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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]But the name game is different

July 16,2003
Korea has to be one of the most interesting laboratories for social change in the world. Take, for example, the “dual-surname campaign” that was reported in the Sunday edition of the JoongAng Ilbo.
As with many recent social movements in Korea, the campaign was first proposed in an Internet chat room in 1995 by the writer Shin-Jeong Mo-ra. Her surname, Shin-Jeong, is a combination of her parents’ surnames, Shin and Jeong.
The campaign was officially announced at a conference on women’s issues in 1997 to symbolize opposition to the patriarchal family register. Dual names refer to using the surnames of both parents instead of only the father’s surname, as has been the custom in Korea. Since 1997, the use of dual surnames has gathered impetus and more recently, men have begun to use dual surnames.
But what about children? Which name goes first, the father’s or the mother’s? Usually, the father’s name comes first, but Ms. Shin-Jeong offers an interesting solution to this problem: men should put the father’s name first while women should put the mother’s name first.
Things could get complicated. If, for example, Mr. Kim-Park and Ms. Lee-Choi marry and have a boy and a girl, would the boys’ names become Kim-Lee and the girls’ name Lee-Kim? This would remove the father’s mother and the mother’s father from the surname, but it is a better alternative than combining the dual surnames into a quad-surname.
Though the campaign is limited to universities, civic groups, and online identities, it raises interesting questions about the future of Korean naming customs. It also reveals much about how ideas grow in the age of Internet-enhanced hyper-democracy.
Language change is gradual and difficult to notice. New words enter the language all the time, but most are concrete nouns or trendy terms that have a limited distribution in the language.
Naming people is one of the more stable areas of language, and changes in customs governing surnames are slow. Sudden changes in naming customs usually go with great political change. The imposition of surnames in Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the imposition of Japanese surnames in Korea at the end of the colonial period, and the abolition of surnames in Mongolia in 1924 after Soviet-backed communists took power are examples of this kind of wrenching change.
Given names change with the times, but they rarely deviate from a conservative social norm. In Korea, the Chinese character that signifies a child (-ja) was popular at the end of women’s names, but its popularity began to fade in the 1960s and is now rarely used and other Chinese characters took its place. The fall of -ja, which was influenced by Japanese names, coincides with the rise of cultural nationalism in the late 1960s and 1970s.
At various times in the 20th century, “Hangeul names,” given names that had no Chinese character equivalent, became popular because they symbolized Korean “purity,” free from the influence of foreign culture. From 1966-1987, a student group at Seoul National University sponsored an annual Hangeul name contest to raise public awareness of those names. Hangeul names failed to become the norm because they were often longer and sounded different from names that come from Chinese characters. Most parents, after all, do not want their children to stand out from the crowd because of an oddball name.
Ordinarily, the dual surname campaign would stand little chance of spreading beyond activist circles because it runs counter to the cultural nationalism that made -ja obsolete and raised interest in Hangeul names. For better or worse, most Koreans view the family register as a tradition that defines what it means to be Korean. To reject the family register, then, is essentially an un-Korean act.
If so, then why is there so little opposition to dual surnames and why have they come on so fast?
This is where the Internet comes in. The Internet combines extremes of public and private. It could be difficult to discuss dual surnames at the dinner table where debate might be fierce, but it is easy to discuss them on the Internet where the debate, however fierce, can be ignored at will. Ideas that sound cool, particularly those with an ideological edge, spread rapidly on the Internet because they meet no reality check.
The dual surname campaign is a cool idea with an ideological edge that spread in cyberspace, which all but guarantees its success.

* The writer is an associated professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His e-mail address is heungbob@hanmail.net.


by Robert J. Fouser


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