IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 24 | Regions | East Asia



Korea: A historical & cultural dictionary


'Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary' is a concise manual that comprises several thousand entries about Korean historical, political, and cultural phenomena. It covers practically all past royals and politicians, as well as important writers, religious texts, symbols, painters, and foreign emissaries.


The entries vary in length; some may constitute no more than a definition of a few lines, while others may extend over two pages elucidating, for example, the change of a specific concept with time. The entries are mostly textual, though sometimes a picture or a chart is used to clarify a specific concept in more detail. In addition to this, the introduction provides two maps, a chronological chart of East Asia's dynastic periods, and an elaborate five-page explanation of the McCune-Reischauer romanization system used.

The dictionary is well organized. Most entries provide the Sino-Korean or Chinese characters next to the entry word(s), plus a translation. In the text, words that have their own separate entry are printed in bold. Some entries also provide one or two references to other sources in English at the end, but these often constitute the source rather than offering an extra view on the matter. In order to find a term, one can browse alphabetically or check one of the indexes in the back. There are two: an index of personal names, and one of literary and musical titles. The entries are given in the language in which they are commonly referred to abroad, so I found them generally ­ though not always ­ easy to find. Someone who is unfamiliar with the English for a specific Korean concept may have some trouble finding its entry, but I believe the potentially confusing subjectivity of this system is far outweighed by the fact that it allows one to find complicated Korean concepts through either their English equivalent or a generic term. Because the entries are cross-referenced, the reader is able to quickly check other possibilities once a relevant entry has been located. The problem is that, because there are too few references to other English-language materials, the adequacy and choice of the entries become an issue. There is not much the authors could have done to avoid this. One of the reasons why there has not been any cultural-historical handbook like this before may be that, apart from the difficulty of defining specific terms or concepts, the entries should, ideally, provide more than one reference to a more detailed source. There are still too few foreign-language sources on Korea to date.

The enormous number of entries notwithstanding, I could not help feeling that the reason the authors included such a large number of items on missionary activities on the one hand, and left out so many on post-war cultural phenomena on the other, was more than circumstantial. Too often I was left with the feeling that the authors had not spent much time in Korea recently. Much to my surprise, for example, I noticed that neither the important phenomena of 'cultural properties', human or national, nor the feeling of han, which is generally regarded as quintessentially Korean, or samul nori and noraebang (singing room), both already international phenomena, are mentioned anywhere in the dictionary. Nor do the now internationally acclaimed writers 'Yi Munyo(breve)l' and 'Pak Wanso(breve)', the award-winning director Im Kwo(breve)nt'aek, or such singer-icons as Pak Ch'unjae, Im Pangul, and Yi Ch'angbae feature. They surely qualify to 'typify its [Korea's] civilization, and the complexity of its experiences during the twentieth century' (p.iv), so I hope they will be included in a second edition. The inadequacy and somewhat outdatedness of quite a number of entries also demand a second revision.

Besides the fact that it covers only one-and-a-half pages mentioning only one other dish, kimch'i, and providing no references, the entry for food (pp.132-133), for example, says that dog's meat is only eaten by men at midsummer. In fact, the meat is nowadays eaten throughout the year, but particularly in the summertime, and because ­ like most dishes based on 'exotic' animals (i.e. imported rare species and pets and insects) ­ it is expensive and believed to enhance the male libido, it is only rarely eaten by women. The entry on 'folk song' (pp.131-132) suggests the original Korean term is minyo, but it fails to specify that this is only the scholarly denomination of the genre of songs that are commonly referred to as sori, t'aryo(breve)ng, or norae. It also claims that the Japanese eventually discouraged folksongs because they expressed nationalist sentiment. Because there are so many types of folksongs, a statement like this is bound to lead to confusion. Some folksongs were simply banned and others allowed since, in most cases, only Koreans were aware of the true meaning of the words they sang. The more clearly political songs that the Japanese sought to ban altogether appeared around the time of the March First Movement. They belong to a musically and lyrically separate genre known as ch'angga, which is briefly defined under a separate entry on p.71, but curiously left out of the second index.

Another entry that shows the dictionary's emphasis on historical rather than contemporary associations is that for 'swastika'. Although it correctly shows the many uses of the symbol, it fails to mention that it has become increasingly popular because of its association with Nazi Germany. Its present use on clothing, on the German military helmets of tens of thousands of food-delivery boys, and as 'cool' decoration in bars certainly warrants a mention. One other curious omission is North Korea's post-war subdivision of parts of North P'yo(breve)ngan province and South Hamgyo(breve)ng province into Chagang province and Yanggang province on Map 2 (p.xix). The new official system for romanizing Korean (p.ix) is also lacking, but perhaps because it was unfortunately adopted around the time of publication. In any case, I believe the 'old' system will continue to be used for quite some time and its accurate use in this volume very much adds to the book's value.

Editing has been practically flawless throughout, except for a few minor errors such as small spelling mistakes (see for example 'rôle' on p.vi, the pleonastic use of 'also' and 'as well' on p.ix, and the misspelling of mudong on p.310) and inconsistencies (see the rather outdated explanation of hansik as a time when 'no fire is lit in houses' on p.164, the two dates for the Kabo reforms on pp.212 and 479, the omission of a link between Arirang and Na Un'gyu, and the omission of the characters su and pok on pp.389-399). The odd errors are, however, not enough to irritate or lead to much confusion. The choice and outdatedness of the entries, on the other hand, has somewhat let down what is otherwise a perfect addition to the English-language sources on Korea currently available. Considering the high price of this volume, I would not recommend it blindly to non-academics or those students unable to read Korean because of its lack of entries on more contemporary cultural phenomena and limited references. Yet it may be exactly this emphasis on historical phenomena that prompts them to buy it, considering it is relatively easy to find information on post-war phenomena in English elsewhere. Most academics will probably find the information provided too general but, in all fairness, they ought not to be looking up complicated Korean concepts in an English-language dictionary. This dictionary is intended for those in need of a quick and adequate definition, explanation, or summary of facts. They now have an excellent tool at their disposal. *



­ Research Institute of Communist Bloc, Pukhan yo(breve)n'gam: '45-'68 (Yearbook of North Korea: 1945-1968). Seoul: Kwangmyo(breve)ng insoe kongsa (1968).

­ Yi Yuso(breve)n, Han'guk yangak p'alshimnyo(breve)nsa (Eighty Years' History of Western Music in Korea). Seoul: Chungang taehakkyo ch'ulp'ansa (1968).



Dr Roald H. Maliangkay is a researcher at the Centre for Korean Studies, Leiden.
E-mail: roald.maliangkay@wolmail.nl

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 24 | Regions | East Asia