Korean ‘symbols’: das racist?

I was in a teachers’ meeting recently, and the meeting facilitator meant to tell us about the “Korean symbol for human being.” She then showed us: 사람.

This made me uncomfortable, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Now first of all, Korean uses at least two or three writing systems: Hanja(漢字), or Chinese characters; Hangul, the Korean alphabet; and (arguably) Roman letters, which many European languages are written in (including English). The facilitator was referring to a story using the 漢字/Hanja, used primarily to write Chinese, but also Japanese, Korean, and occasionally other languages. The story goes like this:

The Chinese/Japanese/Korean word for human is written 人間 in Chinese      characters–the first character means person; the second means space. People become humans in the space between them, in their relationships to other people. Thus to be human is to be considerate of others.

I seem to remember seeing this both in literature classes in the high school where I worked in Japan and on Kinpachi sensei.

Another explanation focuses on the first character of 人間. In this explanation, the first stroke represents one person leaning on a second, showing that cooperation is essential to being human. While not etymologically correct, it is a lovely moral, and so I’m not surprised our meeting facilitator chose it.

Now, you may have noticed that she did not present the Chinese characters (which Koreans also use)for the word, which would be人間 but instead used the Korean Hangul 사람. Hangul is an alphabetic writing symbol, which is to say, it’s no more symbolic than the words “homme” “gestalt” or “burrito.”  Indeed on first pass, the alphabetic Hangul 사람 is no more symbolic than any other writing system–including English (though if it were symbolic of anything, perhaps it would be symbolic of tongue shape, as explained here).

Now, of course, linguistically and philosophically speaking, all written words are symbols, but in common speech, most Americans and Europeans I’ve talked to don’t call the word “human” a symbol, nor any of the others I mentioned. In fact, outside of linguistics and philosophy, I’ve really only heard the word symbol used to describe words in a few writing systems: Sanskrit (and derivatives), Chinese characters (and derivatives), and possibly Egyptian hieroglyphics. But let’s imagine she had actually used the Chinese characters 人間. Are they symbols in a different way than English words are symbols? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.

My intuition is that most people who speak English and do not read Chinese characters normally think of the sign of the cross as a symbol of Christianity and the English word “cross” as, well, just a word. I do think, however, that the use of Chinese characters by non-Chinese speaker/readers is primarily symbolic. Someone who does not read Chinese but gets a Chinese tattoo, or meditates on a Chinese character as part of Buddhist practice is viewing the word primarily as a symbol of the concept, and not as a word. And that, I think, is consistent with my friend’s use of the phrase “the Korean symbol for human being.”  This unconsciously others Asian languages as symbolic, while European languages are normalized as a bunch of words. This is basically a form of Orientalism.

There’s more to this that I haven’t sussed out: please feel free to comment below.

(above: the Japanese “symbol” for hemorrhoid)


But aren’t Chinese characters pictures of things? Well, kind of. A very small proportion of them are, and while 人 kind of looks like a person, 間 doesn’t really look like space, does it?

Isn’t there something to the religion junk? Maybe. Perhaps it’s the strong tradition of linguistic skepticism in Chinese thought that highlights the empty nature of words, perhaps it’s the hanging of calligraphy (which is often one word), or the use of characters as mantras for meditation. Now of course, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all have traditions that make use of these techniques, but I’d argue that most Americans are not intimately familiar with those aspects of the Abrahamic faiths–and are accustomed to accessing them in languages they speak to one degree or another. I wonder if Arabic or Jewish religious words are ever called symbols?


6 thoughts on “Korean ‘symbols’: das racist?

  1. *grumble* yes. Sanskrit (or, rather, its writing system, Devanagari, which is also used for Nepali, Marathi, Hindi, etc.) is pretty clearly an alphabet (or kinda sorta maybe a syllabic). It’s amazing how many people don’t know that. Thanks, Orientalism!

    Plus, as a wise man once pointed out: “om” is a little more symbolic than most words when used for religious/yogic purposes. While it was originally based on the ओ vowel (look familiar?) with a nasalization applied to it (ँ), it has definitely become symbolized. So much so, in fact, that it has its own Unicode character, and isn’t created in a combinatory fashion.

  2. I can really only speak to the final part of your postscript: Hebrew words are words, not symbols. For example, a Jewish symbol is the Star of David or, in Hebrew, “magen David,” but it is “מגן דוד”, not represented by the star. Jews do try to avoid writing the name of God (in English or in Hebrew–you’ll see “G_d” in writing in English) because it should not be defaced or erased, but it would still just be an abbreviation, not a symbol.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lauren! I’m reading your comment as “Hebrew words are words, which are no more symbolic than English words (since all words are also symbolic)”. Thanks for the clarification, and I definitely agree with you. One thing I’m still wondering is that, in conversation, I’ve heard people talk about Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Japanese “symbols” but almost never Spanish, English, or French “symbols” when referring to either the writing system or the words. I think this is mostly unjustified, and probably has an element of “othering” those languages. I was wondering if that happened with Hebrew (since Hebrew is also a target of “Orientalism”). For example, here: this woman asked “not sure wat my tattoo means, worried it means ‘do me’. what would the symbol for that be?” But that othering is also related to the ways Chinese Characters are used in popular culture for pseudo-religious/mystical purposes, and I am still wondering if there is a connection of the sort Sarah clears up. Thank you both–one of the reasons I started this blog is to practice writing more clearly!

      • wow, that tattoo page is full of people talking about Hebrew “symbols” they want to put on their arms. I guess “symbol” really just means “letter or character I can’t read.”

      • Yeah, it does seem to be coming up a lot (http://www.askmehelpdesk.com/body-art/arabic-symbols-111711.html) in conversations about tattoos. Perhaps this in particular has to do with the symbolic nature of a tattoo.

        However, I think you’re onto something with the “squiggly line I can’t read” theory. If it’s not me, it must REALLY be NOT ME, and thus can’t be an alphabet. Or perhaps “alphabet” has become almost a proper noun for some people, and is so strongly associated with the Roman/Latin (what’s the diff?) alphabet that even the concept can’t apply to other writing systems. If that made any sense.


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