Tuesday, January 25, 2005


"What's in a name" asks the Wall Street Journal (registration required). Well, when it comes to the name of Seoul, apparently there is much to found in a name:
Seoul is changing its name in Chinese only, and therein lies the answer to the question.

In Chinese, Seoul is "Hancheng," but the city government now is asking China to use the term "Shou-er." The change would make it a closer transliteration of the internationally recognized "Seoul," and would avoid confusion with Hanguo, the Chinese name for South Korea, the metropolitan government says.

Except that, no such confusion would ever arise in Chinese, the language in question. In written Chinese, entirely different characters are used for the two Hans, and in spoken Mandarin or Cantonese, the tones are also different. Could the answer lie elsewhere?

The Han in Hancheng is the same Han used for "Chinese people" and the "Han Dynasty." In Chinese, therefore, Hancheng would also loosely mean "Chinese city."
Why now? The recent Sino-Korean dispute over Koguryô presents a likely reason:
Well, China recently has made the case that the medieval kingdom of Koguryo belonged to China. Some may think it is silly to worry about a state that existed between 37 BC and 668 A.D., but the statement has put Koreans on notice that Beijing may be readying to lay a claim to a chunk of North Korea when the Pyongyang regime collapses. You see, Koguryo straddled the present-day border between North Korea and Manchuria.

Suddenly, there is now the beginning of an intellectual debate in South Korea about whether China's rise represents a threat.
As someone who is almost done with a monograph on Qing (Chinese) imperialism in Korea of a hundred years ago, I can attest to the fact that such concerns are nothing new. And the end result will likely be the same: Yes, China is a "threat" but the only way to deal with it is engage in some new form of "Serving the Great" (????). Not the happiest of conclusions but at least Korea would get to keep its autonomy.

UPDATE: Much more information on the subject to be found here.

Interesting to see that the Hancheng --> Shouer proposition (or actually an already implemented change - see the Chinese homepage of Seoul) is noted as far as in WSJ.

I've been following this thing to some degree since Seoul put up the committee to find a new Chinese name early last year.
I've never seen it mentioned that there'd been any confusion with 'Hanguo' and 'Hancheng', and neither have I seen any consideration for the Chinese pronunciation of the characters. (As the article later notes, it's all about the 'han' character being different.) The confusion that has arised in the use of Chinese is that between Korean institutions which use the word 'Hanseong' and those which have 'Seoul' in their name. So mail intended for Seoul National University has ended up in Hansung U.

The question of national pride and "identity" was admitted back in March(?) 2004 when the renaming committee was installed, but relating it that strongly to the Goguryeo thing is a bit far-fetched. (I understand that even if Goguryeo had been in the minds of the renamers, they would have avoided mentioning it...)
I wonder whether the loud angry voices of 2002 would be so loud against a "real" threat to their existence... or whether the anti-USA voices were loud simply because they know we won't hit them...
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?