Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What's in a Korean Name?

Enough that "some 850,000 people... [have] applied to change their names" — One in 60 Koreans Want to Change Their Names. "In the past, many people wanted to change names that sounded old-fashioned or unpleasant," the article informs us, "but now an increasing number of people do so for superstitious reasons such as choosing names believed to bring prosperity."

I know of child with cerebral palsy whose parents changed his name because it was believed his original name was in part to blame for his condition. I also know of graduate students at one of Asia's top science and technology research institutions who have changed their names because their original ones were seen as an impediment to marriage.

I'm reminded of what Boris Yeltsin once said about the old communist leadership in the Soviet Union. He said that while an outsider might think that because they were "dialectical materialists" they would be free from superstitions, but in reality, they read everything as an omen or portent.

Koreans are not dialectical materialists, in the South at least, but as a Marxist-leaning South Korean professor once told me, using his own mother as an example, traditionally Koreans tend to be what he called "practical materialists." One can see how in such an environment, superstitious beliefs could flourish.

"When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing — they believe in anything," quipped G. K. Chesterton. Only Catholicism fully allows the freeing of the mind from the petty superstitions that have plagued mankind from pre-history.

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Anonymous Steven P. Cornett said...

For proof of the superstitiousness of practical materialists, just look at the non-believers in this country. As the influence of Christianity waned in the US, the influence of New Age cults, and even the popularity of the astrology column in the paper, grows.

This especially was common in the late 1970s when the disintegration of Mainline Protestant belief was in full force, and the nuttiness of the Third Iconoclasm (my term for the things done after Vatican II) was raging in the Catholic Church. That was when things like ESP and reincarnation became popularly read about, and the topics of mainstream newspapers. The Pittsburgh Press Sunday edition had a supernatural phenomenon article in their weekly magazine, and kept it for about 5 years after.

11:50 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

I remember those times. No one talks about ESP anymore, but it was all the rage back then. And the Soviets were at the forefront of "research into the "paranormal."

12:51 PM  
Blogger Hoanyeon said...

They should've stuck to 보명(譜名). It consists of 돌림 (generation name) and a specific character for that person.

2:21 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Many of my students still use that system. It seems the idea of changing one's name, different from adopting a literary or posthumous name, would have been unthinkable to Koreans of the past, who wouldn't even cut their hair because it was given to them by their parents.

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, "everyone is superstitious except us".

Prayer to an invisible being is not supersititious, but belief in astology is? Don't both require an equal abandonment of reason? Studies on the efficacy of prayer get about the same results as those on astrology (that being zip). Can't we all just get along and agree that both sides are equally irrational?

11:34 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

The Catholic Church gave the world Thomism and the scientific method, the vehicles for overcoming superstition.

Belief in the Supreme Being can be arrived with logic and reason, as Aristotle demonstrated.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


Studies on the efficacy of prayer get about the same results as those on astrology . . .

Does that mean "studies on the efficacy of astrology"? If so, then they can't have been very good studies. I studied astrology for years and know that comparing it to prayer betrays a complete misunderstanding of both. It's like comparing the salt content of sea water and the salt content of a cellular phone.

4:26 PM  

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Omnes Sancti et Sanctæ Coreæ, orate pro nobis.