Current Events (時事 시사)


Posted at Yonsei University (Source)

Furor and outrage have recently arisen over President Park Geunhye’s relationship with her confidante, Choi Soon-sil. In summary, shortly after the assassination of her mother in 1974, the President started developing a close relationship with the confidante and her confidante’s Christian/Shaman cult leader father, who claimed to had seen her deceased mother in his dreams. Decades later during office, President Park repeatedly sent confidential briefings and speeches in advance to her confidante. Choi had also regularly exploited her ties to President Park in a number of shady business dealings. (For further details, Ask a Korean has a wonderful description of the scandal.) In reaction to this incredible chain of events, a group of students at the History Department at Yonsei University posted a Classical Chinese poem in protest of the President, calling for her resignation:

與傀統朴槿惠 여괴통박근혜

Given to the Puppet President Park Geun-Hye

神巫更鷄說 신무경계설 A mysterious shaman fixes your chicken-talk;
孝父改國史 효부개국사 In filial piety to your father, you revised the national history curriculum.
選勝功旣高 선승공기고 In having won an election, your achievements are already many.
知足願云辭 지족원운사 Know what it is to be content and please resign.

This is a parody of General Eulchi Mundeok‘s poem to the Sui dynasty General Yu Zhongwen during the invasion of Goguryeo. General Eulchi would go onto catastrophically defeat General Yu’s forces.

與隋將于仲文詩 여수장우중문시

A Poem Given to Sui General Yu Zhongwen

神策究天文 신책구천문 Your divine stratagem has exhausted astronomical observations;
妙算窮地理 묘산궁지리 Your marvelous calculations have depleted geographical knowledge.
戰勝功旣高 전승공기고 Being victorious in battles, your achievements are already on high.
知足願云止 지족원운지 Know what it is to be content and please stop.

The poem is in turn a reference to the Chinese Taoist classic, Tao Te Ching (道德經, 도덕경):

名與身孰親? 身與貨孰多? 得與亡孰病?

Or fame or life, which do you hold more dear?
Or life or wealth, to which would you adhere?
Keep life and lose those other things;
Keep them and lose your life: – which brings
Sorrow and pain more near?

是故甚愛必大費: 多藏必厚亡.

Thus we may see, who cleaves to fame rejects what is more great;
Who loves large stores gives up the richer state.

知足不辱, 知止不殆, 可以長久.

Who is content needs fear no shame.
Who knows to stop incurs no blame.
From danger free, long live shall he.

(Translation by James Legge)

Apologies for the lack of recent posts.



The Korean Constitutional Court ruled 6-3 that the limits on Chinese characters permitted in personal names (人名用漢字, 인명용 한자) are constitutional. These restrictions were first introduced in 1990, as family records maintained by the government were being digitized. The original list only included 2,731 characters. Over the years, the Court has gradually increased the number of permissible characters to 8,142 characters as of last year. Korean Family Law specifies that only Hangul and “commonly used” Chinese characters are permitted in personal names and that the Constitutional Court is to define which characters are allowable.

The restrictions on Chinese characters allowed in personal names was very controversial when first introduced and has been challenged a number of times ever since. In the most recent case, the challenger attempted to use the character 嫪(로) (“to long for”) to name their child. Since the character was outside the list of permitted characters, they were only allowed to record the name in Hangul. The family sued and argued that the restrictions on characters are unconstitutional, because they are a restraint on the freedom to name one’s child and their right to pursuit of happiness.

The majority of the Court, however, disagreed and concluded that the restrictions are constitutional. They noted that the number of people who do not know Chinese characters has increased, and that using rare characters will lead to errors in keeping digital records and recognizing people’s names, causing inconvenience for people with complicated names. The majority added that restrictions on Chinese characters permitted in personal names are “unavoidable” due to technological constraints. The minority countered, pointing out that any such constraints in digitizing records that might have been true in 1990 are no longer existent.

Currently, if any part of a name is not one of the Chinese characters on the list, then it is considered a “pure Hangul” name. Korean identification cards in such instances will only give the Hangul transcriptions, not Hanja and Hangul mixed. As such, although the percentage of Koreans with “pure Hangul” names has been reportedly increasing, this figure might be inflated. A subset of such names are intended to be combinations of “pure Korean” and Chinese characters. Earlier this year, a couple tried registering their daughter’s name as “贇별(윤별).” Even though 贇 is on the list of permissible characters, the couple was forced to register only in Hangul, because it was a mix of Hangul and Hanja. Another subset are cases like the one above, in which at least one character in the name is not on the list of permitted characters. The vast majority of Korean names are still entirely in Hanja.

(On a related note, I would like to also point out that “pure Korean” names in use now, while sometimes haughtily presented as “traditional,” are not anything like actual, historically used “pure Korean” names.)


Today, Korea is having its twentieth legislative elections. At polling booths across the country, Korean voters will vote for their candidate or party with a stamp marked with the Chinese character 卜(복). The reason why the stamp has this character are three-fold: historical, practical, and symbolic.

The first elections in South Korea were held in 1948 under the auspices of the US Army Military Government.  Voters at polling booths used a circular stamp or sign (“○”) with no circumscribed shaped inside to mark down their candidates of choice. Resources were so inadequate that people resorted to using the round edges of pen caps to indicate their votes. The Korean War from 1950 to 1953 devastated the country even further. In the elections immediately after war, voters used bamboo branches and even bullet casings to mark their votes. While Korea’s economy vastly improved in the following decades, the plain circular mark continued to be used.

The plain circular mark, however, had a few practical problems. When they are cast, the ballots on which the mark is recorded are folded. In many instances, this caused in the dye being transposed onto the contacting side, thereby resulting in invalid votes. In 1992, the Chinese character 人(인) for “person” was added and circumscribed into the circular voting stamp to remedy this problem. The addition of this character shape, however, did not completely resolve the issue with invalid votes, since the character 人 is somewhat symmetric. The dye transposed onto the folded side of the ballot was still indistinguishable from from the side where the mark was originally stamp.

During the presidential elections of 1994, another issue arose. The character 人 was seen as too similar to the si-ot ㅅ in candidate Kim Young-sam’s (金泳三, 김영삼, 1927-2015) name and ultimately viewed as favoring him. (Kim Young-sam would indeed later go onto win the presidential election, becoming the first civilian to hold the Korean presidential office in three decades.) To address this problem, the character 人  was changed to 卜(복). This alteration also finally resolved the issue of invalid votes resulting from the dye being transposed onto the other side of the ballot. Since the character 卜 is asymmetric, election talliers would be able to distinguish the transposed mark from the original mark.

The character 卜 also carries multiple meanings, highly pertinent to the rite of voting. It can mean “to foretell” (점치다), “to consider in detail” (상고하다), or “to count” (헤아리다). And this is why the voting stamps in Korean elections have the character 卜.

Sources (All in Korean):

Last week, on August 4, United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon (潘基文, 반기문, 1944-) presented calligraphy that he wrote himself for US President Obama’s birthday. The calligraphy reads “High virtue is like water” (上善若水, 상선약수). The message is a quote from the famous Chinese Daoist classic, the Dao De Jing (道德經, 도덕경), attributed to the Chinese philosopher Laozi (老子, 노자). While the President seemed thankful for the gift, the reaction on Korean social media was mixed: some had verbal fits complaining that foreigners would confuse Koreans with the Chinese; others praised UN Chief Ban Ki-moon for his erudition and showcasing of Eastern philosophy. Below is the excerpt from the Dao De Jing that the calligraphy alluded to, with the original text in bold and commentary to the side by Han Dynasty era (漢, 한, 206BC-220AD) scholar the “Riverside Sage” (河上公, 하상공, ?-?):

上善若水   上善之人, 如水之性.
상선약수   상선지인, 여수지성.

High virtue is like water. A man of the highest virtue is like the nature of water.

水善利萬物而不爭  水在天爲霧露, 在地爲源泉也.
수만리만물이불쟁  수재천위무로, 재지위원천야.

Water benefits all things well without quibble. When water is in the sky, it becomes fog and dew. When water is on the ground, it becomes a source of a stream.

處衆人之所惡   衆人惡卑濕垢濁, 水獨靜流居之也.
처중인지소오   중인오비습후탁, 수독정류거지야.

And resides in a place that the multitude of men disdain. The multitudes of men disdain the low, damp, dusty, and muddy [places]. Water alone quietly flows and lives there.

故幾於道   水性幾於道同.
고기어도   수성기어도동.

Therefore, [water] is almost like the Way. The nature of water is almost like the Way.

居善地   水性善喜於地, 草木之上則流而下, 有似於牝動而下人也.
거선지   수성선희어지, 초목지상즉류이하, 유사어빈동이하인야.

The virtue of a residence is in the land. The nature of water esteems happily the land. Above the grass and trees, [water] flows downward. Some are like through the valleys, moving below men.

心善淵   水深空虛, 淵深淸明.
심선연   수심공허, 연심청명.

The virtue of the mind is like that of the pond.  The waters that are deep are empty and hollow. A pond that is deep is clear and bright.

與善仁   萬物得水以生. 與虛不與盈也.
여선인   만물득수이생. 여허불여영야.

The virtue of associations is like that of benevolence. All things acquire water to live. They associate with the empty; but not with the full.

言善信   水內影照形, 不失其情也.
언선신   수내영조형, 불실기정야.

The virtue of speech is in trust. Within water, a shadow illuminates form and does not lose its state.

正善治   無有不洗, 淸且平也.
정선치   무유불세, 청차평야.

The virtue of rectification is in governance. There is nothing that is not washed: everything is clear and even.

事善能   能方能圓, 曲直隨形.
사선능   능방능원, 곡직수형.

The virtue of affairs is in ability. To be able to be square and to be able to be round, and to be crooked and to be curved is to follow form.

動善時   夏散冬凝, 應期而動, 不失天時.
동선시   하산동응, 응기이동, 불실천시.

The virtue of movement is in timeliness. To scatter during summer and to coalesce in winter is in response to time periods and movement, and does not lose track of celestial time.

夫唯不爭   壅之則止, 決之則流, 聽從人也.
부유불쟁   옹지직지, 결지즉류, 청종인야.

Generally, [virtue] does not quibble. If [the water] is blocked, then it will stop; if it is lifted, then it will flow. Listening, it will follow another.

故無尤   水性如是, 故天下無有怨尤水者也.
고무우   수성여시, 고천하무유원우수자야.

Therefore, [virtue] does not have any faults. The nature of water is like this. Therefore, underneath the heavens, there is nothing that has grievances and claims faults against water.

  • Korean translation of Dao De Jing and commentary available here.
  • The Riverside Sage was a scholar that lived sometime during the reign of Han Emperor Wen (漢文帝, 한 문제, 202-157BC). Not much is known about him personally: not even his original name. He is said to have lived in a thatched house near a brook where he enjoyed reading Dao De Jing. One day, the Emperor heard about the Sage’s abilities to interpret the workand requested him to write a commentary.
  • Other historic, influential commentaries of the Dao De Jing include those by Wang Bi (王弼, 왕필, 226-249), Lu Deming (陸德明, 육덕명, 550?-630?), and Jiao Hong (焦竑, 초횡, 1541-1620). Chosun dynasty scholars such as Yi I (李珥, 이이, 1536-1584) and Pak Sedang (朴世堂, 박세당, 1629-1703) also wrote commentaries.
4-19 Democracy Movement

Students carrying the banner “Defend democracy to the death!” (民主主義死守하자!) in front Seoul City Hall during the April 19th Revolution that culminated in the resignation of President Rhee Syngman.

On May 2, not too long after the anniversary of the Sewol sinking, an article in the Korean news website OhmyNews seriously asked, “If we said 인양(引揚) instead of 인양, would we know what that means?” (‘인양’을 ‘인양(引揚)’이라 하면 알까). This was in reference to the government’s plans to recover the sunken Sewol. The article’s main target, however, is about the Education Ministry’s discussions to bring back Hanja mixed textbooks. Predictably, the article is so poorly thought out that it is difficult to consider where to begin the rebuttal. Besides the invocation of the Sewol tragedy (which I will assume for the benefit of the doubt to be misguided and not opportunistic), the editorial makes a number of ridiculous contentions, including misleading statistics regarding support of Hanja education (48.5% support is still a lot) and hypocrisy over English education. This post will focus on the article’s imaginings about the link between Hangul and democracy (“한글민주주의”):

거칠지만 민주주의를 계층이나 연령의 차등과 차별을 최소화한 이념 체계로 정의해 보자. 이를 전제로 할 때 한글은 일부 지배층의 언어인 한자나 한문보다 민주주의의 보편성에 상대적으로 더 잘 부합하는 문자 체계라고 볼 수 있지 않을까…

Let us roughly define democracy as the ideology that most minimizes the discrimination and ranking by socioeconomic class or age. Under this premise, can we not consider that compared to Hanja or Hanmun, the language (언어) of the ruling class, Hangul is not the script (문자) that relatively better conforms to the egalitarianism of democracy? …

The article’s primary basis for equivocating Hangul to democracy is that “Hanja was traditionally the ruling class’ script.” The article seems to be blind to Korea’s linguistic policies in the modern era, and has to lackadaisically stretch all the way back to days of the Chosun dynasty to look for a blanket argument. While it may be true that statistically literacy was largely limited to the ruling classes prior to the modern era in Korea, this was the case all over the world before the industrial revolution — even with Hangul, which first spread among the noblewomen. Due to its infatuation with pre-modern Korea, the article misses the fact that Hangul exclusivity is primarily a legacy of autocratic regimes in both North and South Korea.

October 9, 1969 Edition of the Dong-a Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보).

An article announcing President Park Chunghee’s plans for Hangul exclusivity in the October 9, 1969 Edition of the Dong-a Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보).

Contrary to the article’s imaginings, Hangul exclusivity came at the behest of not-so-democratic strongmen. In North Korea, President Kim Ilsung banned Hanja from official texts beginning in 1948. In South Korea, the military dictatorship of Park Chunghee embarked on a “Five Year Hangul Exclusivity Plan” (한글전용 5개년 계획 안) starting in 1968 and banned Hanja from all public education that year. While both men are remembered for many things (e.g., the latter for vastly improving South Korea’s economy), neither are remembered as being champions of democracy. President Park Chunghee’s original plan was to completely eliminate Hanja by 1972, but because of public backlash had to adjust course. He tweaked his original plans by making Hanja education optional in middle and high schools. Nevertheless, he maintained the ban on use of Hanja outside of Hanja textbooks and the prohibition of Hanja education in elementary school. Moreover, subsequent military dictatorships continued President Park Chunghee’s Hangul exclusivity policy. The result was that large portions of the Korean populace never formally learned Hanja, contributing to its precipitous decline during this time period.

In stark contrast to the underlying presumptions of the article, this anti-Hanja policy changed only after the end of the military dictatorship and transition to democracy. For example, the ban on Hanja education in elementary schools was lifted in 1992 (shortly before I started learning Hanja in an elementary school where it was taught). Not to mention, Nobel Peace Prize winner President Kim Daejung, remembered for his advocacy of democracy, spent some time during his presidency actively attempting to reverse Hangul exclusivity, and introduced incentives for students to study Hanja.

It should be noted that it is not as if other Hangul supremacists are wholly unaware of this dark side of Hangul’s modern history. Indeed, some Hangul supremacists do not even pretend at all that there is such a link between democracy and Hangul. A few years ago, one Hangul exclusivist linguistics professor from Seoul University in fact told his fellow exclusivists, “I very much hated President Park Chunghee because he was a dictator. But I can forgive all of his misdeeds because he imposed Hangul exclusivity,” and urged them to do the same (“나는 박정희 대통령이 독재를 했으므로 아주 싫어했다. 그러나 한글전용을 시행했으므로 그의 모든 것을 용서해 줄 수 있다”). Essentially, they are so fervent about Hangul exclusivity that they would excuse the trampling of democracy and human rights.

Given Hangul exclusivity’s recent history and concession by other Hangul supremacists, the article’s assertion that Hangul is somehow linked to democracy is laughably contemptible. Furthermore, from a democracy aspect, Hangul exclusivity is especially troubling because it is so closely tied to expression. Indeed, Hangul exclusivity has severely limited the degrees of freedom in Korean expression in writing by two orders of magnitude, from 2,000 plus to little over 20. If democracy is seriously to be considered in linguistic policy, this distressing statistic should be taken into account.

Hanja Private Education Deliria

A May 6, 2015 op-ed warns readers of greedy private Hanja educators, highlighting one particular Hagwon that charges 10,000 won (less than $10 USD) for one year of lessons. The author of the op-ed is not being sarcastic, and his arguments are sadly quite typical of other anti-Hanja proponents. (Source)

One of the primary arguments against Hanja education asserted by Hangul supremacists is that it will increase onus of studying upon students and will further exacerbate private education commonly known as Hagwons (學院, 학원). As someone who attended many Hagwons while growing up in Korea, I do find this argument worthy of consideration. Upon closer examination, however, there are many signs that such arguments are less than sincere. Take for example an op-ed from the Korean news site OhmyNews from May 6 titled, “The Largest Pro-Hanja Education Association Holds Hands with Private Education” (‘한자병기 주도 최대 조직, 사교육업체와 손잡아), which is emblematic of this type of argument.

Its author warns readers of the supposed danger that money-grubbing (“돈벌이” and “장삿속”) Hanja Hagwons poses upon Korean students. The article begins with an advertisement from one of the largest publishers of Hanja books promoting Hanja lessons for elementary school students. (For the sake of full disclosure, I do have a few books of theirs intended for older audiences on my bookshelf.) The author describes that the lessons cover Chinese classics such as Elementary Learning in Four Characters (四字小學, 사자소학) and Analects of Confucius (論語, 논어) as well as elementary school level Chinese characters. The cost for all of this? The author will lead you to believe that this is a whopping 150,000 won (about $130 USD) for one year. But staring readers right in their face is the article’s introductory image showing the price as 10,000 won. That is less than $10 USD. 

If Hangul supremacists were actually genuinely worried about avaricious Hagwons, they would be up in arms over English private education. It is well documented that English private education is a multi-billion dollar industry in Korea. Some of its owners and teachers are millionaires. The average cost of an English Hagwon is over 1,000,000 Won (almost $1,000 USD) per month, 100 times more than that of the advertised Hanja Hagwon highlighted by this op-ed charges per year. There are even ones that go for many more that target even younger ages. Not to mention, for the price, the quality of its teachers do not seem to be that great.

Yet there is only silence over English Hagwons from these Hangul supremacists. In fact, one earlier op-ed from OhmyNews states that it is not worried over English education while attacking Hanja education. In doing so, they seek to vilify old, retired grandpas and grandmas who make up a great proportion of Hanja teachers and many of whom who teach for free — or almost free in the case of the highlighted Hagwon.

Hagwons and the education system in general pose serious challenges for Korea. To exploit them as a bludgeon so lightheartedly against Hanja education as Hangul supremacists do is not only absurd and reckless, but also shows their lack of actual concern over this issue and further underlines their intellectual bankruptcy.

Li Bai (李白, 이백, 705-762) is probably the most acclaimed poet in Chinese history, quite famous for writing poems while drunk. The poet now appears prominently on the face of a hangover remedy drink made by a Korean beverage company, Haitai Beverages (海陀飮料, 해태음료), called Yi Taebaek’s Secret Cure for Hangovers (李太白- 宿醉秘策, 이태백의 숙취비책). (In Korea, Li Bai is better known by his courtesy name (字, 자) Taibai (太白, 태백), which in Korean is pronounced Taebaek.) The product has been out since June, but the commercial above was released on December 23 and has gained popularity on Korean social media. In the commercial, Li Bai informs a stooped over drunken passerby that he will instruct him on proper techniques for drinking during New Year celebrations. The poet then makes a prominent entrance into a restaurant, and sits with a group of people at a table. He then instructs them on his three tips to prevent hangovers:

  1. Novice level: Hold the alcohol in your mouth and while pretending to drink the water spit out the alcohol.
  2. Intermediate level: Concentrate energy upon the glass and pour some of the alcohol into the other’s glass while clanking glasses.
  3. Expert level:  Place a necktie into the glass to absorb the alcohol and then squeeze out the alcohol beneath the table.

Finally, Li Bai introduces to the guests his new product. (I do not know whether it actually works, and am well aware that hangover remedies often are not effective. At any rate, I hope everyone had a happy — and hangover-free — New Year’s!)