Thor's Korea Diary

So What is a Korean Anyway?

A Note on the Origins of Korean & Japanese
Languages and Cultures

@12 February 2001 (updated 18 February)

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Race and Ethnicity

So what is a Korean? Silly question in a way, isn't it. Though my judgement might be uncertain on individuals, I'm pretty sure that I could distinguish on sight between a group of 50 Koreans and 50 Chinese from Hubei where I last lived. That is quite apart from the mannerisms, the social preferences, the food, and of course the language. Korea, we are often told, is a "monoculture" and a distinctive "race"; (Japanese have a similar story). But just what does that mean?

My father in Sydney was quite sure that he knew what an "Australian" was, and had little time for foreign ways, as he saw them. I frankly admit that I'm not sure what an Australian is, apart from the strictly legalistic business of holding a passport. My uncertainty stems not so much from the fact that Australia has absorbed peoples from over 200 language groups -- every corner of the globe -- in my lifetime, but that the pace of social, economic and cultural change is so dizzying that the "Australia" my father knew scarcely exists.

Oh, I do know when I'm "home". At home in Australia I know what I can get away with, where I can cut corners. I know that when I talk to someone I don't have to explain simple, everyday things such as what I want for breakfast (like I do in Korea) because the person I'm talking to has grown up with roughly similar habits. Yet I also suspect that if I went to sleep for fifty years, then woke up and talked to the people in Sydney, they would be as "foreign" as anyone I meet in Korea. Now I have a feeling (I might be wrong) that if an average Korean went to sleep for fifty years, then woke up, he would be astonished if the people he talked to seemed "unKorean". For people who haven't thought about it a lot, there is an automatic assumption that their race and culture are finished products, precious, fixed and eternal. How wrong they are.

The concepts of "ethnicity" and its fuzzier cousin, "race" are moveable feasts ("race" cleaves more to the notion of genetic affinity than "ethnicity" which often has overtones of cultural practices). Genetic homogeneity is a myth anywhere on the planet earth. Both Korea and Japan illustrate this clearly. Evidence of Paleolithic
settlement has been found in both territories, meaning that humans have been in the area for at least 30,000 years, but an endless cavalcade of ethnic types have left their calling cards since.

Korean ethnic origins

Korea seems to have been settled by successive human waves. First known came Tungic speaking peoples (Altaic language family, which also includes the many Mongol and Turkic languages) from Siberia, other relatives of whom may have made it across the roof of the world to North America; (this is known from language; other groups may well have preceded them). Then there were various kinds of Mongols, Manchus, Jurchens, and so on. At different times there seems to have been some settlement from across the Bohai Sea, that is, from China's Shantung Peninsula. Mythological history, and from a few centuries BC, more reliable recorded history, encompasses only a tiny fraction of the total ethnic mixing.

Chinese influence in Korea

At some time in the pre-historical past, rice growing was introduced to both Japan and the southern part of Korea, probably from central or south China (since north China is not a rice growing region). The cultivation of rice in northern latitudes is not particularly easy, so casual import seems unlikely. Much more probable would be the persistent efforts of immigrants who had always grown rice. Whatever their origins, these people have left no known written records.

As China consolidated its identity, Korea was sometimes a convenient overflow for defeated armies, fleeing generals and exiled politicians. Occasionally, as in the Chinese Han Dynasty (108 BC), it was an object of attempted colonization. Chinese and Korean political elites were often in alliance against north Asian "barbarians", and to satisfy Chinese egos, this finally took the form of a tributary relationship on Korea's part.

Since much of Korea's high culture, including writing, law and methods of bureaucratic administration, came to be borrowed from China, recorded histories magnify the importance of China in the educated Korean worldview. Korea was always conscious of being a small player. For most of the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910) the population was only estimated to hover around 8 million. However, the neo-Confucian system, especially in Korea, excluded the largest part of that population from any access to power, even at a local level. It is therefore likely that China never loomed as large in the daily lives of ordinary people as it did for the small ruling class.

Indirect evidence for the lack of Chinese influence in dynastic times at subsistence level comes again from food. Today Korea's national food is proclaimed to be Kimchi, meaning fermented cabbage, pickled with salt and chilli. Yet cabbage was first imported from China and planted at Wangshimni, near Hanyang University, Seoul, only a hundred years ago. Since cabbage is one of the main staple foods in north China, this late arrival seems extraordinary. Chilli arrived from Portugal, via Japan, at the time of the Hideoshi invasion in 1592; (Korea Herald, 14 February 2001, p. 18). To this day, the range of fruit and vegetables available in Korea is much poorer than that found in China (I can testify to this personally), in spite of the geographical proximity of these cultures. Nor is the discrepancy merely one of climate or fertility.

The latest wave of Chinese immigration to Korea occurred in the wake of communist takeover of mainland China (1949). These people have generally not been given Korean citizenship (they hold Taiwanese passports, though most have never been there), and tend to be somewhat of a closed social group, maybe because of their insecure status. A Chinese friend informally estimates there may be 300,000 of them in South Korea as long term residents.

Japanese ethnic origins

The pattern of human settlement in Japan differed somewhat from that of Korea. There is pretty clear evidence that at some time people from the Austronesian family of languages comprised a large part of Japan's population. The Ainu people are one (barely) surviving remnant from those
times. Austronesian type speakers are found right across the Pacific to Australia and beyond.

In prehistoric times Japan may have been connected to the Asian mainland by land bridges from both Sakhalin (now Russian) to Hokkaido, and southern Korea, to Tsushima and Kyushu; (nowadays Russians and Japanese are ambitiously talking about undersea rail tunnels in both locales). It seems certain that many of the same peoples who entered Korea also came to Japan. Metal Age culture (bronze, iron) is first seen in Japan during the Yayoi period (250 BC to 250 AD), and Yayoi patterns of settlement, pottery, metal objects etc. are clearly influenced by contemporary Korean and Chinese sources.

Until very recently Japan had a number of mutually unintelligible dialects (e.g.. the speech of Kagoshima or Aomori could not be understood in Tokyo). However the underlying grammatical patterns of Japanese dialects are closely related to the grammar of Korean dialects, even though the languages sound quite different. Such partial relationships are the norm in language families.

Language change

The word repertoire of every language alters constantly. It is also rather common for human languages to become radically relexicalized (i.e. adopt new word sets). For example, this is how pidgins (crude languages of first contact) have become creoles (pidgins adopted as a first language by the children of such speakers), then become full languages in many parts of the world.

Over the last two thousand years, both Japanese and Korean have absorbed and adapted thousands of Chinese words in their own ways, and according to their own sound rules. The driving motivation for this was probably much the same as the worldwide tendency to borrow English words today. Because of its remoteness however, Japan was never as siniticized as Korea. Much earlier, it seems likely that the invading groups which brought old Altaic-Japanese grammar eventually intermarried with local Austronesian people already settled in the Japanese islands, and absorbed a large proportion of local vocabulary. I am unaware of any similar proto-Austronesian influence in Korea.

Homo Sapiens -- diversification and integration

There is nothing strange about these historical processes. In our own lives, as we meet Koreans and Japanese (and Britains and Spaniards...) it is natural to assume that "this is the way that nature made them", from the beginning of time. That is the old story of not being able to see the hands of the clock move as you look at it.

When it comes to life on earth, homo sapiens have only been around, of course, for a very short time indeed. During that short time they have changed and differentiated enormously. As groups, they have divided, rejoined, mixed and remixed in bewildering configurations. As a natural process, this mixing has helped humans greatly to improve as a species. The useful local adaptations of human subgroups have been fed back into the wider genetic pool, as well as into the technology, literature, religious understanding, and so on, of an ever widening circle of people.

In their narrow social groups however, humans have also warred and preyed upon each other incessantly. Most strangely, this predatory behaviour has almost always been justified in the name of preserving "racial purity", "linguistic purity", the tribal or family "bloodline", "the one true religion", "our superior culture","national identity", "our people's manifest destiny"... a familiar litany of jingoistic virtues that scheming old men persuade young soldiers to go an die for.

Accelerating Change

The genetic mixing of human social groups, the cross-fertilization of cultures & technologies, and the crosscurrents of influence on their languages are accelerating all the time. For example, there are now 2.5 million "ethnic Koreans" in North America. Their children will not speak Korean well, and large numbers of them will not marry other ethnic Koreans. Nature has no problem with this; such mixing is known to result in healthier and stronger offspring, and it is no accident that the nations of the "New World", that is the nations of diverse immigration, have been amongst the most innovative and successful in history. Nobody is going to be struck dumb when those children speak a different language.

There are also large numbers of  "ethnic Koreans" living north of the Tuman River, on Russia's east Siberian seaboard. This is a relatively new migration which became significant in the late nineteenth century. Stalin did his best to put a stop to it in his trademark brutal way by shipping large numbers of Korean settlers to central Asia on cattle trains. One Russian friend told me that today perhaps 30% of Vladivostok's population are of Korean origin, and that a good proportion of people living on Sakhalin also claim Korean ancestors. Interestingly, few of the non-Russians are Japanese. The actual contemporary Korean numbers are also apparently exaggerated, perhaps reflecting some prejudice. A Vladivoskok native has since e-mailed to say that the city itself has never exceeded 650,000 and is now closer to 600,000. Of those only 5% to 10% would be of Korean origin, although some nearby settlements have a greater Korean presence. Nearly all of these people now longer understand Korean: Russian is their first language. One the other hand, the study of Korean has increasing popularity, probably for commercial reasons, and many job vacancies specify knowledge of Korean as an employment preference.

Even in the old homelands like Korea and Japan, languages continue to change at an accelerating pace (especially in borrowing words)in concert with the bewildering inrush of foreign ideas. What goes for language and "race", also goes for cultural artifacts. Nationalistic Koreans proudly buy "Korean" cars which just happen to have been designed in Detroit or Tokyo, and which have engines made in Australia by worldwide multinational companies.

None of this - whether genetic, or cultural or technical cross fertilization -- can be usefully described as "degeneration", "mongrelization", "bastardization" or the host of other abusive terms that our retarded social attitudes use to label change and the dissolving of local barriers.

Korean Nationalism

No doubt as a reaction to the late unlamented Choson Dynasty in Korea, then Japanese occupation, Korea since World War II has been going through a phase of fervent nationalism. The Korean War, which wiped out around three million people, and the continuing psychosis of north/south partition have added to this fever.

At the end of the nineteenth century Koreans were intensely aware of a national identity, but the political structure was no more than a dead shell. Similarly, the traditional social classes were in disarray.

Formally, Yi Korea had elaborate social divisions into yangban (civil & military officials), hyangban or t'oban (rural squires), chungjin (permanent, professional-clerical staff in Seoul's ministries & offices), ajon (permanent clerical staff to Korea's 350 odd counties), farmers (about 75% of Yi Korea), merchants (despised, mostly peddlers, but organized in guilds and sometimes used as political bully-boys), and ch'onmin (despised classes) amongst whom were monks, entertainers, fugitives & criminals; paekchong or outcasts (including butchers), and slaves (including kisaeng or female entertainers). In fact there was considerable mobility between these groups, and the yangbans especially had ballooned into a huge, untaxed, unemployable, widely resented group of parasites (ref. G. Henderson, Korea & the Politics of the Vortex, Harvard U. Press 1968).

The Korea that the Japanese annexed in 1910 was moribund, and offered little organized physical resistance to colonial takeover. The old social classes disappeared almost without a trace (although many ajon, with their inside knowledge of local property, later became the largest landowners). Social cohesion was almost non-existent.

The Japanese colonial administration went through a number of phases, but its avowed aim was the total annihilation of Korean cultural identity and language. Koreans were to be absorbed as neo-Japanese. In fact, by 1944 the terms of that bargain were all too clear: 95% of employed Korean men, and 99% of employed Korean women were labourers (Henderson op.cit. p. 75). However, it did leave Korea with new and important legacies: the functioning institutions of a modern state, a road & rail network, post & telegraph systems, an industrial base, a health system (the population doubled under Japanese control), an education system designed in principle for everyone, not merely an elite, and a more or less classless society.

Unfortunately, the Japanese also demonstrated to Koreans the possibilities of totalitarian government and thought control. The ruthless but efficient Japanese administration which understood Korea intimately was replaced by a criminally ignorant, dithering and incompetent American Occupation Force administration (which must bear much blame for the Korean War, followed by partition), then all too soon by Korean military dictatorships schooled in the ways of Japanese fascism.

With the experiences just outlined behind them, to Koreans talk of "dissolving local barriers" and "internationalizing" must have the bitter flavour of association with Japan's "greater co-prosperity sphere". Nationalism as a reaction to attempted cultural genocide is understandable, but it is also a condition closely related to tribalism, racism and xenophobia in general. Indeed, it is a psychological condition widespread in the world, and can lead to great harm (as per the predatory behaviour noted above).

Where does it all end?

Hopefully, as larger number of people get some perspective
on the nature of rapid social change, these old demons can be better contained. Then perhaps that question of "what is a Korean?" will no longer seem so important. It might not even matter if a Korean looks like a Bangladeshi or a German, just as it doesn't matter now for most people in Australia.

Once we are relaxed about questions of race, nationality, and language, then we can begin to relish the realization that there will always be both regional and personal variations amongst human beings. No multinational company, political union, or mass media is ever going to make us all the same. Human beings are just too inventive to let themselves live lives as boring, organized and uniform as ants or bees.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"So what is a Korean Anyway?"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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