[FOUNTAIN]What’s in a letter

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[FOUNTAIN]What’s in a letter

Deung in Korean means “even” or “making things even.” “Seolmun Haeja,” a book on the origins of Chinese characters, says that the word originally meant “spreading bamboo books evenly.”
Before paper was invented, Chinese books were made by putting thinly sliced bamboo pieces together. When you slice bamboo vertically, it is hard to write on it because of its round shape. So the ancient Chinese pressed the bamboo pieces to make the surface even, and the work was called “deung.”
The Chinese character for “deung” is made up of the letter for “bamboo” and the letter for “temple.” Officers at temples were usually in charge of the job of “deung,” or pressing bamboo pieces flat.
The letter “deung” gradually expanded its meaning to, say, evenness, flatness and then equivalence. So when we talk of equality, we use this “deung” as a matter of course, for example, pyongdeung.
That’s how “deung” alone became the meaning of “equality” in Buddhism. In the Lotus Sutra, treating people equally whether a person is rich or poor, noble or mean, is called “Deung-Il-Dae-Cha.” It originates from folklore that once upon a time, the elder of a village distributed an equally big carriage to everyone.
It was Sima Qian’s “Shiji,” or “The Records of the Grand Historian,” where “deung” was first used to mean “and so forth” or to make a noun plural. In the episode about the “gimlet in the pouch,” Mao Shui held his head high and said in front of the King of Chou, “Drink this blood and make a pledge. You guys are all the same so and so.” Here, Sima Qian used “deung” to refer to the crowd.
Lately, politicians are fighting over this letter, “deung.” In the revision of the private school law, the opposition Grand National Party wants to add this letter while the ruling Uri Party hopes to get rid of it. The president asked the opposition to “concede in just one letter,” only to be completely rejected by the opposition lawmakers.
By adding “deung” to o which means “I”, we can make the word plural like “we” as in o-deung. The Declaration of Independence in 1919 starts with “O-deung,” which means “we.” The first sentence goes with “We declare our independence.” When the ruling Uri Party used “uri,” which means “we” and “our,” as its party name, they tacitly revealed their preference to this “deung.” And they can not deny the fact that they enjoyed the connotation of their party name “uri” by monopolizing the common noun “our.” It is a shame that this Uri Party wages a political strife because it cannot embrace the letter “deung.”


by Yi Jung-jae

The writer is a deputy business news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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