Glancing at the front page of Korea Times this morning I was very surprised to see Psy’s name in red. I asked several leading journalists in Korea – both foreign and Korean – what they thought about it and the answers were mixed. Even a P.R. firm stated that they saw no problem with it because of the style and the format of the article. Others, however, like me, were under the impression that writing a person’s name in red was wrong as it symbolized death or imprisonment.
I first learned this basic rule of Korean culture and manners when I was a young soldier – it was later reenforced at language schools both in the United States and Korea. I thought this was common knowledge but I have since learned it is outdated knowledge. KT was kind enough to tell me that this custom is no longer held by the youth and that Korean culture is changing – something I can fully agree with.
But if this change in culture has occurred – why are we, the foreigners, still being taught that it is taboo?
According to the US Navy command website at Chinhae:
You should avoid writing a person’s name in red. This indicates death because a deceased person’s name is crossed off with red ink in the town register upon his death. However, a Korean name seal is always printed in red.
Writing a person’s name in red ink is tantamount to saying they are dead or will die soon.
KoreaWiz under its section “understanding Korean Dramas” wrote:
Red ink is permissible when using a chop (name seal). Do NOT use red ink when writing a living person’s name, however, since red is associated with death. Red ink is used to record a deceased person’s name in the family register and also on funeral banners to drive off evil spirits.
True, KoreaWiz’s site seems to have been updated the last time in 2010 so it is somewhat dated. Meetup (pdf file) might also be a little dated and expressly warns:
Do not write a Korean’s name in red! If you do, it means that they are dead. This is not recommended if you are trying to make friends.
This New Zealand site effective tourism business offshore in South Korea cautions:
Koreans write and say their family name first and their given name last. At business meetings, given names are not generally used; addressing people as Mr Kim, Mrs Kim or Miss Lee is most common. Never write a person’s name in red ink. Koreans only do this if the person is dead.
They aren’t the only business organization giving advice. McElroy Translation stresses to their clients
It is inappropriate to write a person’s name or sign a contract in red; only the names of the deceased are written in red.
In Kiss My Kimchi’s 10 Korean Cultural Taboos number seven was:
Possibly more of a superstition, but still I thought I’d mention it just in case. Writing someone’s name in red indicates that you want them to come to some bodily harm or that they are dead.
There is, however, one site that does stand out for giving accurate and update information – at least in this case – Korea4expats:
In the past, the names of the dead were written into the register in red ink. So, writing a living person’s name as though he/she were dead was considered insulting and even bad luck. However, this custom is no longer as prevalent and sometimes you will see Koreans writing someone’s name using a red pen.
I could probably go on and on listing sites but the important thing to note is – I was wrong and Korea Times was right. Considering I concentrate on the past (late Joseon era) my mistake can probably be forgiven but what about the new batch of foreigners arriving in the country? Unless something is done, only we foreigners will be the ones following this old Korean custom.