly balk at the use of Chinese characters boggles the mind — especially to this Korean. Both have equally long, venerable histories in Korea.
I am fairly sure that these Korean nationalists, who would have given little thought over Go were it not for the match with AlphaGo, would have an aneurysm if they found out that modern style of Go is heavily influenced by how the game was played in 17th century Japan and that Korean professional players typically sign their names in Chinese characters at international matches, as Lee Sedol (李世乭) did at the end of this one:
Getting back to the match, it was quite entertaining to watch the games between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol. I have not followed professional Go scene in quite some time. Rather than discouragement at Lee Sedol’s losses, it has made me want to brush up on the ancient, but ever new, game.