Antti Leppänen’s Korea-oriented blog Hunjangûi karûch’im has a post on a proposal to change the Chinese character of the river flowing through Seoul from [han4] to [han2] so that Han’gang would be [han2][jiang1] instead of [han4][jiang1]. It’s a followup to an earlier post on “a “Committee on the name of Seoul in Chinese”…, which is planning a new Chinese name for Seoul. (Yes, that’s Koreans designing a new term for the Chinese language.)” Fascinating stuff to me, with my interest in place names.

If you’re curious about the name of Antti’s blog, he explains:

Hunjang is a village teacher or schoolmaster in the old Korea, teaching Chinese characters and Confucian classics in a sôdang, village school. The name of the blog, hunjangûi karûch’im, means “village schoolmaster’s teachings.”

(There’s a picture of a hunjang on the right of the header atop his blog.) I’m reminded of Gertrude Stein’s famous description of Ezra Pound as a “village explainer,” a phrase that would make a fine blog title.

And if you’re interested in studying Korean, there’s a great deal of information available at studying the korean language, Kelly Youngberg’s blog. [July 2023: Alas, the Internet Archive never picked up that blog; it captured a later blog using the same url a decade later, and now there’s yet another site using it.]


  1. It’s not the first time. There’s been a similar push from both Koreas to have the English spelling “Korea” changed to “Corea:” The Korea Times artilce and Why I spell “Corea” with a “C” essay.

  2. Yes, I’ve heard of that, and it strikes me as supremely silly. (Apologies to any enthusiasts for the Corea spelling who may be reading this, but I calls ’em as I sees ’em.)

  3. This reminds me of the tendency in Spain to spell Mexico “Mejico” and the tendency in Mexico to spell Texas “Tejas.” I’ve never understood the meaning behind these spellings, but I always thought there must be some political significance.
    Then again, it also reminds me of George Herriman’s constant switching of “C” and “K” — so I guess “supremely silly” is not too far off the mark.

  4. Well, the Spanish spelling is easier to understand — the “x” spelling for the /kh/ sound went out a couple of centuries ago, so it makes sense to represent it with the j spelling.

  5. The name-change to my eye looks like changing from “Chinese River” to “Korean River”, which makes sense; why should it even have been called “Chinese River”? (Well, I can guess).
    As I remember, when I was in Taiwan they called all of Korea Hanguo (second tone Han), whereas the mainland Chinese called it Chaoxien. How they distinguished N. and S. Korea, I don’t know — neither recognized the division, IIRC. (I bet that the story is more complicated than I just said, though — experts?)
    Also IIRC, Wade Giles seemed to be the favored Guomintang romanization of Chinese, simply because it wasn’t CPA-pinyin. A few times I spotted pirated mainland books because they used pinyin. (My Matthews’ dictionary also had certain words censored, one of which was a leftist definition of, IIRC one more time, the Third Principle of the People, and another was a word meaning “exploitation”.)

  6. Zizka, to answer quickly some of your points:
    Currently in Mainland, Chaoxian 朝鮮 is used to indicate North Korea, while Hanguo 韓國 is South Korea. As you say, Chaoxian was used to name the whole of Korea when South Korea was not recognized as a distinct state. You can see this in atlantes and dictionaries until the Eighties, but the situation is almost reverse now.
    As an ethnonym, Chaoxian zu 朝鮮族 is the official name of the Korean minority. For instance, Cui Jian 崔健, “the Father of Chinese Rock”, is a Chaoxian zu from Beijing.

  7. Yet another point: one thing I didn’t know about Taiwan before I arrived here two weeks ago, is that they adopted, probably pretty recently, Dalu pinyin for the street signs (as in Hangzhou lu, Xinyi lu, etc.).

  8. xiaolongnu says

    Actually, Zizka, Chaoxian (Kr. Chosun) is the Chinese name for North Korea — previously (but not currently) used in the PRC for the entire Korean peninsula as a way of making claims for the legitimate claim of the DPRK government to the entire peninsula. AFAIK, Taiwan uses Hanguo, which is the name for South Korea, in the same way and for the same reason, if you see what I mean. Current usage in the PRC is to use Chaoxian for North Korea and Hanguo for South Korea. Of course, there is a historical usage for Chaoxian/Chosun as well, and for the Han (Han2) of Hanguo.
    Meanwhile, if Korean is going to maintain the custom of using Chinese characters in literary or historical contexts, it does make a certain amount of sense to change the name of the river from Han4 (once indeed the name of a river, but better known as an expansionist Chinese dynasty now synonymous with the ethnic Chinese) to Han2 (an ancient and independent if short-lived state in the northern part of the peninsula). Bizarrely, the Chinese name for Seoul is Hancheng, using the character Han4. Even to my Sinocentric eye it looks weird. It’s sort of as if we still called the town of St. Albans “Verulamium” — especially if at the same time classical Latin still had the cultural weight it once did. I mean, even Londinium has moved on.

  9. xiaolongnu says

    Oops, Jimmy Ho beat me to the punch. It’s true that pinyin is catching on in Taiwan, quietly, piecemeal, and without fanfare; I think purely for practical reasons, since people just weren’t lining up to use Wade-Giles or zhuyin fuhao (bopomofo), despite the political angle. Both systems are certainly still used, though, and each has its partisans.

  10. I like bopomofo a lot, but you can’t type it. I like the student books with bopomofo pronunciations right alongside the chinese characters, which is hard to do with romanizations.

  11. Xinyi lu? Wow, that looks weird to me. I have Hsin Yi burned into my brain. It’s like what they now call the MetLife Building — it’ll always be Pan Am to me.

  12. > Bizarrely, the Chinese name for Seoul is
    > Hancheng, using the character Han4.
    That was the old _Korean_ name of Seoul, pronounced Hanseong/Hansông in Korean, so it’s not that bizarre that the Chinese have retained it. Seoul was the colloquial name of the capital, and made official only after the liberation from Japan, under which the city was Keijo(Jap.)/Kyôngsông(Gyeongseong)(Kor.). (Looking at some Korean language newspaper texts in the 1930s, Seoul was the common name also under the Japanese.)
    To learn more about the place naming practices in the premodern Korea, unfortunately I’m not the one to turn to…

  13. Xinyi (Hsin-i, btw; Hsin-yi is a terrible barbarism) in Mathews apparently means “Justification by Faith” and was part of the name given to the Lutheran mission. So Xinyi Lu is “Lutheran Road”.
    There was also a “Hoping Lu” when I was in Taiwan — meaning “Peace”; there must have been some message there about the wishfulness of pacifism.
    I studied first using the obscure Yale system (jr for chih or zhi, etc.) and then went to WG, and I’m just finally getting comfortable the CPA-pinyin. I also tend to feel (irrationally) that WG should be standard for classical studies and CPA for modern studies, which seems to be quite in accordance with the Chinese preference for making writing difficult.

  14. xiaolongnu says

    LOL, Zizka, I totally know what you mean about Wade-Giles vs. pinyin; pinyin looks modern to me and WG looks traditional. So I can cope with Sung Hui-tsung (the memorable last emperor of Northern Song) but not Teng Hsiao-ping. I’ve spent enough time among Chinese archaeologists that I’m not thrown by names from the past in pinyin, though (Qin Shihuang, Sima Qian). Have you ever seen the old French system for romanizing Chinese? Basically, lots of extraneous letters. All I can remember is that Zhou comes out as Tcheou.

  15. Although I find pinyin much easier to pronounce and remember, you do need something like Wade-Giles for historical (linguistic) purposes, so that you can distinguish ki and tsi. Also, if you go back far enough, you need to distinguish p ph b bh (if Karlgren’s reconstruction is right).

  16. Zizka: You’re right, of course; I guess it wasn’t burned into my brain as thoroughly as I thought. Hsin-I it is (or was). And I too feel more comfortable with W-G for classical stuff.
    As for the old French system for romanizing Chinese, if you spend any time with the Cantos you become very familiar with it — Pound used some Jesuit source for his Chinese material, and it’s all Tcheou and Fou and like that. And of course /ch/ = sh (or x), so there’s no end of confusion.

  17. Oh, that’s why Pound’ spellings are so odd. Clears that up.

  18. Pound’s

  19. Regarding the Corean spelling, most Coreans who spell it that way do so out of a sense of tradition and romanticism for the pre-20th century Corea. There is ample data on the page (my page) linked by T.Carter to demonstrate that Corea was spelled with a C in early English transcripts. Whether the Japanese wanted to change it to K or not is irrelevant – I have no anti-Japanese sentiment. The Corea spelling represents a time when North and South Corea were one, before they were occupied by the Japanese and before they were split asunder to create the assymetric mess we have now. In Corean, we just say Hanguk or even refer to Choson, but changing the country’s English name to those would be even more unrealistic than a simple letter change. The practicality of it does impose problems though, I agree. And I am quite happy with either spelling unlike those who seem fervently against the infamous “C-spelling.” But I suppose to some, tradition and romanticism are just supremely silly, as matters of the heart frequently are.

  20. Among the Muslim sailors (ca. 800-1500 A.D.), Korea and Tibet were earthly paradises, such that no one who ever goes there ever wants to go back home again.
    ESL techers speak very highly of S. Korea.

  21. scott: I don’t mind people spelling things however they prefer; what I find supremely silly is the idea that the K spelling is somehow a plot or anti-Corean or anything of that nature. It’s how the word is spelled in English, and the idea of respelling it in every single reference book (with the concomitant realphabetization) to accommodate some people’s romanticism… well, I just don’t think it will fly.

  22. I wish I could participate more actively to the discussion, but, right now, there is a crowd shouting “change President, save Taiwan” (Huan zongtong, jiu Taiwan 換總統,救臺灣) in front of me. The only good thing about Guomindang demonstrations is that I understand the speeches, while I’d have to seriously learn ‘taiyu’ to be able to follow the “Greens” (Minjindang 民進党, Chen Shuibian’s party) campaign.

  23. An ignorant question from someone who would like to know Chinese (or Korean), but doesn’t.
    A who-knows-how-reliable Google search seems to suggest that Korean is atonal, while the varieties of Chinese are (of course) tonal. How does this affect word borrowings from Chinese into Korean?
    If this is just too impossibly broad to answer while standing on one foot, sorry.

  24. Well, I imagine they just ignore the tones (as we do when borrowing Chinese words into English), but I’ll leave it to somebody who actually knows to provide a definitive answer.

  25. It would take a _linguist_ to answer Zackary’s question, but for the most of the time when Chinese vocabulary was borrowed to Korean _from China_, Korea was tonal as well (or pitch accented).
    From my non-linguistic reading on works on Korea, I understand that the Koreans’ “uncorrect” pronunciation of Chinese characters has been historically seen as a problem in Korea. During King Sejong’s time in the early 15th c when the Korean alphabet had been promulgated, there were attempts to standardize the K. pronunciations of C. characters according to the Chinese standards of the time, but the popular pronunciations had already too deep and long-lasting roots (Gari Ledyard, p. 41-43 in “Korean Alphabet”, ed. by Young-Key Kim-Renaud, U. of Hawaii P). How had the Chinese tones been reflected in the popular K. pronunciations? Hmm, cannot really tell. (Remember also a 17th c scholar lamenting that Koreans are not able to follow the C. pronunciation of the characters; J. Palais: “Confucian Statecraft”.)
    And for the last 100+ years, most of the Korean borrowing of terms based on Chinese characters has come from Japan, and the matters to be settled between Korean and Japan are not of tonal character.

  26. That’s fascinating — thanks, Antti!

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