By Andrei Lankov
Most of our readers live in the country whose official name in English is the ``Republic of Korea.'' But how does that name sound in Korean? And how did this name come into being in the first place?
To start with, the official Korean name of the ROK consists of four syllables, Daehan-minguk. Each syllable might be seen as a separate word, or rather a separate root, and all these syllables-words are of Chinese origin (well, with one of those syllables, things are not that simple as we'll see).
We should not be surprised about this: The languages of East Asia are over-saturated with Chinese loanwords, and pretty much all social and scientific vocabulary in Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese consists of Chinese loanwords, or of words which were once ``assembled'' from their Chinese roots.
Let's start from the second syllable, ``han.'' This is a name of Korea that is also a part of its short form, ``Hanguk.'' Historically speaking, Koreans have had many names for their country, and even now the North and South use completely different names for themselves. The North is ``Choson,'' while the South calls itself ``Hanguk.''
Where does the name come from? At the very beginning of the Christian era, the Chinese texts began to refer to some tribes that then inhabited the southernmost part of the Korean peninsula. Those tribes were known as Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan, or, collectively, as the ``Three Han.''
It seems very likely that Chinese scribes used the Chinese character ``韓" to transcribe some unknown word in a local language which was likely to be some proto-Korean dialect (albeit we cannot be 100 percent sure about this).
Eventually, those tribes were integrated into Korean kingdoms, which emerged several centuries later. The name ``han'' was not used any more, but it did not disappear from public memory completely.
In the 1890s, when the Korean kings proclaimed themselves ``emperors,'' breaking the ties of formal quasi-dependency on China, they needed a name for the new state; a name that should be distinct from the old name of Choson.
They chose to call their state Daehan or ``Great Han'' Empire. This was the official name of the country for the last years of its independence, between 1897 and 1910. When the Japanese took over, they chose to use the former name, Choson.
In 1919, the representatives of the Korean independence movement gathered in Shanghai, China, and proclaimed the foundation of the Korean government-in-exile, known as the Provisional Government.
This was a decisive move, and they needed a new name for a Korean state-to-emerge. They did not want ``Choson,'' since the name had been appropriated by the Japanese colonial regime, so they decided to revive the name used in the final days of independence.
Thus, Korea once again came to be known as ``Daehan'' or the Great Han state.
However, the people who gathered in Shanghai did not want to restore the monarchy. A new Korea should become a republic, and this had to be reflected in the official name of the future state.
Back in the early 1900s, the languages of East Asia were flooded with freshly made words to express the then new ideas and institutions coming from the West.
In most cases, the new words were made from ancient Chinese roots, a bit like Europeans used their common Greek and Roman heritage to devise names for telephone or television (the difference being that in East Asian languages of the era, the revival of ancient roots was far more common).
For example, the Chinese characters for ``steam'' and ``chariot'' were used to coin a word for train, while ``battle'' and ``chariot'' meant ``tank.''
Many of the new terms took some time to settle and often two or more words competed to express the one idea. In the case of ``republic,'' there were two proposed translations. Some believed that the republic should be called ``民國'' (minguk in Korean, minguo in Chinese pronunciation), which literally meant ``people's state.'' Others suggested a different translation, a longer 共和國 (gonghwaguk in Korean, gongheguo in Chinese) which would mean the ``state of shared mutual harmony.''
The second translation, despite being longer (and, to be frank, a bit too flowery for my taste) eventually won, becoming the standard term for republic in all languages of East Asia.
However, the founding fathers of the Korean Provisional Government chose the other version, ``minguk,'' which soon became obsolete.
Perhaps, they were influenced in their decision by the then official name of China, which also included the same pair of characters to convene the word ``republic.'' Hence, Daehan-minguk was born in 1919.
The Provisional Government was launched as a cooperative project of the Right and Left, but soon became an exclusive right-wing affair. Its leaders eventually returned to Korea in 1945 to establish the South Korean state.
Their life-long connection to the Provisional Government was a major boost to their legitimacy, so, to stress the continuity with this past, they decided to give the nascent Korean state the name once used for the largely symbolic government-in-exile.
When in August 1948 the South Korean state came into existence, it was called Daehan-minguk or the Republic of Korea in English. The Communist North chose a different name.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.