Today, March 26th, is the anniversary of the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan near the North Korean sea border.
104 personnel were on board when an explosion occurred, causing the ship to break in two. 58 crew were rescued, while the remaining 46 went missing. During the rescue efforts a South Korean naval diver died while another was hospitalized. A fishing boat involved in the rescue operations collided and sank, killing two with another seven going missing. None of the 46 missing crewmembers were found alive.
At that moment the whole world was looking sideways towards North Korea. On May 20th an international commission reported findings that strongly indicated a North Korean torpedo to be the guilty culprit. Yet the country adamantly denied any responsibility.
A few months after the incident, despite denying any involvement, this poster depicting a ship of the same type as Cheonan being crushed into two pieces was distributed in North Korea. The slogan saying: “We’ll take it down with a single blow if it attacks!”
I don’t know who said it first, but it is often repeated with resignation that the only predictable thing about North Korea is – that it is unpredictable. One thing that is for sure is that it is startlingly poorly understood; by the West, by the US – and often even by the South Koreans.
That is why, in the days to come, I’ll grab the opportunity provided by this anniversary to try to explain some of the things we ought to come to grabs with when it comes to the Hermit Kingdom!
As many of you probably know, Chinese characters carry meaning rather than sound. (I know there are also what’s called phono-semantic compounds, but give me a break). In fact though it contains both meaning and sound, and although people speaking in different languages may connect different sounds to the same character, the character always has the same meaning. This has made it possible for various dialects or languages throughout China to exist while still being able to understand each other by writing. Convenient, right?
And this extends not only to mainland China and Taiwan. Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese – all of which are linguistically unrelated to Sinitic languages – have created their own pronunciation for Chinese characters known as Kanji, Hanja and Chữ Nho.
This brings me to the real point of today’s post, which is a funny little tale about the clumsy early adoption of the Chinese system of writing in Japan.
Back in the day, Japanese elites had to learn to read and write in Chinese. Unlike the Chinese however, they had no written language of their own, which led to some bizarre occurrences. For example using the sounds of Chinese characters to form Japanese words, even if the actual meaning was just plain silly. If a Chinese person was to sit down and read the Kojiki, a collection of myths from 8th century Japan, he wouldn’t be able to understand much if it at all despite the fact that it would be written in Chinese characters. If he were to read it out loud, a Japanese person passing by would be able understand it perfectly. The Chinese on the other hand would probably end up seriously worrying about what was wrong with the people of Japan as well as wondering what “secret-tea-sky” meant and if perhaps “wooden-chicken-river-pot” had anything to do with it.