Sunday Salon: Korea for the Armchair Traveller
In 1988 Simon Winchester decided to retrace the 300 mile journey made by seventeenth century shipwrecked Dutch sailors from a honeymoon island in southern Korea to the border just about Seoul. Along the way he describes his encounters, the culture, the geography and the politics. He also delves a little into the language.
Korean, surprisingly, is related not to Chinese but to languages like Finnish, Turkish and Mongolian (and, I guess, Estonian)*. For hundreds of years the Koreans tried to use the Chinese character system to write - but since the two languages are so dissimilar this proved to be too difficult for most people to master. So instead in 1420 King Sejong set a team of people on devising a new way of writing in Korean and came up with an alphabet which seems very similar to our own. It consists of 17 consonants and 11 vowels, and the shapes are supposed to resemble the shapes the tongue makes as it forms the sounds. It was easy to learn and use and resulted in the majority of the country becoming literate (this contrasts with what happened in China - for a long time only the scholars were literate because only they had time to learn how to write). The disadvantage of the system only became apparent during the age of the typewriter. Since the symbols were set in triplets - one before the first and then another set below those two - these were difficult to type. I expect the advent of the computer makes things much easier.
This was just one of the topics that fascinated me while reading the book. Another was yet another idea of why the Chinese 'stopped' inventing sometime after the invention of the printing press a few hundred years before Gutenberg: according to the Koreans anything worthwhile doing would have been done already by the ancestors - Confucianism taken to an extreme - so there was no point in changing anything.
Apart from learning a lot, I also found the book witty and very entertaining. The Simon Winchester of his latest books seems quite a serious sort of chap, but here he confesses to various enticements involving pretty young Korean girls. It is youthful, human and honest - and often made me laugh.
This morning I have been smiling at another account of Korea which I downloaded on my Kindle yesterday. It is called Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm by Henry Savage-Landor, dedicated to Queen Victoria and written in 1895. The Korea this depicts seems to come close to one of the lands visited by Gulliver. The people ride on ponies so tiny that have to have tall saddles so their feet don't reach the ground, and because this makes them somewhat unstable, have to ride supported by a servant each side and is led by an especially grumpy 'Puga' who leads the pony (and has the same outspoken opinions on the world at large as the average London cabbie).
Now I am just reading about their currency of the time which is called 'cash'. Gold and silver were thought too valuable to be converted into coins because they might then leave the country. So, to preserve the nation's wealth, the money was restricted to bronze coins the size of the pre-decimal half penny with a square hole in the middle. These were then threaded onto a piece of cord in groups of a hundred, the cord knotted and then another hundred added. Since these bronze coins did not have much value many servants were required to carry the 'cash' around. I think this is all very wonderful and entrancing and am looking forward to reading more.
To bring myself up-to-date I am also dipping into CultureShock Korea. This has a useful-looking quiz at the end which I couldn't resist having a quick look at and found I could answer the drinking etiquette question just from reading Simon Winchester's explanation of why exactly it is difficult to remain sober in Korean company.
Next on the list are a couple of short stories by the Korean writer Young-Ha KIM (Whatever Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator? and Photo Shop Murder), since I much enjoyed his Lizard story in the Modern Korean Fiction anthology. I have also ordered his novel 'Your Republic Is Calling You' because according to the excellent website on Korean fiction translated into English, Korean Modern Literature in Translation by Charles Montgomery (who was kind enough to comment on this blog), Young-Ha KIM as well as being an award-winning writer is also a funny one.
* added later: apparently, since this book was written the altaic root (i.e the proto language thought to be the root of these languages) has been disputed, and most people regard Korean to be an 'isolate' like Basque.