[VIEWPOINT]English may be the next great divideWhy did the aristocratic class, or yangban, of the Joseon Dynasty insist on using Chinese characters? Even after King Sejong invented hangul, or Hunminjeongeum, the noblemen of the Joseon Dynasty clung to the Chinese letters, ignoring the Korean alphabet. What merits do the Chinese characters have that made them do so?
The fact that the Chinese used Chinese characters was itself a merit. At that time, Joseon Dynasty scholars must have thought that getting familiarized with things Chinese was getting civilized, and they must have accepted the Chinese characters as a first step.
I wonder whether the fact that the Chinese characters were difficult to learn was one of the reasons they were highly regarded.
Unlike today, there was not much new information produced during the Joseon Dynasty.
In the old days, Korean scholars read a limited number of classics repeatedly through their lifetime. The contents of the classics included the teachings on how to train oneself, take care of one's household, rule the country and pacify the world. That is, the essential information for the ruling class.
Whether they were the four books and three classics or the four books and five classics, the volumes were not very big.
The amount of information produced today is huge, and the most important task is how to distribute the information faster and to a greater number of people.
But during the days of the Joseon Dynasty, when the upper class ruled the country with limited amounts of information handed down from old, it seemed the important task was how to make only a select few know that limited information.
A Joseon Dynasty scholar, Choi Man-ri, in his memorial to the king, opposed the use of hangul.
His point was that no one would understand Chinese characters after scores of years, because nobody would make the effort to learn the difficult characters if easy hangul was an option.
Superficially, it sounds as if he worried over the decline of learning. His real intention was not that simple.
He worried that one day the distinction between people who knew difficult Chinese characters and those who only knew easy hangul would disappear. Thus anyone could be awakened.
The habit of making sentences as difficult as possible to read by adding complicated sources of documentation and mixing in the use of phrases alluding to historical events could be due to hidden intentions to exclude people.
It was the privileged minority who did not want their subject people to understand what they read.
Therefore, most of the people couldn’t read the Chinese letters.
How many people were there in the Joseon Dynasty who could read Chinese characters? For reference, Ian Watt estimated that less than 10 percent of the British were literate at the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Right after national liberation, the illiteracy rate of Korea was more than 90 percent.
Under the Japanese rule, except those periods toward the end of it, hangul was taught at schools.
In the 1920s, about 100,000 students graduated from primary schools annually. That number increased to a quarter of a million in the late 1930s. Compared to the Joseon Dynasty era when there was no education, the number of people who could read must have increased dramatically.
Still, the literacy rate stayed below 10 percent among the whole population.
Although there were private schools in each village which taught Chinese classics until the end of the Joseon Dynasty, I assume the number of people who could read Chinese characters at that time was no bigger that the number of those who could read hangul.
In that case, I wonder whether reading Chinese classics was not that different from using a secret language to communicate among a certain group of people nowadays.
Language is a tool for communications, but it also can cut it off.
Nowadays, the whole nation is in a fuss over learning English. Even children in kindergarten learn English, English villages pop up here and there, and, at last, some people have suggested the use of English as an official language.
The English fever reminds me of the Joseon Dynasty noblemen's respect for learning Chinese characters.
Of course, we are in an era of globalization where the skillful use of English is necessary.
In addition, the situation is greatly different from the days when only a few privileged people could learn Chinese characters, as the doors for learning English are open to everyone.
On the other hand, however, I still have some worries. If the trend of respecting English goes too far, I worry a different kind of “Chinese characters era,” in which the social status of people is decided by their English language proficiency, might come.
* The writer is a professor of Chinese literature at Cheju National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Sang-jo