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[VIEWPOINT]Keep Chinese Letters in Common Usage

The elimination of Chinese characters from Hangeul causes confusion and a rift with the past.

May 30,2001
Should Chinese characters be preserved in the Korean language? It's a question that Chinese professors and my Korean friends often ask me. In my opinion, a significant number of Chinese characters should be kept in Korean.

The Korean government designated 1,800 Chinese characters that are commonly used in Korean. Korean students learn them in middle and high school, but, it seems, with disappointing results. According to statistics, 45.6 percent of middle school students and 35.6 percent of high school students do not know the Chinese characters they should. When one leading university surveyed 2,000 of its students, a large proportion of them failed to recognize the Chinese characters that they were supposed to have learned in middle and high school. Why? Probably a combination of reasons, but I believe the most important is that textbooks, newspapers, magazines and regular books rarely use Chinese letters.

The Korean "alphabet," Hangeul, is made of phonograms. Its biggest merit is that it is easy to learn and use. But it has a problem: the large number of homonyms (words that sound the same but bear different meanings) in Korean derived from different Chinese characters can be confused, leading users into befuddlement. A language is one thing and the letters used to record it are another. Language strongly em-bodies the character of the people using it, but its letters can be borrowed. The most important criteria by which a language is judged are simplicity and accuracy.

The written Korean language is most expressive when Hangeul and Chinese idiograms are used in combination. But if textbooks, newspapers and magazines do not employ Chinese characters, not only students but ordinary citizens will see the richness of their vocabulary decline.

Chinese professors in Seoul visit many libraries including Gyujang-gak in Seoul National University. I am not the only one surprised at the volume and variety of classical books preserved by the government. Old books, some dating as far back as the Three Kingdoms era and written by prominent scholars of the Koguryo, Shilla and Choson Dynasties, are classified in line with the ancient method. Modern works on literature, history, philosophy, politics and economics are there. Pick up any of these books and you will find a national treasure. Koreans are indeed rich in cultural and historical assets.

Though Korean college students possess many merits, they generally have a poor knowledge of their own history. I know one Korean student who was aware that there is a street called Toegye-ro in Seoul, but did not know who Toegye was - a renowned Confucianist of the Choson dynasty. I have been often baffled by Korean students' scant knowledge of their country's rich cultural and historical background. One reason for this is that these college students are not capable of reading classics recorded in Chinese characters. A deep, unbridgeable chasm is formed between college students and Korea's cultural assets. This is very regrettable and a matter of serious concern.

Here is an anecdote about homonyms. A Chinese professor visiting Seoul found out that his name was read So-wha in Korean. The professor was perplexed to see the word "so-wha" in Korean attached to walls in public places. He was displeased to be informed that the word so-wha means "fire extinguisher" in Korean. It can also mean "small flowers" and "digestion," he found. To solve this problem, Chinese characters should be indicated beside the Korean words, or the word must be used in a clear context. But in 50 or 100 years, if a word that has various meanings is used independently, will people be able to tell its precise meaning? Will they be able to tell whether "so-wha" means digestion or fire extinguisher? From the theoretical and practical perspectives of linguistics, I believe an appropriate number of Chinese characters should be preserved in Korean.


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The writer is a visiting professor of Chinese literature at Sungkyunkwan University.


by Yang Duan-zhi




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