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The 정 Challenge

This evening, Miss Jiwaku and I had a conversation with some of her relatives. These particular relatives are very nice and very decent people, good folks. But there was a line in the conversation that got me, where someone said, “But you know, as nice or polite as people in other countries might be to one another, Koreans have something unique… they have jeong.”

If you haven’t run into this idea, jeong, well, then you apparently haven’t talked to many South Koreans. It gets translated variously as “harmony” or “coexistence” or all kinds of other things that sound, well, nice, but which one does not actually encounter out there in the real world.

My personal theory is that jeong may have meant something at some point in the past, but that today, it’s a referent to something that simply doesn’t exist in general within Korean society. Perhaps the way that people lived together in small villages in bygone ages did incorporate something called jeong–not that this would be unique to Korea, of course–but even if such a thing did exist in the village life of Korea centuries ago, it seems largely dead and gone.

One of the strongest indicators that this is the case is that everytime I’ve asked a Korean to define jeong, they’ve gotten all vague and “it’s untranslatable” on me. But the question of translation is a cop-out, as Miss Jiwaku agreed earlier today: after all, ask a Korean to define jeong in their own language, and you get the same airy, vague, and ultimately meaningless kind of, “I know it when I see it,” sort of stuff.

Indeed, though I think the conclusion to the post series is garbage, I still can’t help but think of what Joshing Gnome wrote about the subject years ago:

Koreans claim that jung is an untranslatable Korean concept.  The reason that Koreans have a difficult time translating jung is that it is, in fact, an alien concept to them.  Korean culture draws that ten foot trench between those you care about and those for whom you feel nothing.  To feel some affinity for someone on the other side of that trench is jung.  And it’s totally outside of the basic bounds of the culture.  That’s why jung is such a hard thing for Koreans to explain to you.  Because you already feel it all the time.  It would be like you explaining buoyancy to a fish.  You’s be at such a loss to express the concept that fish would merely nod in wonder when you told them ‘I guess buoyancy is a human concept that you just wouldn’t get.’

I either just knocked your socks off or you’re shaking your head in total disagreement.

Let’s think of jung using this rather out of left field analogy.  Remember the movie Empire of the Sun, which was about a bunch of Westerners in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.  The Japanese commander of the camp obviously felt some affection for the main character, a plucky British boy.  He might remark to one of his colleagues ‘I feel the strangest feeling of affinity for that boy.  How very odd.’  But that odd feeling would just be the entirely normal feeling of affection that one usually feels for a plucky young kid, filtered through the lens of the War.

Jung is like that.  People are meant to feel nothing for strangers.  Instead they feel something.  They feel moved to give this amazing development a name, and settle on ‘jung’.  They would have felt the same warmth if they didn’t live in a society of amoral familism, but since they do, the feeling sweeps over their natural defenses and overpowers their inborn urge to ignore the humanity of strangers.

I hope that explains jung.

This does make sense to me, but I’ve heard people argue that it’s off, that Joshing Gnome missed something, he misdefined jung.

I would argue that if it’s possible to misdefine a word, then it’s also possible constructively to define it. One chips away at all the misdefinitions until one arrives at a definition. The definition might be long. It might be complex. It might encompass different cases, different contexts. But the idea that a word “cannot be defined” or “cannot be translated” is horseshit. It’s an easy out, and a lazy excuse used to cover for when one either can’t be bothered, or has no idea how to define the word.

That’s not saying it’d be easy: there are words we bandy about in daily conversation that are hard to define. For English speakers, ask someone to really, clearly, and straightforwardly define “freedom” or “beauty” or “responsibility.” If the person is a thoughtful type, they may well say, “Look, this is too complex a concept to summarize in a couple of sentences.” But at the same time, they usually can churn out a conventional notion of the concept, one not dependent on the idea of its undefinability.

What I suspect is that if jeong ever did refer to anything in the real world, it no longer does. It either has always been, or has at least become, a simulacrum. What’s a simulacrum? Well, the guy who came up with the term defined it as a simulation without a referent to the real world; it is a simulation that refers to itself as an abstract conception. (Update: As Kevin notes below, my citation of Baudrillard as the originator of the concept in Simulacra and Simulation somehow got cut from this post, which I have now rectified.)

Which sounds like a good foundation for coming to grips with the task of defining jeong (Koreans’ putatively real special and unique form of social relational bonding) and han (Koreans’ special and unique form of suffering and victimhood). After all, if these words are themselves simulacra, then they call to mind nothing so much as what teenagers are so often trying, incoherently, to express in their gloomy, monotonous poetry.

Those teens’s poems represent incoherent attempts because those teens’ special suffering and their victimhood, their personal specialness, the amazing uniqueness and specialness of their social lives, cannot be expressed… because that special unique thing possessed only by teenagers, or by a specific group of teens or a specific teen, simply does not exist. 

I suspect that’s the case with jeong and han: since these words refer to nothing in the real world–there is no special harmony among Koreans, nor is there any special sense of victimhood–they are “impossible to translate” and “difficult to define” even in Korean.

But I’m willing to listen to counterarguments. I’m willing to consider definitions, as long as those definitions take into account the claim implicit in these terms that they describe things unique to Koreans–which is something that is part of the conventional definition of these words in Korea, hence all the silly claims that the terms cannot be translated, or that foreigners cannot understand their meanings. (Yes, I, like tsukinofune, have had Koreans declare that our relationship had “jung” before… but even as a participant in the thing, it was assumed the term could never be explained to me, that I could never understand; I know because I asked.)

So tsukinofune’s definition, as mentioned at the linked tumblr page:

it’s just 情 AS IN 感情友情 純情

… would be disqualified because it fails to include that special Korean context that most Koreans seem to insist is part of jung. Tsukinofune goes so far as to write:

i hate people who mystify jung

… but, I hate to break it to him or her, that includes a vast number of Koreans, indeed quite possibly (or, I’d guess from my own experience, more like probably) the majority of South Korean society.

So here’s the challenge:

  1. Define jung intelligibly and coherently–not in vague terms or in terms of its undefinability–along the lines commonly accepted in Korean society. Do so in Korean.
  2. Translate that definition to English coherently, using as many words as necessary, and in a way that conveys why it would be thought of by so many Koreans as either untranslateable (or incomprehensibly to non-Koreans).

If you can carry out both those steps, and convince me that jung does exist in Korean society, as a thing that is unique to that society, I’ll give you a prize. I’m not sure what, but probably a printed-out copy of a full basic set of the Creative-Commons game Cards Against Humanity, which, I guess one could say, embodies the diametrical opposite of jung itself.

But I’m going to be a tough sell. The main reason being that what usually when Koreans declare a relationship between them and me “has jung” my sense is simply that it’s one of those rare, truly good relationships one has in one’s life at any given time. Nothing special, nothing particularly Korean about it.

Also, because when I hear people get vague and all “it cannot be defined” or “it’s impossible to translate”–and they’re not talking about those tricky self-referential sentences in Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas, like “Cette phrase est difficile à traduire en Anglais” (and pardon my rusty French, if that’s off). When someone claims something is not translatable, or cannot be understood by outsiders, it always sets off my bullshit meter. (I’m sure it’s true for any nonreligious person who had a religious upbringing imposed upon them.)

But hey, go on and try. I dare you!

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