[FOUNTAIN]Give That Habit the Chop

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[FOUNTAIN]Give That Habit the Chop

One rather strange insult for meddling nosy parkers derides them for "Cutting off a finger for someone else's parent's illness."

The saying has its roots in the Choson Dynasty. It was regarded as a great sign of filial piety to a seriously ill parent for a child to chop off his own finger and feed the blood streaming from the wound to the parent. It didn't end at bloodletting - records from the time say that the chopped-off finger was sometimes also fed to the patient. Another gruesome record indicates that some ill parents' feces were regularly tasted during illness - in one case, for the six-year duration of an illness. The rationale behind this was that if it tasted sweet, the patient was not getting better yet; if it tasted bitter, recovery was in sight. Another extreme custom of nursing your parent back to health had people carving off a hunk of the thigh, again to feed to their parents.

By today's standards, these grisly actions would be considered far beyond the call of duty, and simply grotesque ideas. But slicing off a fingertip was also meant to be a show of intense devotion for a noble cause. When the independence leader An Jung-geun and 11 comrades came together in 1909 to fight for national liberation, each symbolized their vows by chopping off a finger. More recently, a lawmaker declared he would "slice off a finger for the president" - before proceeding to do an about-turn and defect to an opposition party last year.

The same act can represent a noble gesture of sacrifice or a senseless masochistic outburst, depending on the context. The same finger-chopping practice among the Japanese gangsters is an example of the latter. The appearance of mean-looking men with crew cuts and fingers missing at a bar would quickly turn the atmosphere to fearful anxiety. In the Tokugawa shogunal government of the 16th and 17th centuries in Japan, women were said to offer sliced-off fingers to men as signs of devotion. Today, the act is almost exclusive to the domain of the yakuza (Japanese Mafia), who practice it as a show of remorse or as a pledge of loyalty.

In modern society, the practice is more reminiscent of the gruesome inner world of organized crime than the desperate devotion expressed to a weak and sick parent. That is why the finger chopping act is no longer an appropriate expression of any noble belief. A few "passionate" young men carried out the act to protest the visit by the Japanese prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine. Whatever the justification was, it was something we were afraid that our children would see. It also showed how underlying motives are lost when an action is taken too much out of emotion.

The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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