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?