What's in (deep in) a name?Kim Hyun-chul, a 31-year-old journalist, recently became a father. Last December, his wife, Lee Kyung-woon, gave birth to a baby girl; it was their first child since the two got married almost three years ago.
A few days after his daughter was born, Mr. Kim's parents came up to the couple and carefully suggested that they visit a professional name adviser who specializes in creating babies' names depending on the four pillars of destiny - year, month, day and time of birth - which supposedly determine a person's fortune.
The couple was hesitant at first. "We wanted to come up with some creative names of our own," Mr. Kim says. "Names that aren't so common. I wanted some pure Korean names, like Haetnim or Haneul." After a short discussion, the couple agreed to see one of Ms. Lee's old friends, Shim Kang-jik, an oriental philosopher to whom Ms. Lee has occasionally gone for career advice since she was in college. Over a brief phone conversation with Mr. Shim, Mr. Kim passed on his daughter's birth date and decided to meet the adviser three days later at Mr. Shim's cafe near Haengju Fortress in Ilsan.
"At the meeting, he gave us two name options. One was Bo-kyeong and the other was Min-kyeong," Mr. Kim says.
During their meeting, the adviser counted the number of brush strokes in each of the three characters in both names, and explained to Mr. Kim that his daughter was born with a sign of fire, which normally stands for aggressiveness and vigor - not a preferable sign for females, according to the traditional oriental philosophy. "With too much fire, she might smother her husband's energy. It's not good for her sake either. Her life won't go so smoothly," the adviser said to Mr. Kim, while adding that the girl needed to add an extra element to her name that could "soothe" her energy a little bit, like water for example.
"Too ordinary," Mr. Kim says of the two names suggested by the adviser. "You can call out both of those names on the streets of Seoul and at least one or two women will turn around." The couple wasn't happy with either of the two names suggested by the adviser, but they decided to go with Min-kyeong - because there wasn't a better choice. Besides, most of Mr. Kim's family members thought Min-kyeong sounded a little more pleasant than Bo-kyeong. For 100,000 won ($75), the couple was finally given their daughter's name, which in Chinese characters means "bright jade."
Myths and beliefs about names are, of course, not just an Eastern notion. But very few places have elevated to an established science the act of naming someone.
In every child's name, there is always a favorable meaning, which corresponds to the parents' hopes. Sometimes, as the child grows up, the meanings in his name contradict the parent's wishes, becoming something of an irony. Other times, the name accurately represents a person's values and even his life calling.
In Korea, people call this traditional practice of naming a newborn child jakmyeong - jak meaning "to create" and myeong meaning "name."
When creating children's names, advisers often consider four principles. One, the child's name must carry a favorable meaning, particularly concerning the person's wealth and well-being. Second, the name should sound natural and pleasant when pronounced. The name should also reflect a balance of the five universal elements (metal, water, wood, fire and air), and most important, the name should form a harmonious yin and yang - the fundamental ideas of balance in oriental philosophy.
Although some couples go deeply traditional and make a trip all the way down to the Gyeongbok palace area in downtown Seoul, where there are clusters of naming shops run by old-styled name advisers, the majority of young parents these days often take advantage of the Internet or fax. This high-tech alternative is quick and simple, at prices ranging from 20,000 won to 100,000 won. The parents send in the child's birth information to the adviser, and the adviser returns the results within a day or two with a few name options and brief explanations about the results.
"Whether names will really affect my son's life and protect him from harm, I have no way of knowing," says Ahn Ju-young, a stay-at-home mother in Mapo-gu who recently decided her son's name through an Internet name adviser. "I'll never know what his other life would have been like if he had another name. But if there is even the slightest chance that names will affect my boy's life, then I don't want to take a risk on giving him some name on my own that may disrupt his fortune."
"Everything starts with a person's name," says Kang Hyung-ju, a professional name adviser and the representative of the Deokin Naming Institute. Mr. Kang calls himself "one of the highest taxpayers" in his field.
Although his main job is to create good names for newborns, Mr. Kang also does consultations for people seeking to change their names after experiencing some sort of life trauma. People who come for Mr. Kang's help believe that the misfortunes in their lives are due to having bad names. Instead of changing his clients' birth names entirely, however, which many name advisers do as a major part of their business to make extra money, Mr. Kang creates a small stamp engraved with the client's original name, but with a few additional Chinese characters added. It's his way of balancing the five elements and the yin and yang within the name. Traditionally in Korea, people used ornate stamps instead of signatures on official documents and letters.
In his well-appointed office in Teheran Valley, southern Seoul, Mr. Kang recently held up some samples of his stamps, neatly displayed in a mother-of-pearl jewelry box. When a client looks at him doubtfully, he says, "Just think of it as the vessel that holds your gi, or energy." He creates these stamps through his personal stamp cutter, and suggests his clients use the new stamp on important documents, especially bank accounts, which he theorizes helps to reduce the person's expenditures.
Just outside Mr. Kang's office, a middle-aged woman dressed in a modest outfit came by to thank the adviser. "He fixed me this stamp for free after interpreting my name," she said. Mr. Kang had given a free stamp to the woman after her husband's business recently went bankrupt. The lady brought a group of friends to Kang's office. "He is a good man," the other woman said.
Mr. Kang started this business 10 years ago, when his older brother Kang Hyeong-yong died in an auto accident in 1992. Before that, he worked in a Gyeonggi provincial office for some 10 years. He is now 48, way past his brother's age when he died.
The foundation to his research, which he said is strictly based on theories of statistics and case studies, is a calculation of brush strokes in each character and the elements the characters suggest. For example, according to Mr. Kang's calculations, people with 12 strokes in their names tend to lead a life of illness, whereas names with 18 strokes suggest prosperity and well-being. Mr. Kang pulls a file from a desk drawer and compares the names of three survivors from the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995. The brush strokes in three of those names turned out to be a common number. When his brother died, Mr. Kang went to City Hall and researched a list of victims who had died in accidents. There, he found common stroke-counts in their names. That emotional experience eventually led him to go into business as a jakmyeong master.
"There were certain repetitions that I couldn't just put aside as a coincidence," he says.
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