[KS] Gwageo cheongsan (Kwageon ch'eongsan)

Gari Keith Ledyard gkl1 at columbia.edu
Mon Sep 9 23:23:10 EDT 2002

	Interesting and stimulating, all this stuff on chengsan.  Most of
the postings assume a negative connotation in the term, and I started out
that way myself.  But as I got into the dozenth reponse, I took a look at
the dictionary.  Chengsan's main meanings come from its being a technical
term in accounting, and "liquidation," as in settling bankruptcy cases,
certainly has a chilling tone when applied to the writing of history.
But the dictionaries cite a special idiom when used with "kwake" (as usual
with me, I use the diacriticless Yale system when on email).  Kim Minswu's
dictionary, definition 3 reads as follows: Kwage uy motun il.ul kkaykkus.i
ssise pelim (wash cleanly away everything from the past), and then adds in
English, "atonement."  That certainly was somewhat of a disconnect for me,
but then I checked the always reliable Yale dictionary, where Martin and
Chang cite the sentence "kwakerul chengsan hako, say salam.i toyta"
"Chengsan the past and become a new person." That's the way one might
english the bare phrase.  But Martin and Chang are always good at getting
just the right word; they say, "buries one's past (calls it quits with)
and turns over a new leaf."  That definition ironically would seem to be
exactly what Aidan wants to see, and goes some way to explaining Kim
Minswu's at first puzzling "atonement." I would settle for "come to terms
with the past and get on with it."  (Leonid Petrov noted this sense but
preferred to develop his remarks along the lines of a critical
re-examination of the past--which of course is a worthy course.)
	 Judging from some of the postings, this is seen as a neologism
and a buzzword in todays popular discourse in Seoul (this kind of thing is
what one misses by not going to Korea more frequently than I do).  But
"kwake chengsan" seems to have been quite well established already in the
middle of the last century (both Kim Minswu and Sam Martin started their
lexicography in the 1950s), and that led me to poke around in the usual
places for antecedants, and lo and behold, one more colonial relic!
Kenkyusha cites Japanese usages with "seisan" (chengsan) such as: "bury
the past and start life again"  and "commit suicide in atonement for one's
crime."  The latter is probably too Japanese to be digestable in Korea,
and in any case one would hardly consider that it's the Koreans who have
to atone for colonialism... Still, the flotsam and jetsam of atonement
washed up on the beach of Kim Minswu's lexical notes.
	 In spite of my etymological obsessions, I do see and appreciate
the more serious issues that many of the postings raise and I got
something worthwhile out of every single one of them.  But can anyone tell
me why, with all the richness of Korean history and life, we only seem to
have such discussions once in a blue moon?  Why does this list not teem
and bristle with such meaty talk every day?  This is I think the third
time I have raised this question on this list, but no one ever has an
answer for it.  Why?

Gari Ledyard

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