The death of the red ink taboo in Korea

Korea Times
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  I thought this was common knowledge but I have since learned it is outdated knowledge.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.

According to ZKorean:

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.

  • DLBarch

    I wonder if this evolution in ink association is also taking place in China and Japan, ’cause I’ve lived in both countries and the same superstitions have definitely long applied there as well.


  • kkachi

    The headline is “ysP” printed upside down. Is this still printing someone’s name in red ink?

    I’m curious whether the editors of the newspaper would have been willing to print Psy’s name correctly in red ink.

  • Arghaeri

    Indeed, is this not his brand, as opposed to his real name?

  • hyeonwho

    As recently as a year ago, I had a friend (in their early 20s) panic when they thought I was going to write — in red ink — the name of a family member (in their late 20s) they had just introduced me to. Depending on who you talk to, this taboo — or at least faux pas — is probably still very much alive.

    As for this instance, it feels quite different to have the English-language stage name of a performer written upside-down in an English-language newspaper.

    While the most globalized of the younger generation have probably dismissed the red ink taboo as “미신” years ago, I wouldn’t start writing wedding invitations in red ink, just yet.

  • Q

    Koreans still use red color ink for their seals in an official document or artwork. Maybe that implies it is valid even after death?

  • silver surfer

    Korea has long struck me as a country where two mutually contradictory propositions can both simultaneously be true, perhaps reflecting the fact that the Western conceptual apparatus is inadequate to define it. E.g. it certainly is a fast-changing country … but at the same time nothing changes.

  • sanshinseon

    I always heard it that the King or other high official would write a convict’s name in red on the doc authorizing his execution…

  • Jakgani

    12 years ago – If I were about to write someones name in red on the whiteboard – they would scream “NO!”

    these days – noone seems to care.

  • Jakgani

    Just for fun – I would then write my OWN name in red on the board – and I would tell everyone – don’t worry, I will still be here tomorrow, and next year and in 10 more years.

    and I am still here….

  • hamel

    Do you think it makes a difference that Psy is not, in fact, his real name?

    I think it might.

  • taekwonV

    It’s funny that KT is saying the red ink name taboo no longer applies, since it mentioned it otherwise only a few days ago:

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  • Yu Bum Suk

    One of my 13-year-old middle school students was taken aback when I started writing her name in red ink trying to transliterate it from Korean, so I guess it’s still around in the younger generation to some extent.

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