November 23, 2016

Korean Word of the Month: Bi Jung Sang (Abnormal, Not Top)

This Reuters photo of Korean demonstrators borrowing “not my president” from American protestors really caught my eye. Of course, since this is Korea, it comes out as oori (our) President. The sign on the left has a photo of President Park Geun Hye riding piggyback on someone. I assume this is her notorious buddy Choi Soon Sil, who wears sunglasses a lot.

A photo of two Korean demonstrators in a large crowd holding protest signs that say Not Our President in English

I was curious about the Hangeul words on the sign on the right, so I looked them up. Google persisted in translating the first word, 혼이 as “honey.” This annoyed me, since it is wrong in both meaning and pronunciation. 혼 (Romanized “hon”) is pronounced hone (rhymes with phone), not hun.

Luckily, we already know the meaning of 혼 (soul or spirit) from the title of Lee Seo Jin’s 2009 drama by that name. 이 is a subject marking particle. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it. It’s not that significant in a two-word phrase.

The really interesting word is 비정상, which translates as “abnormal,” or has the alternate meaning of “not the summit.” I confirmed these two meanings in several sources. This post to a language blog by a Korean English-learner was especially helpful. Check out the comments.

“Not the Summit”

Even with the help of aforementioned comments, I wasn’t sure I understood the significance of “not the summit.” Then it occurred to me to look up 정상 by itself. It means summit. So apparently 비 has a similar function to 안, which can mean “not” when added to the beginning of a word. Therefore, 비정상 literally means not the top or summit.

But what is the implication of top/summit in Korean? In English, “not the top” might imply that something was unimportant or mediocre. I can’t assume Koreans draw the same association between height and valuableness, though it is a common one in hierarchical societies. In any case, I feel fairly confident that the choice of a word with dual meanings is deliberate. Koreans are big on word play. But we are forgetting 혼, and we shouldn’t. As a phrase, 혼이 비정상 says something like “abnormal (and inferior) spirit.”

Korean Shamanism

If you follow the posts on my Facebook page, you know the current scandal surrounding Park Geun Hye is tied to the recent history of native shamanistic religion in Korea. Such religions were violently suppressed (by Park Geun Hye’s father, among others) in the mid-20th century. Thousands of unique shrines across the country were destroyed, an irretrievable loss.

21st century Korea seems ambivalent about shamanism. It is discounted as superstition unsuited to a modern society. However, the unique Koreanness of it is attracting new attention. Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity dominate Korean spiritual and moral life. None of them are native to Korea.

But they can’t really have it both ways with Park Geun Hye. If association with shamanism erodes her credibility, doesn’t that also denigrate traditional Korean spirituality?

Korean Demonstrators, Broken Promises and Bruised Kibun

It has puzzled me that tens of thousands of Korean protestors are flooding the streets (in very cold weather) over Park’s latest scandal. Seeking feedback from a non-political friend doesn’t seem that scandalous to me. Blackmailing chaebols into making donations is certainly illegal, but the money went to culture and sports nonprofits, not slush funds. There have been numerous other scandals in Park’s administration to date that were far more serious. For example, the Sewol ferry disaster and manipulation of government-supported TV networks, to name just a couple.

Then I started to wonder who these Korean demonstrators were. Are they opposition party members who voted against Park, or are they the people who elected her? If they are the people who put her in office, the intensity of the reaction suddenly makes more sense. If you know a little about kibun, that is. Broken presidential promises may reflect far more personally on a politician’s supporters in Korea than in the U.S. When Park fails, that failure reflects poorly on them.

Kibun is a complex, and very important factor in Korean life, which is why I haven’t written about it. It doesn’t have a direct western parallel, and I wouldn’t want to get it wrong. If you never heard of kibun before, the beginning of this article covers the basics, and may shed some light on Park’s 5% popularity rating.

2 comments to Korean Word of the Month: Bi Jung Sang (Abnormal, Not Top)

  • Bob

    There is much more to this case on the president’s impeachment than I think you realize. Please read The Korean’s latest post:

    • Thanks for sharing this link. It is far more specific than most of the English-language stories, which have been very vague and general in their discussion of what Choi is actually accused of, even in the most in-depth sources.

      I never meant to suggest that Park Geun Hye hadn’t done anything wrong. Rather, that I was surprised Koreans expected any better of her, given her parentage and her platform of extravagant promises that were both unrealistic, and highly unlikely to be fulfilled by someone of her political leanings.

      I also believe that if Choi had been a man, with a background in business or politics (or had been Park’s husband), that the outrage would not be as intense and as personal. Part of what is fueling it is sexism, and Park’s violation of the Korean cast system. Corruption scandals are old news (in the U.S. as well as in Korea), but no one else is talking about the cultural dynamics of this scandal, which is why I have focused on them. There has got to be some backlash around Park’s being the first female president in a country as sexist as Korea with her presidency turning out this badly, yet I have not read one single word about that in the English-language press.

      For more about the Korean presidency scandal, check out the Facebook page.

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