[KS] Name used for "god" in Korean language

Clark W Sorensen sangok at u.washington.edu
Mon Jul 28 12:31:23 EDT 2008


There is no one name for God/god in Korean. Protestants today use hanunim. This is a native Korean word. Its origins are controversial. Some derive it from the term "one" (hana) and pronounce it "hananim". Others (more plausibly in my view) derive it from the term "heaven" (hanul) with the honorific suffix "nim". That would come out (strictly) as hanullim (a form sometimes found in earlier literature), but it can plausibly be abbreviated as hanunim. Protestants are about 27% of the South Korean population. They are also found in North Korea, but numbers are unknown.

Catholics generally use the term ch'onju (Lord of Heaven in Chinese characters) taken from the Chinese translations of the Bible. Catholicism is colloquially known as Ch'onjugyo, "the religion of the Lord of Heaven". Catholics are 7-8% of the South Korean population, and a few exist in the north as well.

In Confucianism there is the concept of heaven (ch'on). This is an abstract principle of order rather than an anthropomorphic being. Some Confucians refer to the Jade Emperor (Oksangje), the highest being in Chinese religion, but I haven't seen post-WWII references to this being except in reference works. As recently as the 1960s a large number of South Koreans would answer "Confucian" to religious questionnaires, but these day their numbers are limited to single digits.

In Buddhism there are, strictly, no eternal beings, so Buddhists reject God as such. However, there are God-like enlightened beings called bodhisattvas (posal) such as Amitabha, Maitreya and the like. The Buddha himself is not a god but rather the archetypical enlightened being. About 40% of the South Korean population list themselves as Buddhist. Buddhism, being associated with native culture, is somewhat more acceptable in North Korea than Christianity, which the North Koreans associate with imperialism. All religion, of course, is officiallly considered superstition there.

In Korean folk religion there are all sorts of gods of a variety of statuses. The term hanunim (now appropriated by Christians) is sometimes used by shamans. Both ghosts and gods can be termed kwisin. Various folk deities are worshipped such as the mountain god (san sillyong, or san sin of which the sillyong part can be considered a term for god), sonang sin (of which sin is the term for god--this one is Chinese derived, as is the term sillyong), the dragon king (yongwangnim), and so forth. There are also house gods generally given the title lord (as in landlord), of which the best known are t'oju (Lot Lord), songju (House Lord), and chowang (stove king). In these terms the suffix "chu" (ju) is Chinese derived, but the prefix is native. Chowang is of Chinese origin.

As for the North Koreans, the terminology is the same as the south. Your interpretor was probably speaking metaphorically when he called Kim Il Sung a god. He is the "eternal president" (as enshrined in the 1998 Constitution of North Korea), and there is much god-like imagery about him--"sun of the nation", etc.--but I doubt that your interpretor had any native Korean term for god in mind when he said that in English. To use hanunim or ch'onju would sound Christian and Western--odd for an antheist state--though Kim Il Sung's family was apparently Protestant before he became a communist. To use sin, or sillyong would sound old fashioned and "feudal" and would be unlikely. The term "heaven" in its Confucian sense, however, might work. After all Ch'ondogyo--a native Korean religion--has been quite important in North Korea and their motto (in Classical Chinese) is "in nae ch'on" Man is Heaven.

Clark Sorensen

On Sun, 27 Jul 2008 erichwein at hotmail.com wrote:

> 1. What is the word in Korean for "God"? (Transliteration, please)
> 2. Is this an original Korean word, or one introduced by Christian
> missionaries?
> 3. Is it the same word used in traditional Korean folk religion (e.g.
> shamanism) and in Buddhism?
> 4. Is the same word used in both North and South Korea?
> 5. In North Korea, is the same word for "God" used both in reference
> to the Christian God (e.g. in worship services of the Korean Christian
> Federation) and in reference to the "Great Leader"? (Explanation: I am
> told that the word "god" is not used in reference the the GL. However,
> on several occasions my interpreters in the DPRK did use the word
> "god" in reference to KIS. This may have been a wrong translation.
> Example: Referring to the young age at which KIS founded the PKA, one
> interpreter told me, "That is why I consider him a god.")
> 6. If not, what distinguishes the two words/concepts used?
> Thanks for any clarifications you can render.
> Erich Weingartner

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