(41) Foreign Language Education in Choson

By Yang Sung-jin

President Kim Dae-jung is scheduled to embark on a state-visit to China tomorrow. As usual, a bevy of top-ranking officials to accompany the president were announced last week. And just as previous presidential press releases have, the entourage list omitted the name of an essential yet oft-neglected member: the interpreter.

Throughout the Choson period, the Chinese language was the de facto diplomatic and academic language of East Asia, whose influence rivaled that of today’s international language, English.

Since the Choson Kingdom had to maintain close — and hopefully amicable — relations with powerful China, the teaching of the Chinese language was deemed fairly important at a national level.

Naturally, interpreters and translators were hired by the Choson government. Even high-ranking court officials were forced by the government to learn Chinese characters and hone their speaking skills.

It is no wonder, then, that there was a specialized office for that very purpose. “Sayokwon” was the government-funded institution expressly intended to tackle the myriad of interpretation and translation activities required for the public and diplomatic affairs of the Choson government.

Sayokwon was founded in September 1393, the second year of the Choson Kingdom, reflecting how essential a role it played from the very beginning.

The specific functions of Sayokwon are illustrated in the 1394 report of Sol Chang-su, one of the teachers at the institute, which was forwarded to King Taejo, the founder of the Choson Kingdom: “We have no choice but to study the Chinese language. Well aware of such a situation, Your Majesty, from the very origins of the nation, has established Sayokwon where teachers and students devote themselves to learning the Chinese language, its characters, pronunciation and writing.”

Sol, an expatriate who became a naturalized Choson citizen and authored a Chinese textbook titled “Chikhaesohak,” suggested a set of proposals for Sayokwon which included frequent exams and a generous salary for the teachers.

Most daring of the proposals was that applicants who failed to master Chinese or the Mongolian language within the three-year probation period were to be expelled from school and forced to serve in the military instead.

Study or Serve

In the early period, most lecturers at Sayokwon came from China, Japan and other neighboring countries. These expatriates and their descendants basically did what today’s foreign teachers do in Korea. But the appreciation for their work was greater than that for their modern counterparts.

For instance, Tang Song, an interpreter born in China, enjoyed unparalleled fame as the author of many diplomatic documents sent to China. At the time, such diplomatic letters categorized as “Imun” demanded a unique writing style which incorporated idiomatic Chinese into formal expressions rife with technical jargon. When Tang died in 1413, King Taejong endowed him with a surname (the highest honor for a foreigner whose lack of one symbolized illegitimate origin).

An article dated 1425 in “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty” contains another Chinese name, Cho Sung-duk, a son of Cho Jung who came from China and succeeded in passing a state examination to obtain a government post. It states that Cho Sung-duk was a master of the Chinese language.

In the same year, a Jurchen named Tongka Oha, well versed in Chinese, secured a government position by virtue of his linguistic skills. Another Jurchen, Chu Ko, was ordered to study at Sayokwon.

These days, the popularity of foreign language studies is evident in a mere gaze at the shelves of bookstores in downtown Seoul. Not surprisingly, thousands of textbooks press into every nook and cranny, claiming to be the definitive authority on English, French, German or Japanese.

In the early Choson period, one of the popular textbooks used for foreign language studies was the “Nokoldae” (meaning “True Chinese” in Korean). It is a book describing the process by which a Korean must cross the Yalu river and reach the prosperous capital of China, Beijing. The detailed routes and experiences of the journey are written in the format of dialogues between a Korean and a Chinese.

The book, therefore, contains useful Chinese expressions that a traveler should memorize and other general knowledge about lodgings, food, and trading at the marketplace. Because of the interesting and practical contents of the book, “Nokoldae” was translated into Mongolian and Japanese, as well.

A Chinese Textbook

Another popular Chinese textbook was “Paktongsa.” This book was filled with a variety of expressions needed in everyday life in Beijing. But it was condemned for containing too much slang, much of which was inappropriate for language students.

All these textbooks, however, became obsolete and outdated as time went by, ushering in new expressions that reflected the dynamism of language. In 1483, King Songjong asked a Chinese named Kal Kyu to check the accuracy of the expressions in “Chikhaesohak,” “Nokoldae” and “Paktonga.”

After assessing “Chikhaesohak,” Kal said, “The translation is very good, but sometimes I found archaic words incorrectly used, and some expressions are not common in Chinese government offices and won’t be understood there.”

The Chinese spoken in Beijing was regarded as the standard during the Choson period. Similarly, education was also based upon Beijing-centric Chinese. As a result, other regional dialects of Chinese were nothing more than unintelligible gibberish to the Choson people. For instance, a southern Chinese was once stranded on Choson territory in 1554. An interpreter was dispatched, yet the two couldn’t understand each other, and so resorted to Chinese characters to establish emergency communications.

In 1411, a special institute “Sungmunwon” was set up in order to educate promising candidates in translation skills for the “Imun,” diplomatic documents. The education methodology at “Sungmunwon” was highly regimented as even the slightest mistake in a diplomatic letter might have serious repercussions, often unfavorably affecting national interest.

In an appeal dated 1425 to King Sejong, an official said, “Name the teachers of Imun ‘Hundokwan’ and students ‘Hakwan.’ Make sure that the teachers lecture in Chinese only everyday under the supervision of Sungmunwon officials. And I implore Your Majesty to order the Ministry of Rites to record all the tests at Sungmunwon on a daily basis so that the graduates should be positioned in the government according to their consistent performance.”

The situation is familiar. Today, office workers and students are constantly pressured to study English, amongst other foreign languages. Various English tests such as TOEIC, TOEFL and G-TELP are increasingly considered an important criterion for recruitment as well as promotion.

By the way, who will be the official interpreter at the Korea-China summit?