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Walking Deep Into Seoul With an Expert on the Korean Built Environment

By Colin Marshall 

“Things in Seoul don’t have anything to do with each other.” We members of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (왕립아세아학회한국지부) heard this important principle for understanding the Korean capital early in the day from our guide, Robert Fouser. A noted American scholar of linguistics and architecture, he’d come to town to promote a couple new books he has out. He wrote them in Korean, a language that, during the years he spend living in Japan, he also taught — in Japanese. Just as none can doubt his experience with east Asian languages, none can doubt his experience with east Asian architecture, or at least his experience with traditional Korean houses, known as hanok (한옥), one of which he spent serious time and effort restoring to not just sound but fully authentic condition.

The word “authentic” came up more than a few times on the walk, which took us deep into Seoul, beginning at the Jongmyo Shrine. Between its construction in the late 14th century and its arrival on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1995, the place has seen some hard times, up to and including destruction during the Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1598. Rebuilt in 1601, the Jongmyo Shrine counts as one of the oldest building complexes in Seoul, a city where most historical structures have been torn down and put back up again much more recently, in the 19th, 20th, or even 21st centuries. But which can make the claim to greater authenticity: those rebuilt longer ago, or those rebuilt more recently with closer adherence to their original architectural plans?

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People disagree about that question in Korea, but only recently has the debate risen to a high profile. For a long time after the Korean War, anything old suffered from shameful associations with poverty, backwardness, and underdevelopment; even in the 1980s, when Fouser first arrived in Korea as a student, tourists could roam sites like the Jongmyo Shrine more or less freely. But on our walk, we found sign after sign telling us where we couldn’t go, and watchful supervisors ready to let us have it the moment we set foot on any now-forbidden stone. The Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대), the kingdom of the united Korea that lasted from the late 14th until the late 19th century has, it seems, become fashionable.

The Jongmyo Shrine even had construction going on right outside its gate, a project, from what I heard, meant to make the approach look more appropriately historical — to 21st-century eyes, at least. After passing the men at work, we immediately entered the domain of men not at work: Jongmyo Park, where hundreds of elderly pensioners, whose wives have passed on or who never married in the first place, gather every day to chat, drink, play a game of go, or — so it’s been reported — buy a few minutes’ good time with a Bacchus lady. (Not that it happens too far out of the public eye; this year saw the festival debut of E J-yong’s controversy-guaranteed feature on the subject, titled The Bacchus Lady in English and 죽여주는 여자, literally Killer Woman, in Korean.)

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Just past those whose Korea’s economic miracle has passed over, we found a set of buildings the country’s development has left behind: the Seun Sangga (세운상가) Shopping Center, Korea’s first mixed-use residential and commercial complex. Ordered up in 1966 by construction-minded Seoul mayor Kim Hyon-ok (who earned the nickname “the Bulldozer” during his short four years in office) and designed by Kim Swoo-geun, one of Korea’s few well-known modern architects, it became popular in the 1980s as an electronics mecca, a training ground for internationally famous video artist Nam June Paik’s technicians as well as a place for Koreans to buy their first personal computers, cheaply pre-loaded with pirated software. (Not that “pirated” meant much in this country back then, a time and place without enforcement of international copyright law.)

It also became well-known for its plentitude of adult materials for sale, a market that Korea’s rapid adoption of information technology has certainly done its part to decimate. More recently, the left-wing newspaper Hankyoreh described Seun Sangga as “a symbol of the indiscriminate redevelopment that occurred during the dictatorship years,” a time of “development that lacked a sense of history” when “Seoul rapidly became a metropolis with no character.” The complex’s worsening reputation brought about discussions of redevelopment, that all-purpose solution to Seoul’s every perceived urban problem, and when higher-ups in Korea talk about redevelopment, they usually mean demolition and total replacement.

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But somewhere amid the years and years of discussion the nuclear option fell off the table, and now talk has circled around going with the strategy, tested in other world cities, of converting this large complex (which a friend compared to a mega-skyscraper laid on its side) into an “art center.” Some of the chances in that direction have already happened: we walked past a series of old turntables, amplifiers, and radios, the kind of things you’d have come to buy forty years ago, into garden sculptures, and the shutters of most of the upper-floor shops were covered with fresh-painted whimsy. A new wave of businesses, including a bookstore, had just begun to move in, but almost everything else surrounding us came from a more industrial past: small repair specialists, parts dealers, machine shops — Pietà country.

Fouser took us to locations from other films as well, through a former (and still, in part, current) movie theater district used back in 1997 in The Contact (접속) and ending up at the tea shop which, a dozen years later, played the title role in the Japanese-Korean co-production Café Seoul (카페 서울/カフェ・ソウル). It stood in Ikseon-dong (익선동), a neighborhood built as an all-hanok development in the 1930s which itself once faced the threat of demolition. But now, with busy hands of the redevelopers stayed, the area has undergone some of a process that, in America, we might — or rather, we often — call gentrification: hip new eateries have appeared, as have hip new vintage stores, as have the hip new young people to be seen in them. But the discussions about gentrification don’t sound the same in Seoul as they do in Los Angeles. Here they seem wholly economic in content, whereas in America they inevitably swerve toward class or race issues.

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Korea, an ethnically non-diverse society whose class system essentially pushed the reset button after the war, hasn’t really produced the body of sociologists needed to study this sort of thing in the same way it gets studied in America. But nor has the country’s study of its own history gone without complications; different people have different answers to the question of what counts as properly historical, especially in the realm of architecture. Fouser, a self-described “hanok maniac,” pointed out some of Ikseon-dong’s especially bothersome abuses of the form, such as the insertion of picture windows into private homes or the cutting away of entire walls of cafés — the better, presumably, for the rest of the neighborhood to hear the pop songs it cranks up into the night.

At least they’ll bother you if you place a high value on authenticity, and want a time-tested street-scape to look and feel the way it’s always looked and felt. I imagine that can be an exhausting sensibility to possess in Seoul, a city still working out its relationship to its history with an almost metabolic tendency toward disintegration and reformation. As always with these RAS excursions, I enjoyed the conversation that happened afterward as much as the event itself, and there at the tea house we talked about not just why we like Seoul, but how even to describe the city to someone who’s never experienced it. Yes, it lacks the kind of cultural weight Tokyo has; yes, it has little in the way of architectural distinction; yes, it’s only come around to an appreciation of history after losing most of it and realizing that developed countries tend to have old things; and yes, it can feel like a jumble where nothing has anything to do with anything else. But in the jumble, so we could all agree, lies the fascination.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

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‘The Empire of Light’: a French Director Brings a North Korean Spy Novel to the Stage

By Colin Marshall 

Ki-yong, the middle-aged protagonist of Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You, lives at the apparent height of South Korean normality, complete with a wife, a teenage daughter, a film importing business in Seoul, and a strong enthusiasm for soccer and beer. Then, one morning, comes an encrypted message with an unambiguous order: drop everything, dismantle your life, and get back to the North immediately. Ki-young, we soon find out, has lived for over twenty years in the South as a Northern sleeper agent, theoretically awaiting orders while accruing all the accoutrements of life in the peninsula’s more prosperous half. The novel follows what happens to him, his family, his colleagues, and his pursuers over the next 24 hours.

I first wrote about Your Republic Is Calling You in the LARB back in a 2013 profile of Kim’s novels in English translation, of which he has more and higher-profile than the average Korean novelist under fifty. (More recently, I’ve written about his literary podcast and Read, his latest book of essays, here on the Korea Blog.) In that piece, I quoted a reader-on-the-street description of the book as “a Korean version of Ulysses,” owing, no doubt, to its single-day time frame (a storytelling technique laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics, about which Kim writes in Read) as well as the way it moves through the city of Seoul as Ulysses moves through the city of Dublin.

These qualities make for compelling reading, but how to translate them to the stage? Taking on that very challenge, we have the French-Korean production The Empire of Light, a live adaptation of Kim’s novel from the National Theater Company of Korea, years in the making and now running in the heart of Seoul’s busiest shopping district at the Myeongdong Art Theater. That English directly translates 빛의 제국, Your Republic is Calling You‘s original (and, I might add, superior) Korean title, itself borrowed from René Magritte’s series of canvases L’Empire des lumières — the title under which the play will appear when it opens at the Center Dramatique National Orleans in May.

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The show comes at the beginning of a series of some 300 events constituting the 2015-2016 Korea-France year, a celebration of the 130th anniversary of diplomatic relations between those two similarly sized countries. Though The Empire of Light‘s Seoul-set story requires an all-Korean cast, the French side of the collaboration includes director Arthur Nauzyciel, playwright Valérie Mréjen, and the artists who handled costumes and design. They’ve put together a striking stage, with two oversized video screens, one landscape-shaped and one portrait-shaped, towering over a human environment of pure gray: a gray table, a gray couch, gray carpet, gray clothing.

A condensed cast of the novel’s characters roam that gray carpet, going between gray table and gray couch, including, in her gray dress, Ki-yong’s wife Ma-ri, a former political radical and current saleswoman at a car dealership with problems of her own. She’s played by Moon So-ri, who grew famous through her film roles (including several for Hong Sangsoo), and in The Empire of Light performs a kind of film role as well, in the footage projected on those screens behind her and the rest of the players. That simultaneous action, shot all over Seoul, allows for near-constant movement through the city without a single change of scenery onstage, also obviating the need for an intermission in this movie-length production.

But given the typical complaints about the look of the city from disappointed tourists, the sheer grayness of the set in front — a varied grayness, in several different shades — also strikes me as somehow Seoul-inspired. Mréjen, citing the atmosphere of surveillance that comes to pervade the novel, has also named the “recording room” as an aesthetic reference point: colorless, utilitarian, and neutral, but also versatile, a complementary space to the brightly lit streets, cafés, subway trains, and love hotel rooms in which the story’s cinematic dimension plays out.

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Nauzyciel, who as preparation made visits to all of the real-life locations of the novel, describes Seoul as “one of the characters in the story,” and even if Seoul doesn’t do all the work of a character here, it certainly counts as an inextricable element of the story. The director draws a contrast between the unromanticized South Korean capital with the much-romanticized, and almost as dominant, French one: “In Paris, we live in the past. I live in a building that was built in 1647 and that’s normal. Here in Seoul, I feel like the past has been swept away. There’s no way to know what it used to be before the city was demolished and rebuilt. It’s like living in the present. But sometimes, we don’t realize we are carrying the past with us.”

But few Korean stories, of course, whether on the stage, screen, or page, fail to acknowledge the un-pastness of the past, mostly in regard to the still historically fresh scar from the country’s division after the Second World War. I’ve long appreciated Kim Young-ha’s books for not focusing on the pain inherent in life in a divided Korea as fixedly as those of some of his colleagues, but a novel like this one, involving as directly as it does the theme of North-South relations — let alone featuring a North Korean protagonist, and one portrayed as a non-monster at that — can’t avoid dealing with separation, whether between states or between individuals.

And so the material of The Empire of Light becomes, in the words of French ambassador, something “between espionage and philosophy,” breaking from the thriller-like plot of Kim’s novel to engage in a polyphonic meditation on not just separation but conflict, allegiance, and memory themselves, perceived from across the ever-growing gulf between two societies. There the performance uses its recording-room set in the most literal way, bringing the actors up to standing microphones to deliver monologues composed of thoughts, memories, and emotions, both factual and fictional, stirred by North Korea. A very French theatrical tactic, you might say — but a very Korean one as well.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. If you’re in town, come to the free, bilingual Seoul Book and Culture Club event he’ll host on Saturday, April 2nd, a conversation with award-winning young Korean writers Kim Ae-ran, Chan Kangmyoung, and Kim Min-jung.

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The New Life in English of an Old Eileen Chang Novel

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Eileen Chang’s fiction mirrored her life. Shanghai comes alive in her pages, from the political turmoil in the 1930s and 40s to the nightlife and fashion of the times. But Chang — a.k.a. Zhang Ailing — is best known for her love stories beset by family interference, betrayal, and melancholy reunions. Born and raised in Shanghai, Chang was unusual in that she wrote in both English and Chinese, often translating her own work. She also translated other authors’ books, including Han Bangqing’s massive tome, The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai. This book and another classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, shaped her writing. But her life experiences in love and disappointment influenced her work more than anything.

It’s surprising that the book that has most often been adapted to film, television, and the stage in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Half a Lifelong Romance, has only recently been translated into English. This translation, the work of Karen S. Kingsbury, was published last year in the United Kingdom and came out just last week in the United States. Chang originally wrote it as a Chinese serial in 1950 titled Eighteen Springs, later turning it into a single volume and, after many revisions, publishing it in 1968 with the title, Half a Lifelong Romance.

The story follows the early adult years of Gu Manzhen, a young typist at a Shanghai factory who becomes friendly with male colleagues Shen Shijun and Hsu Shuhui. After several months, Manzhen and Shijun start dating, but she isn’t ready to marry quite yet. Because Manzhen’s father left her mother a widow with a handful of children, Manzhen fears Shijun would be in over his head if he took on the Gu family’s expenses while Manzhen’s brothers were still young. Shijun is a junior engineer at the factory and doesn’t earn a comfortable salary yet. But they are both happy with their relationship and are willing to marry a few years down the line, after Manzhen’s brothers complete their studies.

In true Eileen Chang fashion, Manzhen and Shijun’s relationship breaks apart due to family interference and misunderstandings. After Manzhen’s father passed away, her older sister, Manlu, broke off her engagement to a doctor and went to work as a taxi-dancer to earn money for her siblings’ education, including Manzhen’s. Saving Manzhen from a life in the red-light district, Manlu is willing to make these sacrifices for her family but is also resentful of the hardships she faced when she broke off her engagement to be with strange men. Although Manlu eventually marries an ill-mannered but wealthy man named Zhu Hongtsai, her past doesn’t sit well with Shijun. He insists that Manzhen’s family move away from Shanghai before his relatives learn about her sordid family history.

Chang’s female protagonists are typically independent women who still care about upholding their family’s honor even as they place importance on studying, working, and earning their own money. When Shijun makes this demand on Manzhen, she replies, “If you want to talk about immorality, I don’t know who’s more immoral: prostitutes, or the men who are their clients!” This argument drives a wedge between the pair, but what happens next will alter their relationship forever: Manzhen is brutally betrayed by her family and 14 years pass before she sees Shijun again.

This is where Half a Lifelong Romance resembles Chang’s other work. For a year, Manzhen is locked away in the home of her sister, Manlu, and brother-in-law, Hongtsai. When Chang was a teenager, her father and stepmother held her captive in their attic for half a year. She writes an autobiographical character in her novel, The Fall of the Pagoda, who is also imprisoned by her father and stepmother. In real life Chang escaped with the help of a maid; in Half a Lifelong Romance, Manzhen escapes her sister and brother-in-law’s wrath after befriending a kind woman she meets during a brief hospital stay.

Manzhen’s unexpected reunion with Shijun is not unlike the main characters in Chang’s novella Red Rose, White Rose, who bump into each other on a Shanghai tram many years after the end of their affair. In Shijun and Manzhen’s case, he married someone else less than a year after he last saw Manzhen. At the time the two reunite fourteen years later, Manzhen has been married and divorced. As with many of her other novels, Chang makes sure both the men and women in these doomed relationships feel the effects of their loss when they meet up again after many years. This is certainly the case for Manzhen and Shijun when they bump into each other years later. “He felt a prickling in his eyes as the tears came, and his throat was full. He stared hard at her. Her lips were trembling.”

In earlier versions of Half a Lifelong Romance, the characters move north during the Chinese Civil War in the last half of the 1940s and end up with their original partners. But in the final 1968 version, which is what Kingsbury translated into English, Chang pared the story back to end in 1945, before the start of the Civil War, so that it would be free from politics other than a short passage about the war with Japan. This translation doesn’t end on a high note, but that’s trademark Eileen Chang.

An interesting note about the translation: the Chinese Romanization is a combination of Wade-Giles and pinyin. Kingsbury explains that she used both styles to make the pronunciation as easy as possible for the reader. So ‘c’ and ‘x’ in pinyin are ‘ts’ and ‘sh’ in this translation and give us names like Tsuizhi and Hongtsai. That doesn’t explain why most cities are written in pinyin except for Nanking.

In recent interviews, Kingsbury has suggested that Half a Lifelong Romance took this long to be translated because English readers weren’t ready for it until recent times, most likely due to Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Chang’s Lust, Caution. Chang herself was not satisfied with her reception in the west. She left China for Hong Kong in the early 1950s and settled in the United States in 1955. A decade earlier, she was married briefly to a Chinese editor fourteen years her senior, who was a Japanese sympathizer and passed away in Tokyo decades after their divorce. In the United States, Chang met American screenwriter Ferdinand Reyher. They were married for eleven years until his death in 1967. During Chang’s four decades in the United States, she was never happy with the sales of her English novels. This could be why she didn’t translate Half a Lifelong Romance when she had the chance.

Chang, like many of her female protagonists, ended up alone in her middle adulthood and beyond. With no children or family members apart from her brother, she lived a secluded life in Los Angeles toward the end of her life. In 1995, Chang’s landlord found her dead in her apartment at the age of 74. It was determined that she had passed away several days earlier from cardiovascular disease. When she died, her neighbors in Los Angeles had no idea she was a celebrated author.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong a year before the Handover. She is now based in Chicago and can be found online at www.susanbkason.com and on Twitter at @Susan_BK.

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Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics: An Introduction and Reading

The Last Bookstore and the Los Angeles Review of Books are pleased to present the editors and translators of Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics. Join Olivia C. Harrison, Guy Bennett, and Lia Brozgal for this special book launch event on Thursday March 24 at 7:30 PM, sponsored by the Los Angeles Review of Books, and learn about an incandescent corpus of experimental leftist writing from North Africa — now made available in English for the first time.

Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics makes available, for the first time in English, an incandescent corpus of experimental leftist writing from North Africa. Founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and several other avant-garde Moroccan poets and banned in 1972, Souffles-Anfas was one of the most influential literary, cultural, and political reviews to emerge in postcolonial North Africa. An early forum for tricontinental postcolonial thought and writing, the journal published texts ranging from experimental poems, literary manifestoes, and abstract art to political tracts, open letters, and interviews by some of the period’s most important artists and intellectuals, including Abdelkebir Khatibi, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Albert Memmi, Abraham Serfaty, Etel Adnan, Sembene Ousmane, Amilcar Cabral, René Depestre, and Mohamed Melehi.

This talk charts the journal’s evolution from Francophone poetry review to French and Arabic tribune of the radical left and highlights its interventions into key postcolonial debates, including the uses of French and Arabic in the Maghreb, studies of the Maghrebi Jewish diaspora, and the question of Palestinian sovereignty. Reflections on the journal’s resonances with the recent pro-democracy protests across North Africa and the Middle East as well as the renewed struggle for civil rights in the United States will allow us to assess the journal’s enduring legacy in Morocco, the Maghreb, and the decolonizing world.

For more information, visit The Last Bookstore.

 

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‘The Oxford English Dictionary’: A Great Read in Alphabetical Order and Otherwise

By  Edward Finegan

“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary” David Bowie exclaimed to an interviewer in 1999 — and, in tribute, added, “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” It is about everything — everything with a name — and it is really long. Nor is it a stretch to regard it as poetic: Shakespeare is the most frequently cited author of the OED’s illustrative quotations. David Bowie may not have read the whole OED, but a furniture mover named Ammon Shea recently did just that. He read all of its 21,730 pages — and judged it “a great read.” In the OED he found “all of the human emotions and experiences … just as they would be in any fine work of literature,” even if, as he wryly noted, in the OED those emotions and experiences “just happen to be alphabetized.”[1] Plainly, Bowie and Shea were blessed with a touch of onomatomania!

Other “onomatomaniacs” regularly grab the headlines. News outlets run stories about the word of the year, or WOTY, chosen by one organization or another. In January 2016, members of the American Dialect Society anointed they as their WOTY. Its utility as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person — a substitute for the gendered pronouns he and she — won this 800-year-old humble pronoun that commendation! Besides simple words like they, the American Dialect Society accepts compounds and phrases as candidates and even hashtags and emojis. Last year the hashtag #blacklivesmatter won their vote, and two years earlier hashtag itself was the winner. If dictionaries are alphabetized repositories of words, we might ask what kinds of expression are eligible to appear in them. With the Oxford English Dictionary announcing revisions to its latest version every three months, we can address that question by reviewing recent additions.

About 500 updates were announced in late 2015 — expressions and senses added just in the preceding quarter: words like improvisor, locavore, phablet, subcommittee, and truther, along with compounds like attack ad, bankroller, commitment ceremony and commitment ring, exit interview and exit polling, firepit, fire hydrant, and fire sale, granny chic and granny gear, improvised explosive device and IED, location scout, strength training, and true believer. Among newly added phrases were fight fire with fire and be firing on all cylinders. Some updates captured expressions that had appeared only recently in print: locavore in 2005; phablet in 2010. While truther may seem novel, it’s been around for over a century, and bankroller dates to 1930, improvisor to 1830, and firepit to 1500. For a surprising number of updates, then, the OED is merely catching up. Dictionaries are linguistic laggards, not leaders!

Among recent “blends” added to the OED are autotune, bromance, photobomb, cybrarian, sext, sexploit, shockumentary, staycation, hacktivism, voluntourism, and twerk (a word since 1820, possibly blending twitch or twist and jerk); among compounds, Blu-ray, crowdfunding, pageview, stir-fry, tan line, tea partier, hoverboard, and the verb waterboard; among words derived by prefixing, declutter and retweet. More liberal now than in its first edition, the new OED contains foodie, gazillionaire, artsy, carb, trash talk, party animal, street cred, prenup, shopaholic and infoholic, app, McJob, studmuffin, LOL and OMG, shout-out, tighty-whities, wackadoodle, fashionista, schwag, blamestorming, selfie, 24-7, and about 8,000 other colloquial expressions. It also contains over two hundred “coarse slang” terms and senses, including dipshit, hump, Masshole, pissy, pole, screw, shag, and dozens that include the F-word. A 60-year-old euphemism itself, F-word first appeared in the OED only in 2008.

So how do editors decide what goes into the OED — and when? Well, the primary data upon which the OED relies for definitions and for tracing the evolution in a word’s meaning are real-life quotations. To nourish the first OED, volunteer readers around the world submitted slips of paper, each containing an illustrative quotation — a sentence with a single word underlined (and including details of its source). Today, via the Internet anyone anywhere can furnish quotations in response to editors’ appeals, and modern-day crowdsourcing provides the authoritative basis for OED definitions. Contributors tackle newspapers and diaries; specialist magazines (treating, say, jazz or pop culture) and journals (treating, say, medicine or astronomy); cook books, movie scripts — any venue where a vibrant English is in use. More than three million quotations breathe life into the OED, reflecting in words an evolving view of the world shaped for English-speakers by their adaptive language during the past thousand years. Beyond that, inquiries by people visiting the online dictionary — words typed into its search function — provide a heads-up about new and trending words that can indicate those missing from the dictionary. Editors may then seek published quotations containing previously unnoticed expressions or senses, and assess how widely they are used. Editors also mine other dictionaries — such as the Dictionary of American Regional English — to detect overlooked words.

Today, the vast resources of language on the Internet provide illustrative quotations that document a word’s meaning, origins, and utility. As a consequence of its reliance on real-world quotations, the OED is a descriptive dictionary — it illustrates and explains how English speakers actually use their language, and it doesn’t prescribe how editors — or anyone else — think they should use it. While many a language priss or fuss-pot may lambaste a dictionary that fails to prescribe, the OED prides itself on describing the living language and its history.

Despite an abundance of online language materials and mammoth computing power, lexicography — like language itself — remains a creative enterprise. Being a historical dictionary, the OED endeavors to document the development of English words from their beginnings to the present day. When the project was conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, its visionaries couldn’t imagine what labor and time their “New English Dictionary” would require. The first unbound “fascicle,” covering the letters A to Ant, was published in 1884, and by time the 128th — and final — fascicle appeared in 1928 the treatment of many words at the head of the alphabet had become outdated, and other words in widespread use were missing.

One famous example involves appendicitis. The word had first appeared in print in 1886, but OED editor James Murray excluded it: too erudite and rare. Then, in 1902, when the coronation of Edward VII was postponed to accommodate an attack of appendicitis, his subjects — and English speakers worldwide — were left to wonder what it was! Changed by World War I, the English language and the dictionary encapsulating it needed to reflect new realities, incorporating military and war terms and a wide range of cultural expressions, and a supplement appeared in 1933. Again, in 1957, following another world war and great cultural changes, work started on a new supplement, which appeared in four large tomes between 1972 and 1986. The second edition of the OED, incorporating the four-volumes, included a huge expansion of 20th-century terms, especially in science and technology, and far better coverage of English outside Britain. On a tour of the United States, R. W. Burchfield, the supplement’s editor, acknowledged that “The center of gravity for the English language is no longer Britain” and conceded that “American English is the greatest influence on English everywhere.”

English may be said to have started in the middle of the 5th century when Germanic tribes invaded Celtic-speaking Britain. Since that time, English speakers have come into contact with peoples speaking hundreds of languages, and as a consequence English has “borrowed” tens of thousands of words from scores of languages. Names of foods are among the most obvious borrowings. In cities around the world, ethnic restaurants familiarize English speakers with terms to spice up their wordhoard. As examples, miso, ramen, sashimi, shiitake, soy, sushi, tempura, teriyaki, tofu, and wasabi come from Japanese; kimchi from Korean; tahini, falafel, harissa, shawarma, tabbouleh, halal from Arabic; and dal, ghee, and chutney from Hindi. Reflecting various historical and cultural touchstones are other borrowings: from Korean, tae kwon do; from Arabic, alcohol, alcove, algebra, alkali, almanac (all beginning with the Arabic definite article), and mujahidin, hijab, loofah, fedayeen, jihad, medina, and intifada; from Hindi, jungle, rupee, raj, yoga, guru, veranda, cot, thug, sari, dinghy, bangle, cheetah, loot, chintz, sangha, ganja, gunny, and swami; and from Japanese, Zen, samurai, tsunami, kimono, tycoon, haiku, karate, rickshaw, shogun, geisha, judo and ju-jitsu, kamikaze, bonsai, kanji, ginkgo, karaoke, sumo, futon, koi, origami, kudzu, honcho, ninja — and over 500 more.

Visitors to the OED Online can readily discover that from American or Mexican Spanish come abalone, Apache, charro, Chicana and Chicano, coyote, gringo, hoosegow, and stampede (alongside food names like burrito, chilli, fajita, taco, and tamale). Given the prominence of Spanish-speaking communities in Los Angeles, it’s no accident that the Spanish word quinceañera first appeared in an English-language newspaper published in Van Nuys (in 1972). Los Angeles also has a significant Persian-speaking community, through whose language directly or indirectly have come ayatollah, baksheesh, bazaar, caravan, cummerbund, dervish, dinar, divan, khaki, kiosk, pashmina, seersucker, shah, sherbet, taffeta, and turban. From Hawaiian comes wiki (shortened from wikiwiki ‘quick quick’), while hickory, hominy, moccasin, skunk, sockeye, tepee, toboggan, tomahawk, wickiup, and woodchuck come directly or indirectly from Native American languages, as do place names like Illinois, Oklahoma, and Malibu.

Not all words have known origins, and OED Online makes it easy to identify posh, gizmo, honky-tonk, reggae, nifty, jalopy, bonkers, bozo, smidgen, boondoggle, pizzazz, barf, fuddy-duddy, and boffin as terms seemingly from nowhere. But such informal words aren’t the only ones that thwart etymologists: the origins of girl, big, dog, beach, and other core words also remain baffling.

In print dictionaries we rely on the alphabet to locate a word and its meaning, and the 21st-century OED Online remains alphabetical, with meanings organized chronologically (and by part of speech) within its entries. Alphabetically, abalone follows abalienation and desk follows desize, but there is no shared meaning within the pairs. Our discussion above peeked at words through the lenses of word type (blends and compounds) and language source (Persian and Hindi). Within language sources we discussed foods, a semantic category of words. Had it suited our purpose, we could have organized the discussion solely by categories of meaning: food (sushi, taco, kimchi, chutney), sport and recreation (tae kwan do, karate, sumo), combat (kamikaze, mujahidin, tomahawk), fabric (chintz, khaki, taffeta), and dress (cummerbund, sari, turban). Even a dictionary that lists meaning relationships like synonym (shut for close) and antonym (close for open) doesn’t allow meaning connections to be systematically pursued. Instead, the job of organizing words according to their meaning falls to a thesaurus, and despite Roget’s influential lead it’s a gigantic challenge to systematize meanings meaningfully.

To help in that endeavor, OED Online links to the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 2009 after decades spent designing a suitable system other than the alphabet. In the end, the Historical Thesaurus organized words under three top-level categories of meaning — the external world, the mind, and society, each with subcategories and subcategories of subcategories. As an example, alongside the OED’s definition of Hollywood (“The American film industry, its characteristics and background; (also) a film produced in Hollywood”), a link to the thesaurus yields two kinds of information: the hierarchy categorizing this meaning of Hollywood (society > leisure > the arts > performance arts > cinematography …) and — in historical order — the words in the OED that share that meaning: filmland, Hollywood, Tinseltown, and la-la land. A monumental work itself, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary reorganizes all the OED’s words in accordance with their meaning.

Our discussion of the OED, citing so many categories of words, could not have been written using only a print edition customarily found in a library reading room. Online search capabilities were crucial. With links to the thesaurus and a fistful of search functions, OED visitors can access a vibrant language in a dynamic historical dictionary that remains alphabetical in its organization but invites exploration in a dozen alternative ways as well. With frequent announcements of revisions and with fascinating search options, OED Online is the most stimulating and informative window on the development of English vocabulary and, over the course of a millennium, the evolution of the notions, concepts, and meanings captured in English words. Beyond linguistic matters, today’s OED invites social, cultural, and historical exploration in ways hardly imagined before the 21st century. Visits to the OED, traveled along the alphabet or alternate routes, have the power to reshape how we organize our knowledge of the world through words: the Oxford English Dictionary is about everything — everything with a name!

[1] Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (2008)

Edward Finegan is Professor of Linguistics and Law, Emeritus, at the University of Southern California.

This essay is connected to Hollywood is a Verb: Los Angeles Tackles the Oxford English Dictionary, a Library Foundation of Los Angeles project. The project will also host an unprecedented dual language English and Spanish spelling bee in the Mark Taper Auditorium of Downtown LA’s  historic Central Library this Saturday, March 19.

Image courtesy of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.

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We All Had a Hard Time Back Then: Lee Seung-U’s ‘The Private Lives of Plants’

By Colin Marshall 

This is the first in a series of posts on the Library of Korean Literature, a series of modern novels and books of short stories in English translation published by Dalkey Archive Press in collaboration with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

I once heard the Korean filmmaker Lee Sang-woo make a remark that shed a lot of light on the expectations of an international “art” filmmaker. He named Titanic as his personal favorite movie and claimed to want to do nothing more than make a silly romantic comedy, yet to that point had a filmography full of grim microbudget features set among Korea’s more desperate classes with names like Father Is a Dog (아버지는 개다) and Mother Is a Whore (엄마는 창녀다). He’d made them, he said, because film festivals go for them; they want to see the “dark side” of the places their movies come from, so he’d obligingly darkened it up every time. (He said it at a Q&A following his latest picture, a high-school story of drugs, prostitution, cancer, and sex addiction.)

Lee Seung-u’s The Private Life of Plants (식물들의 사생활), which opens with its narrator driving around looking for working girls for his disfigured brother who, without regular sexual activity, goes into thrashing, terrifying fits — and this as an alternative to the brother’s former practice of having his mother carry him on her back to the brothels — at first struck me as an example of the same phenomenon. If world cinema has this festival-driven bias toward extravagant misery, might smaller and more “serious” publishers have incentivized the same thing in world literature? But the more I read, the more the novel deviated from my expectations — and the more pleasingly strange it became.

We learn that the narrator, Ki-hyeon, feels responsible for the loss of his brother Woo-hyeon’s legs. It happened due to an explosion during a military training exercise, and he got sent off to the military as a punishment for have taken the wrong pictures during his brief time as an avid photographer. “I remember the days when my brother was always on the streets with his camera,” remembers Ki-hyeon. “It was a time when Seoul often teemed with demonstrators and the air was filled with tear gas. His eyes watering and nose running, he devotedly clicked his shutter. He took photos of the police throwing tear gas bombs and wielding their clubs wile charging against protesters. He snapped shots of protesters throwing firebombs against the police shields, and photos of grimacing passerby, running for safety to avoid exploding tear gas bombs.”

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This could only have been the mid-1980s, when clashes in the street between between the people and the government, one side usually represented by college students and the other by equally youthful troops of riot police, gained both frequency and intensity. These and other disturbances would ultimately force South Korea into a kind of democracy, but not without serious loss of life and abuse of power. Lee dramatizes the heavy hand of the state in the fate of Woo-hyeon, arrested and forcefully enlisted after a police raid of the family home discovers what he’d been photographing. Their authorities had got their tipoff, it seems, from an unfinished roll of film left in Woo-hyeon’s Nikon after Ki-hyeon, effectively kicked out of the house and feeling vengeful, sold it to a camera shop for pocket money.

“I learned the truths of our times through your photos,” says an apologetic Ki-hyeon to the legless, vocationless Woo-hyeon years later. “I didn’t read newspapers; I didn’t need to, because nothing was more honest than your photos. I saw the raw truth in them. Through your photos I learned of the sadness and despair of our reality and I saw its anger and tears.” But Woo-hyeon has long since left photography behind, along with almost everything else but the fits, the prostitutes, and the occasional haunting, dissociative monologue about trees. He seems not even to think any longer of Soon-mee, his girlfriend from before the arrest and the wedge driven between the two brothers that, in a way, motivated Ki-hyeon to steal the camera in the first place: since he couldn’t have the girl on whom he’d developed a romantic fixation, he’d take the object of his brother’s intellectual fixation.

Having moved back into the family house, Ki-hyeon, whose ne’er-do-well ways had never benefited from comparison to those of the formerly serious, high-achieving Woo-hyeon, finds the motivation to start his own business, a one-man errand-running agency called Bees and Ants (“a name I greatly admired”). No sooner has he installed a phone line and bought a few ads than a client rings him up hiring to tail his own mother. Unable to resist taking the lucrative case, in this way finds out about her facilitation of his brother’s brothel habit. “I felt nauseous,” he says. “No mother should do something like that! My inner rage was so strong that I felt my heart would explode.”

By Ki-hyeon’s standard, that doesn’t count as great emotional hyperbole. Time and again he tells us of situations where “unable to control my anger, I began to shout at him,” or where “despite all logic I was helplessly consumed by a raging envy,” or where “my strange passion gripped me tightly and inflated by self-confidence to a dangerous degree.” But readers of Korean literature might expect such heightened passions and characters consumed by them, especially when those characters describe those passions as leading them inexorably into regrettable acts of violence, crime, sex, or some combination thereof — micro-tramas ultimately caused, to some degree, by the macro-traumas of Korean history.

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But some of the characters in The Private Life of Plants find a refuge from this inner turmoil, down near a seaside town on the other side of the country from Seoul. When his mother seems suddenly to decide she needs to go town there, Ki-hyeon follows her, eventually witnessing a meeting between her and a frail old man, not long for this world, who turns out to have been her lover of thirty-five years before. It happens under an enormous palm tree (in and of itself a bizarre enough sight to Ki-hyeon, who’s never left his homeland), planted by the couple back when she was just a young waitress, and he  a high-powered official who frequented her restaurant.

Just as Woo-hyeon and Soon-mee wound up a kind of casualty of South Korea’s troubled political climate, so did Ki-hyeon’s mother and this man. Fingered by a colleague as a North Korea sympathizer, he had to go into a sudden but prolonged period of political exile. The accuser himself, overwhelmed by the guilt of decades, arranges this long-separated couple’s reunion: “He repeated, over and over again, that he was the one to blame. He also said how he was ashamed of still being alive and not getting what he really deserved — death. But at the same time he didn’t resist giving an excuse for his conduct. ‘But as you know,’ he said, ‘we all had a hard time back then.’”

As often in Korean literature, hard times then beget hard times now, but by the end of this short novel, the characters find themselves heading toward a kind of broken redemption. Nothing has fully absolved Ki-hyeon of his guilt; nothing has extinguished the candle his mother holds for the man who came before his devoted but taciturn and botany-obsessed father; nothing has brought back Woo-hyeon’s legs. And though the clouds of tear gas in Seoul and elsewhere have long since dissipated, nothing has cleared up the ambient distrust between the powerful and everyone else.

Having tracked down Soon-mee with the skills that serve him so well at Bees and Ants and put her up in the empty house beside the palm tree, Ki-hyeon prepares to deliver his brother there, to the spot just outside reality that provided a temporary paradise to his mother and her lover those thirty-five years ago. Whether it will offer such a state of being to Soon-mee and Woo-hyeon as well Lee leaves open. “I loved Soon-mee the way that my father loved my mother,” concludes Ki-hyeon. “But she loved my brother, just as my mother loved another man. But just as it can’t be said that Mother doesn’t love Father, it also can’t be said that Soon-mee doesn’t love me.” And while it can’t be said that they’ve all arrived on the bright side, exactly, nor can it be said that they remain on the dark one.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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The Mermaid

By Austin Dean

First released in China on February 8th, The Mermaid (Meiren yu) took less than two weeks to become the highest-grossing film in the history of mainland Chinese cinema. The same day it passed that milestone in China (February 19th), the film opened in limited release in the United States. Playing on only 35 screens, the movie brought in just over a million dollars at the weekend box office.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it put The Mermaid 16th out of the 50 films playing that weekend, and its average take per screen was a very high $29,000. It was actually the biggest opening weekend for a Chinese movie in the United States in more than a decade. By the first weekend in March, the movie had grossed just over $2.5 million at the American box office. The Columbus, Ohio AMC theatre where I saw it on a Sunday afternoon was nearly full, and not just with Chinese viewers.

The Mermaid is the latest in a series of Chinese blockbusters like Lost in Thailand and Lost in Hong Kong to get a limited U.S. release. In fact, the release of The Mermaid was so limited that apparently some executives at Sony — which distributed the film — didn’t even know it was playing in the United States. As critic Simon Abrams wrote, “Sony ought to be ashamed for keeping such a good film from American viewers who aren’t already part of the Chinese diasporic community.”

Directed by Stephen Chow, whose previous movies like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer are equal parts slapstick and irreverent, The Mermaid has a strange alchemy of physical humor, tragedy, word play, violence, comedic symmetry, and cruelty. Leaving the theatre, it was hard to answer a seemingly common question: What kind of movie did I just see?

Like many aspects of China today, the film begins with a shady real estate deal. Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), a property tycoon who started from nothing and now has everything except morals and taste, acquires a vast tract of land near the fictitious Green Gulf. The other bidders think the land can’t be developed due to environmental restrictions meant to protect dolphins. Liu, no stranger to underhanded tactics, manufactures a solution: the dolphins won’t need to be protected if they aren’t there. He installs a powerful sonar device that drives out the dolphins and secures a permit for reclamation and building. His solution could be a case study in “How to Do Business in China 101.”

The sonar, however, also killed a number of mermaids. The remaining mermaids, led by Brother Eight (Show Luo), a vengeful half-man half-octopus with dreadlocks, want Liu dead. They set up a honey trap using the young, beautiful, and naïve Shan (Lin Yun). After a series of double entendres, slapstick humor involving poisonous sea urchins, singing, and dancing, the two fall in love. Liu decides to cancel the project and turn off the sonar; the pretty mermaid has redeemed the corrupt billionaire. That doesn’t sit well with Ruo Lan (Zhang Yuqi), another property tycoon, who had set up a side deal with Liu regarding the reclamation project. But there are other factors at play. And the movie — interrupted by a Chinese-style traffic jam — comes to a gory crescendo.

The Mermaid is undeniably funny, but the changes in tone are abrupt, especially towards the end of the film. One moment the viewer is stuck in traffic and the next she’s watching young mermaids get shot. It can be a bit uncomfortable. The woman sitting next to me was laughing at the middle but crying at the end.

These shifts didn’t go unnoticed by critics. The reviewer at The Guardian notes that the film often finds itself in “troubled tonal waters.” Glen Kenny of The New York Times doesn’t think the movie falters under its undulating emotional landscape because “Mr. Chow’s signature is so sure that the tonal changes have a unity born of conviction.”

But there’s something more to be said about this. What’s distinct about The Mermaid is that watching the film gives the viewer a sense of what it’s like to be in China: full of incongruities, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes bizarre. The point here is not to exoticize the country, but rather to say that life there today can be hard to pin down.

Perhaps the most common question an American gets after returning from China is the predictable one: “What is China like?” The only honest answer I’ve ever been able to come up with to this query is to say “Pick any adjective in the English language. China, at a particular moment, is like that. Then, not long thereafter, it’s like another adjective.”

The same thing can be said about The Mermaid.

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Learning from the Korean City

By Colin Marshall 

Few books have changed the way I see cities Eastern or Western as much as Barrie Shelton’s Learning from the Japanese City. Were I an urban-planning academic, I’d want to write its counterpart for the Korean city myself. But until some urban-planning academic does take it upon themselves to write such a book, I actually recommend to those who arrive in and struggle to understand Seoul, or any less colossal Korean City, Shelton’s original. As I spend more time in Korea — punctuated by visits to its neighbor across the water, where I happen to sit writing this very post — the exercise of spotting the differences between it and Japan has become an exercise of spotting their ever-rarer similarities.

A great deal of work has gone into scrubbing away the imprint of the Japanese colonial rule, which lasted in Korea between 1910 and the end of the Second World War, including the demolition of structures built (no matter how well) during that time. Consequently, you don’t see much architectural similarity between, say, Seoul and Tokyo, but you do see a fair extent of overall urban similarity, beginning with the feelings both cities provoke in first-time Western visitors. “I was baffled, irritated and even intimidated by what I saw,” writes Shelton of his own early exposure to Japanese urban environments. “Yet at the same time, I found myself energized, animated and indeed inspired by them. The effect was liberating and my intuition was quick to suggest that further exploration of their chaotic vitality might be extremely rewarding.”

Tokyo and Seoul have long made this kind of unfavorable first impression, at least since, “to the ‘Enlightened’ Western eye of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the cities appeared drab, featureless and insubstantial,” and the observing Westerners, “almost without exception, could not see beyond the flimsiness of the individual buildings and the collective monotony of the cities.” Shelton even quotes the late nineteenth-century traveler Isabella Bird Bishop (about whose travels through Korea more in a later post) describing Tokyo as “‘a city of “magnificent distances” without magnificence’ meaning that it was an amorphous amalgam of grey featureless patches in a seemingly endless urban landscape.”

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That description will sound familiar to every Seoulite, as will Shelton’s quotation of the Australian novelist Hal Porter on the Tokyo of the 1950s and 60s: “makeshift and confused, a freak weed sprung from a crack in history, and drenched by a fertilizer that makes it monstrous but not mighty, immense but immoral, overgrown and undercivilized,” despite the “unparalleled opportunities” for reconstruction, when “it was incinerated flat by the 1923 earthquake and the World War II bombings, to disentangle and straighten out its Gordian knot of streets.” And even now, “to most Western eyes, Japanese cities lack civic spaces, sidewalks, squares, parks, vistas, etc; in other words, they lack those physical components that have come to be viewed as hall marks of a civilized Western city.”

You often hear the same complaints in Seoul, and though the complainers sometimes do it from a well-informed place of genuine urbanist concern, they often sound to me like non-readers of the Korean or Japanese languages moaning about how the pages of a Korean or Japanese newspaper don’t make any sense. Maybe they just need to learn to “read” these cities, or so I came to believe after reading Shelton’s book, since he bases much of his examination of the Japanese city on the notion of the urban fabric as a text. Most intriguingly, to my mind, he compares at length the way of Japanese city-building with the way of Japanese writing, in which two different phonetic alphabets (one of them dedicated exclusively to foreign words) coexist with the pictographic kanji descended from Chinese characters and even the Western alphabet.

“All appear alongside each other or interspersed as a matter of course in the newspapers, on the streets, etc.,” Sheldon writes. In Japanese, “each character has an areal base and an invisible centre of gravity. Since each bears meaning and is, to some degree iconic, it has a good measure of independence.” In Western writing, however, “our letters are abstract symbols without meaning and depend upon precise linear spacing to achieve it. Further, they are complete within themselves (finite in number) and can only be readily understood if written in a horizontal left-to-right format.” Thus “the most fundamental difference between the two ‘ways of seeing’ in these fields appears to be that the Japanese is based on area while the Western is on line, and it is from here that other differences tend to flow: namely the relative independence and flexibility exhibited by the parts in the Japanese systems.”

As with the Japanese text, so with the Japanese city, where one-dimensional streets have far less importance as places or even as wayfinding tools than do units of two-dimensional area, where the buildings that occupy those areas and the activities that take place in them bear little obvious relationship to the context around them, and where vastly different aesthetic styles, eras of history, and layers of “meaning” appear all at once, parseable only with great difficulty, if at all, to uninitiated foreign eyes. (Not to mention all the actual text visible all around, the “vertical and roof signs joined by massive flat and animated ones, not to mention large- scale screens complete with sound — in effect, street cinema.”)

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Shelton calls the layout of a Japanese magazine, and thus the layout of a Japanese city, “an intricate collage with no obvious centre and no clear edge,” words that remind me of any number of descriptions of Los Angeles, especially as it took its mid-twentieth-century form and struck so many observers as a brand new kind of metropolis. “When I imagine most Western cities, I think first of their streets and other spaces and the patterns of relationship between these: of major to minor streets, of monumental buildings to spaces, and of dominant centres to peripheral places. When I think of Japanese cities, I think of scattered points with no clear relationship between each other and often no clear form within themselves.”

And all throughout, “the Japanese city is quick to sever, discard, replace and re-form its parts according to the new needs of a rapidly changing world and without the Western concern for the wider visual context or pattern. Hence, the quality which so infuriates the Western observer seems also to be the Japanese city’s strength” — and the Korean city’s, and especially, with its famously short cycle of construction, demolition, and reconstruction, Seoul’s. Think of book whose text, already written in a variety of fonts, colors, and sizes (with pictures!), might change a word, a sentence, or a paragraph at a time even as you read it, but whose structure remains basically intact.

So it makes sense that Japanese and Korean cities would require their own navigational strategies. I’ve heard a fair few Western friends visiting Asia bemoan there countries’ lack of regular street grids, predictable street addresses, and even evident street names, but if they stay long enough, they start to internalize the necessary changes in perception. This comes especially quickly if they often ask for directions — which for these reasons they’ll need to do much more than they would in the West — and thus often get told to emerge from a certain subway station and walk toward the statue of the independence-movement freedom fighter, pass through a stretch of coffee shops, stop at the big bell and look for a couple of fried chicken places, then head up the winding path into the hill between them, and so on. The very terms used to give directions, especially in Korean, stresses context rather than path.

Hence, given “the haphazard nomenclature and numbering systems,” the importance of maps, a “common feature of regional and local newspapers, magazine and even billboard advertising” and an item commonly received along with an invitation to a private home. Shelton makes the point about Japan, of course, as did Roland Barthes when he wrote, in Empire of Signs, of how the Japanese “excel in these impromptu drawings” made to help recipients find their way through the cityscape. The Seoulite lives no less map-intensive an existence; several times a week, I come home to find a flier wedged in my door advertising my neighborhood’s newest yoga studio, hair salon, or Chinese food joint, its street address almost hidden away but a simplified (and usually self-aggrandizing, or at least self-exaggerating) map of its surroundings prominently placed.

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But over and above these details of life lived in them, why does a Seoul or a Tokyo immediately feel so different to someone coming from New York, London, or Paris? Shelton points out another different in language that sheds light on the question: the lack of a sharp distinction between “urban” and “rural.” He cites the scholar of Japanese geography Paul Waley as “at pains to stress that the Japanese language has no equivalent words for ‘city’ and ‘country’ and there is no strong idea that sets the two kinds of places in some sort of binary opposition.” The Japanese language has the word inaka (田舎) and Korean the word chonseureopda (촌스럽다), both evocative of “rural isolation and ignorance, but this is hardly a positive or even romantic image of the rural scene, rather a negative product of space and time.”

Not quite so in the countries of the West, most of whom insist upon a comparatively stark urban-rural divide not just in language but in planning. Waley, “searching for some vaguely related notion” to the Western glorification of the countryside, “was able to note only the home place or furusato (故郷) as a notion holding some positive out-of-the-city association for urban Japanese — for most do continue to retain some link with and affection for their ‘home’ place. This is, however, more a personal point of reference of family or home surroundings (which may be much more than a village) than a general concept of countryside.” Koreans have the very similar concept of gohyang (고향), referring to whatever smaller hometown they left for Seoul — but probably without too many reservations.

The same goes for the difference, much labored-over in English, about the difference between “public” and “private” space. “Just as Waley suggests that there are no equivalent Japanese words which pit the idea of ‘city’ against that of ‘country,’” Shelton writes, referring to the novelist and Japan researcher John David Morley’s observation that, unlike in the West where “‘public’ is a powerful term,” indicating “all those places to which the entire community has both access and for which it has responsibility” while “private is possessed by an individual or group and is not generally open to the public,” the Japanese language has no equivalent distinction, even having to import public from English as the loanword paburikku (パブリック).

As the classes of private and public lack a clear distinction in the Japanese language, so they lack a clear distinction in the Japanese city: activities that might seem to the Westerner to belong to public spaces might easily happen in parts of the city that feel more like private ones, and vice versa. Seoul, a city often criticized for the few-and-far-between-ness of such classic Western-style public spaces as parks, works just the same way. Whether there, in Tokyo, or in any other city in these two countries, we’d do well read what goes on in the city as much as we read the places it goes on it. It goes along with what Shelton frames as the fundamental difference in Western and Eastern “thinking about space”: the former’s affinity with area which has it “put greater emphasis in city place-making on content (information, activity and animation),” and the latter’s with line, which makes it “more preoccupied by form (object, physical pattern and aesthetic composition).”

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Shelton even assembles a list of all the organizational qualities that make Japanese cities the opposite of Western ones, from a preference for the patchwork over the network, decentralization over the centralization, temporariness over permanence, content over context, vague boundaries over clear ones, and fragments over wholes. No wonder Tokyo and Seoul seem illegible at first glance to someone who learned to read urban space in anywhere like a classical Western city, though I like to think that Angelenos — accustomed as they are to their city’s oft-criticized but unique interpretation of the decentralized, temporary, vaguely bounded and fragmentary patchwork — come with an advantage, however slight.

So many of Learning from the Japanese City‘s conclusions about its subject apply to Seoul as I experience it every day that I sometimes wonder if we even need a Learning from the Korean City. But the more thorough the similarities, the more glaring the differences, which brings us back to the analogy between the elements that make up a city and the language that makes up a text. Korea, needless to say, uses the Korean language, a different beast indeed than Japanese, and one without so much mixture of writing systems within. Korean texts, as well as Korean cityscapes, once incorporated a great many Chinese characters (and once, longer ago, had nothing but), though by now all but the most common have fallen into complete disuse. They also used the Japanese language, during the colonial period, but the process of de-Japanification has seen that it no longer makes up a substantial component of public life.

Pay a visit to a Seoul, then, and you’ll mostly see the distinctive — though linear, homogenous, and non-ideographic — Korean alphabet alongside, if not quite mixed with, ever more frequent splashes of English. What sort of a city does the thinking behind the Korean language, and the use of the Korean language as a visual texture, create? For the most part, we’ll have to wait and see. With every passing year, Seoul and the other cities of South Korea get a little farther from the decades of strong Japanese influence, and farther still from the centuries of strong Chinese influence before that. What sort of more fully Korean urban “text” will emerge down the line? Curiosity about the answer has, in part, brought me here myself. The text may undergo revision as you read the book, but the fascination of Seoul is that the language itself also gets invented. 

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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The Real Life of Seoul, as Seen by Street Photographer Michael Hurt

By Colin Marshall 

How do you convince someone to spend their limited travel time and money in Seoul? The officials tasked with promoting South Korea abroad have racked their brains over that very question for years and years, coming up with little in the way of sure-fire selling points for their capital city. Even aside from the formidable challenge of competing against name brands like New York, London, and Paris, Seoul struggles to positively distinguish itself, even in broad strokes, from the other metropolises of Asia. The integration of a deep-rooted culture with advanced technology? Tokyo has long had that image sewn up. Rapid change? Beijing changes faster now, for better or worse. Cheap food and a pleasurable nightlife? Sure, if you’ve never heard of Bangkok. Ease of communication? Don’t get any given tourist started.

They don’t really come to Seoul for its the renowned cultural institutions or its distinguished architecture, and certainly not for its history or diversity. What, then, makes this city so very compelling? I’ve had plenty of similar conversations about Los Angeles, another city which provokes in me (and a select but growing number of others) a fascination bordering on obsession, but whose appeal doesn’t always present itself to the first-, second-, or even third-time visitor. In the cases of both Los Angeles and Seoul, the answer always comes down, unsatisfyingly though it may sound, to a kind of unromantic vitality: though the basic elements of both cities can seem dull, dysfunctional, and even dangerous, the life lived among them, filled with boundless amounts of energy often flowing at cross purposes, offers a bottomless and ever self-refreshing subject of study.

In Seoul, few see this as clearly as Michael Hurt, a Korean-black American photographer who grew up in Ohio and first came here to live in 1994 as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program. After completing a graduate program in comparative ethnic studies at UC Berkeley in 2002, he returned to Korea and spent the next few years taking his camera to the streets in a serious way, capturing whatever struck him as the real visual and social texture of life in the city. Street photography had already established itself in Los Angeles and other cities across America and Europe, but in Seoul, apart from a cameraman named Kim Ki Chan who documented neighborhood activity in the 1960s and  70s, it remained a virtually unknown tradition.

 

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“Outback Girls” (2004)

Hurt shot all the pictures selected here during the early 2000s, the most street life-focused period of his photographic career. The image just above comes from a time, he says, “when I began noticing that Outback Steakhouses were a highly gendered space, dominated by twentysomething women.” This led to the realization that “what Koreans called ‘family restaurants’ were actually spaces for young women to socialize. This is about when my camera going in the direction of ‘gender performance’ and young women.” His photography and research in those areas has since led him to develop the field of visual sociology with Korea as a subject, a project further documented at his site Deconstructing Korea.

 

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“Post-Protest” (2003)

“I took this in after one of the big anti-American protests in Gwanghwamun,” Hurt says of the image above, “when the streets were blocked off but people were still milling about, lending a street festival-like vibe only extant for short periods of time.” I’ve come to Korea at a far less anti-American era, but should that sentiment arise again, it would no doubt make itself felt in this very same monument-scaled downtown space. “It’s no coincidence that Gwanghwamun was the site for the 2002 World Cup festivities and the big anti-American demonstrations. It was a natural site for mass gatherings charged with strong emotions,” whether of celebration or condemnation.

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The name Gwanghwamun refers to the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the reconstructed 14th-century compound that Seoul promotes as a prime tourist attractions. Some visitors find it interesting and some don’t, but I always like seeing a historical (or at least historically styled) structure amid a forest of gleaming high-rises. This makes me a predictable Westerner in Korea, since our eyes tend to get caught by all the old-and-new contrasts the city offers up, such as the one above. “I came across this dude standing there looking like he had stepped out of time machine,” Hurt says of this 2002 shot. He liked it at the time, but having realized the cliché inherent in the contrasts, admits that he’s “not very into this picture anymore” — but I, a much more recent arrival, still am.

 

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“Furlough” (2002)

While no longer as militarized as it was in the decades right after the Korean War, South Korean society still has a faintly martial tint that might surprise and even discomfit travelers from the West or other east Asian countries. Some of this has to do with the constant presence, here and there, of uniformed young fellows enlisted in their mandatory military stint but temporarily free to go out on the town. The picture above captures a moment when Hurt passed by one such soldier “who had seemingly taken his short leave from the military a bit past the limit. I slowed down the shutter and held the camera steady to get the motion in the back, which added a dreamy feel.”

 

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“Seoul Nights” (2003)

Those who would object to the portrayal of one of the country’s defenders in such a defenseless state might have an even stronger objection to the picture above, which Hurt snapped on the way through  Seoul Cheongnyangni 588 red-light district. “This was when prostitution was getting into the news,” he remembers, “and the statistic that the industry was four percent of the GDP was getting some play, but there was still a strong social dislike for bad news about Korea, and this picture was flagged as ‘anti-Korean’ when I exhibited it.” But urban redevelopment has had its way with Cheongnyangni, as with many other neighborhoods, hollowing out the venerable 588 — as much an institution, in its way, as Gyeongbokgung.

 

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“One Night in Hongdae” (2013)

In Korea, as Hurt well knows, depictions of “bad things” about the country can hit a nerve (“good things,” by contrast, can include sights that play up the glories of the country’s distant past, the modernity of its buildings, its bounty of upscale commerce, and its industrial and technological prowess). But nobody can actually extricate the “bad things” about any place worth visiting, let alone living, from the “good,” and Seoul provides just about the richest mixture of the two going today. The more recent picture above, taken in the youth-oriented art-school district Hongdae, provides a rich glimpse into the Seoul experience, capturing, as Hurt says, “what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call the ‘decisive moment.’ All the elements come together, and catching it requires a real feel for and knowledge of both the area and the people within it, combined with an instinctual familiarity with one’s equipment and the technical limits of one’s camera to capture that moment when it happens.”

In this case, Hurt explains, “you have to already be pushing the shutter button when she upchucks, having known she was going to do that before the fact. This is quintessentially Hongdae on a Saturday night, no matter what anyone says about this being a ‘negative image of Korea’ — which it most certainly is not. It is just a fact of life and a part of the culture. This is a shot across the bow to anyone who only wants the world to know about Korea as what I call ‘Arirang and hanbok.’ Korea is what it is, and it ain’t always fan dances and fairy tales about fishermen. This picture is me ‘keeping it real.’ That’s the only thing I ever wanted to do with my camera in Korea.”

You can see more of Michael Hurt’s photography on Instagram and Flickr, and in future posts here on the Korea Blog.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Red_Guards

The Cultural Revolution at 50 — A Q&A with Four Specialists (Part Two)

By Alexander C. Cook

[Editors’ note: This is the second of a two-part interview Alexander C. Cook conducted with four specialists in the study of China’s Cultural Revolution. We will have at least one more post related to this year’s anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, in the form of a list of suggested readings that flags recommended books, most of which deal with issues discussed in this two-part interview.]

ALEXANDER C. COOK: We left off last time talking about the culture of the Cultural Revolution. Of course we know about the Little Red Book of quotations at the center of the Mao cult, and also the famous model works that were meant to represent the new revolutionary culture. But Yiching Wu also mentioned that artistic and literary works of the period were both more diverse and more successful that we have usually acknowledged.

DENISE Y. HO: In the past, Cultural Revolution culture has been easy to dismiss. Despite Western fascination will objects that we might call “Mao kitsch” — buttons, statues, and posters — and Chinese nostalgia for Cultural Revolution music or plays, we have written off these cultural products as “just propaganda,” or not really culture at all. Recent scholarship has tried to change this view. One historian has suggested that the Communist Party created its own political culture, and that this was a key source of its legitimacy. Others have examined the art and music to show how Cultural Revolution culture was a modernization of both Chinese and Western traditions, part of a much longer project. Still others have focused on audience reception of these works, which could produce meanings beyond their propaganda messages.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What does a better understanding of culture contribute to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution?

DENISE Y. HO: My own research offers an illustration. I examine the use of exhibitions as part of political campaigns conducted before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. I show that exhibits were a political and cultural practice that taught people how to make revolution. For example, during one campaign in the years before the Cultural Revolution, officials displayed individuals’ personal possessions along with posterboards explaining why they were political enemies. Then, when the Cultural Revolution broke out, Red Guards invaded people’s homes and confiscated their belongings, putting objects on display along with posters describing their crimes. So political culture provided ordinary people with a repertoire, with an idea of how to act and how to describe their actions. This kind of evidence helps us understand where the Cultural Revolution came from, and how such propaganda was deeply powerful — sometimes producing tragic consequences.

YICHING WU: This issue of how ordinary people were provided with political repertoires to be acted on helps account for the characteristically dispersed and explosive character of the Cultural Revolution. While the rebels looked to the Maoist leadership for political guidance, the relationships between Mao and those who responded to his call were tenuous and fragile. With the breakdown of the party hierarchy, political messages transmitted from above were interpreted in different ways by different agents. People responded to their own immediate circumstances, giving expression to a myriad of social grievances and antagonisms. The forces unleashed by Mao took on lives of their own.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What happened to those forces?

YICHING WU: The disorder caused by mass insurgencies from below and paralyzing power conflicts at the top created a crisis. The nation was on the brink of anarchy. For example, some young radicals, invoking the historical example of the Paris Commune, claimed that China’s “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” would have to be toppled in order to establish a society in which the people can self-govern. Mao decided the crisis would have to be resolved. Quashing the restless rebels, the revolution cannibalized its own children and exhausted its once explosive energy. The demobilization of freewheeling mass politics in the late 1960s helped to restore the authority of the party-state, but also became the starting point for a series of crisis-coping maneuvers which eventually led to the historic changes in Chinese society and economy a decade later.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How did the party-state manage to maintain its monopoly on power after the Cultural Revolution?

DANIEL LEESE: Our present explanations are usually quite terse. Besides the threat of brute force and censorship regarding historical issues, the stimulation of economic growth is cited as the most important factor guaranteeing political and social stability. However, the legacies of the Cultural Revolution forced the party to deal with past injustices in much more detail than is commonly known. While the trial of the Gang of Four and the resolution on party history are common knowledge, below the surface, the CCP was faced with millions of cases that did not easily fit these simplistic ways of dealing with the past. Who was to be considered victim or perpetrator and based on what standards? How were victims to be compensated for their ordeals and what about stolen property and withhold wages? Were party members or groups whose participation was important to reform to be treated differently than ordinary citizens? These questions were of fundamental importance and constitute core issues that can be considered part of what we now call “transitional justice.” Although China did not witness the fall of a dictatorial regime, and therefore seems ill-suited for the application of this concept, nevertheless there can be no denying the fact that the party consciously adopted certain elements and rhetoric associated with transitional justice, even while taking every effort at distinguishing between the Chinese situation and human rights violations in other contexts.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Can you tell us more about transitional justice in post-Mao China?

DANIEL LEESE: Previous injustices were interpreted as temporary miscarriages of justice to be solved on an individual basis in a political system portrayed as generally sound. The party tried to preclude the formation of collective claims or the overburdening of local budgets. In both scope and timing, it was inevitable that case revisions saw great regional differences. Just as Yiching has turned historians’ attention to local history, our research group in Freiburg analyses how the party dealt with Maoist era legacies in different regions, ranging from the rehabilitation of former capitalists to the purge of persecutors within the party. Yet despite the political character of the “rehabilitation campaign” and the obvious continuities in the Chinese judiciary, the reversal of verdicts changed the fate of millions of people. Not least, the research leads us to rethink many aspects of what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: What is the long-term significance or global legacy of the Cultural Revolution?

FABIO LANZA: It is difficult to generalize globally, because the Cultural Revolution was an example that was interpreted, used, and deployed differently in different circumstances. But, going back to some of the themes I highlighted previously, we can essay a provisional assessment. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I would say the Cultural Revolution (including its global repercussions throughout the 1960s and 1970s) marks the end of Communist project, at least as embodied in the form of the party-state.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Yiching, would you say the same characterization is true for China?

YICHING WU: I absolutely agree with Fabio that the Cultural Revolution and its global repercussions marked the end of Communist project. But it’s also important to note, as Daniel does above, that the Chinese party-state survived the upheaval, and I would add that it has even thrived — however precariously — as the steward of “reform and opening up.” Fifty years ago Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to forestall the slide of Chinese socialism to capitalism, and the emergence of a new ruling elite which might lead China toward a class-stratified society. However, this is exactly what has happened in its aftermath. In order to understand this profound historical irony, I think that we must fundamentally rethink the conventional scheme of historical periodization, which typically portrays China’s post-Mao transformation as a radical break from the Maoist past. I argued in my book that the key to understanding China’s post-Mao shift of course lies in the late Mao era. In spite of its militancy, the Cultural Revolution attacked individual bureaucrats more than the very system of bureaucratic power. While the mass movements that it unleashed challenged the Party, the Cultural Revolution was unable to provide a viable alternative to the Leninist party-state. Leaving a regime in deep disarray and tens of millions of people traumatized and exhausted, the ideological failure of late Maoism paved the way for China’s ruling stratum to reorganize its rule by resorting to market-oriented policies as forms of political appeasement and readjustment. In this view, the post-Mao reform forms part of a continuous process of ideological and political maneuvers to contain, neutralize, and displace the prevalent antagonisms that resulted from the Cultural Revolution, when the mass movements unleashed by Mao threatened to undermine the foundation of the party-state. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that views changes in post-Mao China as in opposition to Mao’s utopian “last revolution” — and dates their starting point to the late 1970s, I therefore would argue that the origins of these changes in fact can be traced to the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1968-69, when mass demobilization and restoration of party and state organizations were in full force.

FABIO LANZA: We usually think of 1989 as the iconic date and the collapse of the Berlin wall as the iconic event in the collapse of Communism. But by then, the promises of political innovation within that framework had already been exhausted. As Yiching mentioned, the Cultural Revolution configured an attack against the Communist Party itself as the crucial element in the reproduction of inequalities in a supposedly class-less Chinese society. Globally, that attack reverberated in the form of radical movements that challenged established structures and political organizations — especially those which were supposed to be representatives of the disenfranchised (trade unions, leftist parties, black leadership in the US). The ultimate failure of the Cultural Revolution, in this sense, signaled the impossibility of change within and marked the end of decades of experiments centered on that model. In this perspective, it is not surprising that, globally, by the end of the 1970s we witness a massive tectonic shift in the political horizon — what Fukuyama called “the end of history.” The result was the apparent triumph of neoliberal capitalism everywhere, including in Deng’s China.

ALEXANDER C. COOK: Thank you, Denise, Fabio, Daniel, and Yiching.