[KS] Request for info on the status of hanja education in Korean..in US and S/N Korea

Gari Keith Ledyard gkl1 at columbia.edu
Wed Mar 12 15:25:07 EST 2003

	Lee JooBai's rumination on Chinese characters stirs the following
	I think it was totally obvious by the middle of the 1980s that
Chinese characters were not to be a part of Korea's cultural future.
When one considers Korea's vibrant modern literate life as reflected in
both traditional publishing and on the internet --virtually all of it in
hankul-only text-- the news that some former ministers of education are
urging more teaching of Chinese characters in the schools seems to be a
vain and fatuous exercise indeed.  If the modern day culture has rejected
Chinese characters and gets along very nicely without them, who is going
to use the characters they want taught?  I write this with some sorrow,
because I have always been an admirer of Korea's hanmun culture, and I
believe that the cultural cost --in terms of understanding Korean history,
literature, and values-- has already been and will continue to be great.
But modern day Korean society thinks otherwise, and it will determine the
future, not the former MOEs.
	Mr. Lee begins by asking about Chinese character training for
Korean specialists, and it's a good question.  While superficially one
could argue that we are already at a point where a knowledge of Chinese
characters is unnecessary for living and interpreting modern Korean life,
a "Korean specialist" has broader and deeper responsibilities.  One cannot
ignore hanmun culture in researching and teaching on the totality of
Korean life and history.  Even though the general public has rejected
the characters, the libraries, archives, and repositories of Korean life
from the oldest Korean historical documents up through the writings of
most of the 20th century are stuffed with them, and if understanding Korea
is the goal, there is no escape from hanmun culture.
	And yet, most college students who want to be Korean specialists
are avoiding Chinese characters.  The great majority of them just don't
see their necessity, and some are actively hostile to them.  One
unfortunate result is that the number of students attracted to the study
of history and traditional culture and literature is declining with
respect to the number attracted to topics in modern life.  Some students
who have some genuine interest in the more traditional side of Korea are
descouraged from pursuing it out of fear of the supposed difficulty of
learning the characters.  Korean-Americans especially, who now constitute
the majority of students interested in Korean studies, are even more
inclined against Chinese characters than the general population in the
field.  This has to be seen as a natural phenomenon, conditioned by
considerations of identity and Korean modernity in Korea.  Similar
attitudes and feelings exist in the ranks of teachers of Korean in modern
western universities, the great majority of them Korean born.  To the
extent that they worry about teaching Chinese characters at all, it's just
about that: "teaching characters."  If you look at the materials used in
these classes beyond the hancha drills, you see few or no characters at
all.  It is no surprise that most students, observing this, conclude that
all this hancha stuff is not important.
	Mr. Lee, trying to get a more general grasp of the Chinese
character situation in non-Chinese East Asia generally, ponders these
issues in their Vietnamese and Japanese dimensions.  It seems to me that
for both of these he does not dig very deeply into the broader cultural
issues.  In Vietnam, there is much evidence in support of his observation
that there is a clear parallel with Korea.  If one looks at the Vietnamese
scene as of, say. the year 1800, it looks very much like Korea's.  The
public discourse is virtually all in classical Chinese, but there is a
vernacular literary culture pressing upward through it. In Korea this is
in Hankul, in Vietnam it's in the Nom script, itself based solidly on the
adaption of Chinese characters as a script for the Vietnamese language,
which though it has some features that seem Chinese is as fundamentally
different from Chinese as Korean is.  But looking at these phenomena
historically, the depth of hanmun culture in Vietnam does not seem as
pronounced as in Korea.  When one considers that Vietnamese hanmun
civilization did not reach even central Vietnam (Hue, Danang) until the
15th century, and that it did not occupy the Khmer areas of the lower
Mekong river valley until the 18th century, one sees that the cultural
forces favoring hanmun culture in those areas were proportionally weaker.
Add to that the French colonial policy to romanize Vietnamese, which was
successful, nurtured two or three generations educated in that medium.
Moreover, the Vietnames communist party at an early stage decided to stick
with that script, and it governs Vietnam today.  I don't think this is the
place to look for a "fire storm" of debate on the future of Chinese
characters.  There is none.  That much said, Vietnam, like Korea, endured
the Chinese tributary system with all its built-in humiliations, although
Vietnam went considerably farther than Korea did in subverting them. Its
nationalist movements were similar to Korea's in reacting against these
humiliations, and today popular hostility against China and Chinese is, I
think, much deeper than in Korea.
	As for Japan, it really may be a case of the Japanese thinking
their Chinese characters are "theirs," to use the terms in which Mr. Lee
posed one of his questions.  The Japanese use of Chinese characters (which
were introduced from the early Korean kingdoms) was early and
enthusiastic.  Their own phonetic scripts (kana) are derived from Chinese
characters.  On the other hand their history is marked by an aloofness
from contact with China.  Overall, the periods during which it
participated in the Chinese tributary system were short and the
participation weak, relative to Korea's and Vietnam's, and it therefore
experienced Chinese humiliations to a much smaller degree.  Japan had the
added advantage of remoteness that Korea and Vietnam did not.  It's modern
nationalism has its roots in an anti-Chinese ideology that flourished with
the teachings of Motoori Norinaga (ca. 1800) and his students and
admirers; thus Japan's self-imagined nationalist identity was both earlier
and more deep-seated, in its first stages, than Korea's or Vietnam's.  On
the other hand its appropriation of kanbun (=hanmun) graphic culture was
more central to its literate identity than in Korea, and in the end it had
less Angst about Chinese writing than countries like Korea and Vietnam
that were more deeply exposed to Chinese influences and humiliations.  So
today there is not much talk about kanji in Japan, and what there is lacks
the nationalist charge that one finds in the other countries.  Still,
there is certainly a cultural trend, long evident, to lessen the
visibility of Chinese characters in Japanese writing.  If you look at
books published around 1900, and books published around 2000, you will see
many fewer Chinese characters, and simpler ones, in the latter.  Along
with this has grown a more fluid discursive style: not just the characters
are simpler and fewer, but the sentences are shorter and more transparent;
the text more open, less dense.  Thus it seems that the Japanese have
adapted flexibly enough to a literate modernity that they can afford not
to be up tight about Chinese characters.  Indeed their popular culture, as
expressed especially in signs and street life, exults in them.  And one
smaller, technical note, even though it is nowhere near as important as
the broader cultural forces, that favors the continuing use of Chinese
graphs in Japan: the problem of homophony in kanji compounds is much more
of a factor in Japanese than in Korean.  In fact it is quite remarkable
how little of a problem hanmun homophony is when Chinese lexical items are
written in Hankul.  Not so in Japanese.
	I must admit that I was baffled by the following paragraph in Mr.
Lee's essay:
> Apparently, the financial review board will be replacing chinese
> compounds commonly used in financial circles with other chinese compounds
> viewed as native words or native phrases composed wholly of native
> words.  Similarly the house will be replacing chinese compounds with new
> chinese compounds viewed as native words or with native phrases composed
> wholly of native words.  The legal codes will also be expunged of chinese
> characters by the fall of 2003.  This particular announcement did not
> make clear whether the chinese compounds will be replaced by new chinese
> compounds or existing compounds regarded as native or with native phrases
> composed wholly of native words.  And most recently, the police reports
> will replace chinese compounds with new chinese compounds, presumably
> part of the native lexis, or with purely korean words.   Not to be left
> behind, the medical profession will be keeping pace also in replacing
> chinese compounds with new chinese.....  My recollection is that the
> priorities were to be given especially to japanese-speak, that is,
> compounds used by the japanese.  I also seem to recall that english is
> being targeted by the financial and the medical community.  I say these
> changes seem to have rather ambiguous lives as when I go to the web-sites
> which supposedly have the new "correct korean expressions," they are
> nowhere to be found.  Have above announcements been made in earlier
> times?
	Other Chinese compounds viewed as native words?  Replacing Chinese
compounds with new Chinese compounds viewed as native words?  The police
will replace Chinese compounds with new Chinese compounds?  The medical
profession ditto?  Priority given to Japanese [kanbun] compounds?  (Isn't
that what we already have for the most part?)  Horrors!  What in the hell
is going on here?
	A concluding observation on "purification" initiatives and
movements.  If Mr. Lee looks forward to finding peace and happiness in a
purified Korean, separated from all foreign influences, I hope for his
sake that he gets his wish.  But for my part, I think it's a delusion.
For better or worse, Korean is what it is, and that includes a rich
complexity of Chinese and now English loanwords.  As evidenced in the
paragraph quoted above, Korea does not lack for commissions and movements
to purge the language.  I would much rather go along with the natural
evolutionary flow of change, as conditioned by the general currents of
change in the culture.  Acting on these impulses, Korean has already
changed tremendously in just the half century that I have been connected
with the language, and I think that the great majority of Koreans are in
harmony with those changes.  The financiers and doctors can fiddle with
the terminology, but without commissions and busy-bodies the Korean
financial and medical will unconsciously and naturally see their
terminologies evolve so that their professions prosper.  Disruptive,
ideologically driven ukases from on high will cause confusion and
resentment among people who simply want to know what people mean when they
use this or that term.  Their daily practice itself will police their
terminology.  I suspect that natural trends and normal democratic life
will bring about the introduction of new words that gain approval and
popularity.  Some of these new words may well be Korean calques or
completely new expressions based on Korean roots, and there is nothing
wrong with that.  In the western world, the language that has most
famously built its technical and learned terminology on native roots is
German.  Even so, it has not stifled the competition: in the 18th century,
thousands of French terms were imported into the language; in the 19th
century there was a big growth in technical coinages using Latin and Greek
roots, as in other Western countries; and in the later 20th century
English has flooded through Germany and German, and effected a huge impact
on language and culture.  Yet Germany goes with the flow.  I'm not worried
about its future cultural vitality.  Language purity in and of itself is a
false and impossible chimera.  There probably never was any such thing in
human history as a "pure" language.  But, without bureaucrats, ideologists
and cultural commissars, languages have always been influenced by their
cultural surroundings, and they always will.  Languages are living things.
Let them live.  English is chock full of foreign words, but its short and
much loved Anglo-Saxon roots are still vital, acquiring new meanings by
the day.  And the last time I looked, it was pretty influential in the
world.  If it had stayed "pure," as it supposedly was back in King
Alfred's day, I don't think I would be saying that.
	The one thing that I am still waiting to see change in Korean is
the most personal thing involving Chinese characters that there is:
personal names.  In spite of all the movement away from Chinese, we don't
see the basic Chinese name of two or three syllables (for the Namkwungs,
Sen.us, etc., three or four) changing.  We do see occasionally a pen name
(ho) based on native roots, but the idea that personal names are
constructed out of Chinese roots has not budged.  Even though one usually
doesn't see the actual characters any more, most adults will know what
they are, and be familiar with the tollim-cha naming system that prevails
in their own lineage.  The attachment to this system seems to remain as
strong as ever, and I suspect that the basic repetoire of Chinese style
surnames (sengssi) will be with us for a very long time.  But I wonder if
Mr. Lee can tell us of any movements to move toward names made exclusively
from pure Korean roots.  If my half-century old nose for Korean cultural
change is any guide, they should be coming around the corner soon if they
haven't already.  I'm sure that there are a few; what I'm wondering about
is a movement in that direction.

Gari Ledyard

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