[Viewpoint] In the battle of idioms, Korea loses

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[Viewpoint] In the battle of idioms, Korea loses

There’s an old joke told about the time shortly after Christianity arrived in Korea. An American missionary visited a church where the pastor quoted extensively from Confucius in his sermon. The missionary expressed his disappointment, but the pastor did not stop, and after the service, the missionary complained angrily.

“Why do you quote Confucius when there are many good sayings by Jesus?” he asked.

“Jesus is lesser known among the Koreans, and quoting the sayings of Confucius is effective and makes you look smart,” the pastor replied.

The sayings of Confucius, however, are not always effective. When they are used too much or used wrongly, they can be poisonous, particularly when the sayings include rare Chinese characters or idioms originating from ancient events.

Today, the ruling party is engaged in a battle of idioms, and it’s making mistakes.

The fight was started by Grand National Chairman Chung Mong-joon. He first talked about the promise of Wei Sheng, and Park Geun-hye, former GNP chairwoman, countered him with the pig of Zengzi. It’s a coincidence, but Wei Sheng and Zengzi had a special relationship with Confucius. Wei Sheng was Confucius’ hometown friend, while Zengzi was Confucius’s student.

Chung said Wei Sheng kept a promise with his life, but he was too stubborn.

“What did he gain after losing his life to keep that promise?” Chung asked. Chung compared Park, who insists on the initial Sejong City plan, with Wei Sheng.

Chung probably was inspired by the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who regarded Wei Sheng as a foolish man. Actually, Confucius treated Wei Sheng as an untrustworthy man after watching him give others some vinegar, although the vinegar belonged to a neighbor.

And yet that view is shared by only a few. Most Chinese people praise Wei Sheng as an exemplar of trustworthiness. The “Book of the Later Han,” “Records of the Grand Historian” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” all lauded Wei Sheng, and the Chinese admired him.

Chung used the idiom without knowing the background. And that allowed Park to strike back.

“Wei Sheng had sincerity, but his lover didn’t,” she said. But she also went too far because she didn’t know the story very well.

“Wei Sheng, after his death, became an exemplar, but the lover probably lived the rest of her life in misery,” Park said. No: The lover committed suicide the next day, regretting that she failed to keep the promise because of her parents’ opposition. That wasn’t what Park had intended.

Park didn’t stop there, but went on to the idiom of Zengzi’s pig. This story tells of how Zengzi boiled a pig, which represented his entire fortune, in order to keep a promise to his child. But by killing the pig, Zengzi was unable to provide better treatment to his own parents. Many do not see this story in a favorable light. In China, Zengzi is a model not of trustworthiness, but of family devotion.

Chung was coached by a confidant, while Park read the story from a book, but neither of them are very good at using idioms. Both the stories have two sides, and people take different views of them. Neither idiom was a good weapon to draw a quarrel.

Now, the debate over the Sejong plan has been forgotten, and Chung and Park are engaged in an unwanted battle over the sayings of Confucius.

But it is too much to put the whole blame on Chung and Park. The traditional practice of Korean politics is responsible for the current situation.

For some time, Korean politics has been an arena for quoting old Chinese idioms. Kim Jong-pil started the trend. After the Chun Doo Hwan administration gained power in 1980, Kim used the Chinese saying, “Though spring comes, it doesn’t seem like spring.” In 1998, he urged a coalition with Kim Dae-jung, calling it “cooperation inside and outside.”

In 1993, former National Assembly speaker Kim Jai-son made a big hit by saying that “after a rabbit hunt, the hunter also kills his hunting dog.”

Since then, politicians have quoted Chinese idioms one after another. Some even kept a dictionary at their side. In 2006, Kang Jae-sup used three idioms in a single sentence.

This year, the nation is focused on a greater Korea. Many say the time has come to upgrade the country’s prestige. So it’s embarrassing to see two ruling party leaders struggling with old Chinese idioms they don’t understand very well. It’s like promoting self-defense while conducting drills with imported arms.

Koreans are trying to globalize their own cuisine and culture. Why, then, do the politicians rely on Chinese idioms?


*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

by Yi Jung-jae

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