Every Korean has a name which, like its Western counterpart, consists of a given name (typically two Sino-Korean syllables) and a surname, inherited from one’s father. This seldom raises any question for a Westerner. Indeed, the system looks ‘natural’ ― not least because it is quite similar to the modern Western pattern. Perhaps, the only Korean specifics is that women do not change their surname after marriage (the same system exists in China and Japan as well).
Actually, this ‘naturalness’ is deceiving. The current system appeared only less than one hundred years ago even if its roots go to the much more distant past.
To start with, for a long time in Korea surnames were a privilege, which was initially granted only to the gentry (or yangban) class. Commoners, who formed over 90% of the population, formerly had no surnames at all. However, the gradual spread of surnames began during the Kory? period, in the 10-14th centuries, and by the 1700s a majority of Koreans had acquired them. Slaves were exceptions, but even they were allowed (and, indeed, required by law) to take surnames after they were finally emancipated in 1894. In 1909 a new law stipulated that all Koreans of both sexes had to have a surname, to be used alongside one’s given name.
Another peculiarity of the old system was that every Korean had not just one given name, but a variety of them. Apart from the official given name, people had ‘child’s name’ which was used during childhood, as well as a penname (if they were ― or aspired to become ― members of the educated elite) and, often, a posthumous name if they happened to be prominent dignitaries or were otherwise entitled to this privilege. And then members of the ruling elite were often referred to by their titles and honorary names, bestowed on them by the king.
The situation with women was even more complicated, since until the early 1900s women of the ‘low orders’ had no personal names at all! They were allowed ‘child names’ only. These names were Korean in origin and, unlike ‘proper’ names, did not come from the respected Sino-Korean vocabulary. The child’s names had no official currency, and were seldom if ever mentioned in the official papers. They were in use only within the household, and only until marriage, after that a woman lost even this quasi-name.
How was the nameless women referred to in official papers? For administrative and legal purposes, an unmarried girl was only a “daughter of so-and-so”, while the married women was a “wife of so-and-so”. In less official circumstances, a married woman could be referred to by her husband’s name or title (say, “a mistress of Magistrate Kim’s house”), or by her surname. In some cases she was called after the place of her birth. The latter way of address was common within the household as well. She could also be called by the name of her first son, as “so-and-so’s Mum” (as is still often the case).
Only few educated women had ‘proper’ (that is, Chinese-derived) names, which they usually invented for themselves. A majority of these women were courtesans whose names carried a slight touch of romantic and erotic associations (good advertising!): ‘Fragrant Cloud’ or ‘Gentle Willow’, or ‘Spring Aroma’.
The introduction of female education in the early 1900s changed the system. The educators needed some names they could use while referring to their students. They could not rely on the old good ‘child’s names’ (often clumsy and comical, like the popular “No more daughters!” and its numerous variations). Therefore, they simply invented names for their new students.
However, it was not only the schoolmasters who were busy concocting female names. The same problem of nameless women faced the bureaucrats. In a modernizing society a good half of the population could not remain essentially nameless. Thus, the authorities took the same approach, and by the early 1910s, under the auspices of the colonial administration, almost all Korean women had acquired their own formal names. These newly invented female names were structured according to the already established male pattern: a surname, followed by one or two characters of a given name.
However, the system was challenged by the Japanese administration in the 1940s, shortly before the demise of the colonial regime. At that time, the colonial administration undertook a last ditch attempt to completely “Japanize” Koreans and undermine their national identity. Thus, the authorities ordered all Koreans to change their names into Japanese ones. The Japanese names have the same pattern as the Korean and Chinese variations: a surname followed by a given name. However, the characters used for names in Japan are very different from those commonly employed in Korean or China. Most Koreans had to bow to the pressure, but they instantly discarded the Japanese names after the liberation.
Only after 1945 was the present-day system finally established. However, soon it began to be re-interpreted by the re-invented system of lineages.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St.Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Source: Korea Times