Thursday, September 26, 2013

Korea, the Courteous Country

While reading a report written by one of my students, I came across a phrase she hadn't translated into English. The sentence went something like, "In history, Korea has been known as 동방예의지국, but these days, it is not living up to the name."

I was curious about the phrase, and, obviously, the report was supposed to be written entirely in English, so I asked my student to explain what it meant. Unfortunately, she was at a loss as to how to properly translate it. So, I turned to my co-teacher.

Taken as a whole, 동방예의지국 translates to "the courteous country in the East". Breaking it down, we have 동방 (dongbang), which refers to the East, 예의 (ye-i), which means 'etiquette', 지 (ji), a possessive particle, and 국 (guk), which means 'country'. All of these words are traditional Sino-Korean words (especially that possessive particle) that can be written with hanja, or Chinese characters, like so: 東方禮儀之國.

My co-teacher explained all this, but she also wasn't sure where the phrase itself came from. After a bit of research, she found out that the name was one that China gave to Korea thousands of years ago. In the 산해경 (Sanhaegyeong/山海經), an ancient almanac compiled between 200BC and AD200, a pre-Three Kingdoms Korea was described as "courteous" by the Chinese geographers and proto-anthropologists.

While my student was using this tidbit of ancient sociology to bolster her argument that the increasing moral decrepitude and general lack of politesse among today's Korean youth is dishonorable and unacceptable, my co-teacher offered a different perspective: the Chinese likely didn't know or even care about common Korean societal mores way back then, and the only reason the people of this neighboring country were deemed "polite" was that they never invaded China. Perhaps, in a sense, respecting one's fellow nations instead of flexing one's war-mongering, imperialism-driven muscles in the ancient world could be interpreted as a kind of etiquette.

In my experience, the notion that Koreans are extremely courteous is nevertheless quite pervasive in this country. Foreigners are always educated in the proper ways to offer gifts, greet one's seniors, save face, and jump through many other metaphorical hoops in order to adapt to this culture. I like that it can be caricatured, though: a quick image search for the phrase "동방예의지국" turns up several photos of Koreans doing 인사 (insa, a bowing greeting) to trucks and other inanimate objects. I want this to go viral, but hadoukening seems to have won out for now.
"무개화차님, 안녕하십니까?" From 서울신분 "Boom".

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