AlphaGo, the Korean Baduk Association, and the Controversy over Mixed Script


AlphaGo vs. Lee Sedol, Fifth and Last Match (Source)

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:

AlphaGo Honorary Certificate Mixed Script

“You have devoted yourself in studying the Way of Baduk. Having exerted yourself in character development, your strength in Baduk has reached the hall of the divine (入神, 입신). As such, we bestow the rank of 9-dan.” (Source)

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:

  1. 守拙(수졸) – “Defensible, but weak”
  2. 若愚(약우) – “Slightly foolish”
  3. 鬪力(투력) – “Pugnacious strength”
  4. 小巧(소교) – “A little cunning”
  5. 用智(용지) – “Applying wisdom”
  6. 通幽(통유) – “Passing through darkness”
  7. 具體(구체) – “Wholly prepared”
  8. 坐照(좌조) – “Sitting enlightened”
  9. 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:

AlphaGo Honorary Certificate Hangul + English

On the left, the English side is rather clumsily worded. On the right, stripped of any literary terms, the Korean side is quite bland. (Source)

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:

Lee Sedol Autograph

Lee Sedol presents his autograph in Hanja to Demis Hassabis. Lee’s name is quite peculiar, because it uses a character 乭(돌) that is only used in Korea. In Chinese and Japanese media, his name is often written as 石. (Source)

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.

  1. Judith said:

    Watching the press conference and presentation, I puzzled over why i could not make any sense of Lee Sedol’s signature – I blamed it on my very insufficient skills with Hangul. Thank you for enlightening me! I think that it was understandable to do the certificate half in English, which is no doubt more familiar to the AlphaGo team,but I think they would have recognized the importance of tradition and been just as pleased – if not more so – with the mixed Chinese-Hangul version. I was completely charmed by Lee Sedol and his eager welcoming of a challenge, even requesting black for the final match although he knew that was going to put him at a disadvantage. He was gracious in victory and elegant in defeat.

    • 歸源 said:

      You’re welcome. I just wished that the Korean Baduk Association hadn’t yielded to the loudest voice in the room. I was also quite moved by Lee Sedol’s modesty throughout the games. It’s a quality rarely seen these days.

      • Judith said:

        Yes, his modesty was very touching. I was also delighted by his request to play black in the last match, knowing that it would put AlphaGo at an advantage. The game mattered more to him than the win. He has far surpassed any K-pop idol as a Korean hero! He’s certainly my idol. 😉

  2. Your posts are always interesting and educational. Thank you, Kuiwon, and welcome back!

    • 歸源 said:

      You’re welcome. Your comments are always insightful and edifying.

  3. Great post. I also value the presence of Chinese characters in Korean language, as Korean language and literature cannot stand alone without Chinese characters. While I think Korean people have a good reason to be apprehensive about Chinese characters “taking over” indigenous Korean words to a certain extent, as a lot of hanja-based words are influenced by Japanese colonial era. I study both Chinese and Japanese, and I do see a lot of Korean hanja vocabularies are identical to Japanese kanji vocabularies, while Chinese words are less often so. But then, language is a flexible entity–whether it’s for a favorable reason or not, it’s important to acknowledge the language we have at this moment. Also, more importantly, hanja itself has been used in Korea for such long time. But, a lot of Korean people overlook this fact and relate the use of Chinese characters directly to the Japanese colonial era. At least, that was the reasoning behind abandoning hanja characters on newspaper (which I think is really important to use hanja for clarification) as well as vertical writing. Also, I think you would’ve heard of this already, but the Bureau of Education tried to implement 한자병기 in elementary Korean textbook. I think a complete 한자병기 might be a stretch and I understand where the objections are coming from. But the response from the public was more than disagreement–their reaction was almost hostile.

    Hangul certainly is a very systematic writing system, which Korean people can be very proud of. But there’s a distinct value and advantage of using or at least knowing ideogram. Phonograms and ideograms have a strength and efficiency in a different way, but somehow a lot of Korean people look down on ideograms. I think this is the second reason why Koreans tend to completely neglect Chinese characters. And I think one of the reason why this is happening is the lack of hanja education. Because many of them have never learned hanja characters, they’ve never had a chance to reflect upon the benefits of knowing ideograms. So, the neglect of hanja comes from the lack of hanja education, and the lack of hanja education comes from the neglect of hanja. As you can see, this is like a cycle that doesn’t have the cause and result. They go both directions, so it’s hard to tackle the problem.

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you for your compliments. Your blog is great too. I do recognize that many Sino-Korean words especially those referring to modern concepts were coined in Japan. Regardless, I find the wholesale disdaining of Chinese characters by many Koreans on this basis rather shameful. I have pointed out a few times on this blog that mixed orthography has continuously existed since the creation of Hangul and that many Korean independence activists wrote Classical Chinese poetry. I also believe that Sinophobia is a huge factor, although not often mentioned. This fear is not just limited to Chinese characters “taking over” native words as you said, but genuine anxiety of China, the Chinese people, and by extension Chinese culture. Though traditional Korean culture was historically heavily influenced by China, they do not want to be associated with China and downplay any connection at every turn. The amalgamation of these factors lead to the hostile reaction on the part of many Koreans.

      Ultimately, I believe what is going to change this perception is economics. Abandoning of Chinese characters would lead to Koreans being cut off from a substantial size of the world population. Many Koreans are under the impression that Chinese characters just limited to China. They often overlook that there is a sizable diaspora in Southeast Asia and the fact that Japan still uses it. But they do perceive that China is rising. I have noticed that people just below my generation are learning Mandarin, realizing this economic aspect.

      I have written one post exploring ideograms versus phonograms from an information theory perspective. In summary, because there is such a small number of phonogram to ideograms, a single ideogram carries more information than a single phonogram. The proverb “a picture is worth a thousand words” is very applicable to the Hangul versus Hanja debate.

      • Agreed. There certainly is Sinophobia playing a role, and this can be traced back to multiple factors. The first thing that comes to mind is that old Korean dynasties were heavily influenced by China. Korean people are very well aware of the position Chosun or prior dynasties were at in the relationship between two. While people aren’t vocal about this like Korea-Japan issues, since long time has gone by since then. But there still is a sense of humiliation deep inside people, when they talk about history.

        The second thing would be anti-communism sentiment in the past 70 years. China has opened up its market, but it still is a communist country. Because one of the sentiments that bonded South Koreans together through post-War period was anti-communist sentiment, it is not surprising that South Koreans did not view China positively. (And by the statement I made, I didn’t mean to support any communist idea or government; I’m completely against it.) Even now, Chinese government does a lot of things that are against democratic value, and many other democratic countries disdain these behaviors. Combined with the peculiar past South Korea has, it’s very easy for Korean people to be skeptical about China as a country.

        The last thing (I can think of for now) would be the fact that China started to develop economically a little late. They still had their doors pretty much shut when South Korea was developing rapidly, and many people still remember the time when China didn’t have any foreign product and lived like “people in the past.” Of course, many, many people now know China looks different now. However, because many of them remember China in 1980s and 1990s (I’d even include early 2000s), it’s hard to shake off the impression that China is behind.

        As for ideograms and phonograms, I can’t agree more. In phonograms, signifiers dictate sound, and the sound dictates meaning. On the other hand, ideograms doesn’t require signifiers to be pronounced (internally or externally) to bear meaning. Memorizing them might be daunting (in the beginning, especially), but when you think about it, ideogram is a very efficient shortcut from a signifier to meaning.

        I do agree that more and more people are learning Chinese characters to accommodate the rise of China. One thing I found alarming is though, many people are focusing on simplified Chinese characters only. When I went back to my hometown last summer, I found some of the traffic signs on the major streets took down traditional Chinese character signs and then put up simplified Chinese character. And I felt this was such a servile thing to do. Korea has used traditional Chinese character for ages. It’s the mainland Chinese people who gotta get used to traditional Chinese character signs in Korea (which they won’t have a problem in most cases), not the other way around. The rise of China will motivate people to learn Chinese characters, but they will have to remember that it’s the traditional characters that bears the legacy and history of Korea, not simplified.

        Anyways, thanks for the great talk. I’m glad I found this gem.

      • 歸源 said:

        I agree. Just to add, I don’t think anti-Communism attitudes of the past affect the younger generation as much. I am not quite sure what to make of simplified characters. All I have heard are Taiwanese acquaintances grumbling that the sign in Traditional Chinese they saw one year is now in Simplified. I have not asked whether the Chinese character signs are of poor quality as the English.

        I am also glad to have found your blog.

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