Itaewon and the Imjin War (異胎圓 or 梨泰院?)

Update (11 Feb. 2015): Commentary on Facebook has been helpful, especially this comment by Heyjin Jeon:

In 1457, King SeJo (Son of King Sejong) said to the Minister of Finance, “Make workhouses for poor people at Bojewon, Hongjewon, Itaewon.”It’s before Imjin War. I think “梨泰院” listens like “梨泰院” and people made new meaning about the name. http://sillok.history.go.kr/url.jsp?id=kga_10305007_002

Here’s the relevant passage from that source:

다만 염려되는 것은 가난한 백성이 병든 사람과 더불어 뒤섞여 거처하기를 싫어해서 이로 인하여 뿔뿔이 도망하여 흩어지는 일이니, 보제원(普濟院)·홍제원(弘濟院)·이태원(梨泰院) 등 세 곳에 별도로 진제장(賑濟場)을 두고 사람을 임명하여 감독 관장(管掌)하게 하고, 또 오부(五部)의 관리로 하여금 날마다 윤번(輪番)으로 왕래하면서 검속(檢束)하고 핵실(覈實)하여 어긴 사람은 과죄(科罪)하게 하라.

That establishes, at least, that the district name predates the Imjin War, and seems likely to be tied to pear trees or a pear orchard of some kind. There’s still an open question as to whether there’s any truth to Version 2 of the story: whether the second version is an understandable malapropism, or an urban legend. As one commenter noted, it does sort of sound a bit fishy. Then again, so do some variations of Version 1, especially the claim that it was named after a single big pear tree.

I’m surprised (a little) how fascinating this is to me!

Original Post: I’ve been reading up on the Imjin War–the massive 16th century invasion of Korea conducted by Japan–as part of the research for a story I’m working on. (More about that soon…)

It’s pretty interesting, to the point where I’m on the verge of getting myself a copy of Samuel Hawley’s book on the subject, since it’s available for Kindle and seems to be the most interesting of several out there. So far, though, I’ve just been making do with what’s available online (which is quite a bit).

Among the oddest of the surprises I’ve run across is that, supposedly, Itaewon — the name of what has long been the main “foreigner district” in Seoul — is the somewhat unclear provenance of the district’s name, what with two homophonic sets of hanja (Chinese) characters considered possible candidates for its origin.

Big (huge!) caveats:

  1. I can’t read hanja (Sino-Korean characters, ie. Chinese characters as used by Koreans). Seriously. I’m getting help from Google Translate and Naver Dictionary. This is a possible-error warning, but also an invitation: correct me, please!
  2. Also: er, the full story involves some gruesome (sexual) violence from long ago history. If that sort of thing bothers you, er, skip it.

With that out of the way, here are the two names, and the stories that go with them: 

Q490082_Itaewon_A01Version 1: 梨泰院

梨泰院 = pear [tree] + big (?) + “place”

This version–apparently the one regarded as official today (as you can see in the picture to the right, these are the characters used when the neighborhood’s name is written in hanja)–suggests that the place name is based on a specific landmark. I’ve seen a few variations on what the landmark was, though:

  • supposedly at some time a lot of pears trees grew in the area, and 梨泰院 means “big pear orchard.” This is reminiscent of 복사골, an old name for what is now a part of Bucheon city and which refers to a peach orchard. (I would swear I’d blogged about that someplace, but maybe I’m just remembering Matt’s wonderful post on the subject, since I can’t anything here on my own site? I definitely mention the peach orchard in one story I wrote in 2010 set on Wonmisan, “The Broken Pathway.”)
  • supposedly, there were places for travelers to stay in the area: I’ve seen at least one source claim that the latter two characters, 泰院, are actually some kind of archaic Korean term for a place for travelers to stay, analogous to the modern day “여관”-type inns; apparently the area was basically along the way to Seoul proper, and this was where travelers ended up staying–as well as the main location of the Japanese presence in Korea in peacetime. There was a big foreign presence, but I don’t know if the term really existed or referred to that.
  • a couple of accounts I’ve read claims a single big pear tree grew as a landmark, that grew to enormous size. But this account sounds pretty much like someone trying to reverse-engineer (and finally just inventing) an explanation based on hanja they don’t quite understand, if you ask me.

Maybe some kind reader can clarify this muddle?

I’m not sure where it is the pear trees (or tree) supposedly grew, but I’m guessing the trees would have been gone by the time of the Korean War at the latest, and I have a sneaking suspicion that they were gone even earlier than that, for some reason.

What’s interesting is that this pear-trees story is supposed to be a more recent addition to an older story, which gave rise to another name for the area… well, sort of another name. It sounds the same, but was written differently:

Version 2: 異胎圓

異胎圓= “other”/”different” + “conception”/”fetus” + “place”

Here it’s the notion of “異胎”–“other conception,” or “foreign conception”–that is pertinent to understanding the name, which is linked to events during the Imjin War(s), during which a unified Japan attempted to invade and take over Joseon-era Korea.

Here’s a version of the story that tells how this connects to the name of Itaewon. Basically, Hideyoshi told the king of Joseon, Sŏnjo, that he was planning to conquer China, and ordered Sŏnjo to give him free access to the Korean peninsula, to clear the road and make the invasion easier.

Since Joseon was a vassal of Ming China–but presumably also because he knew that if he cooperated and Japan did conquer Ming, it would lead to the conquering of Joseon as well–Sŏnjo refused. What happened next, as explained in the article linked directly above:

Hideyoshi responded to Sŏnjo’s defiance by launching one of the most destructive military assaults Korea has ever experienced, known as the Imjin Wars (1592 – 1598). The first assault wave of over 24,000 men, carried in over 800 ships, arrived at Pusan in May of 1592. Remarkably, this initial force was commanded by the Christian Lord Konishi Ukinaga and is believed to have been largely composed of Christian troops. These units were later joined by the Buddhist warrior Lord Kato Kiyomasu as the force grew to more than 150,000 men armed with thousands of the most modern gunpowder weapons, called muskets, which the Koreans lacked. This enabled them to march north so swiftly as to reach the Chosŏn capital at Seoul within three weeks, even though they paused along the way to destroy virtually every Buddhist monastery and monument they encountered. Once Seoul was occupied, Japanese army leaders visited the Unjŏngsa temple in Hwanghak-dong where female monks lived. There they raped, then burned the temple as they left, leaving all the women homeless and many pregnant. Several of the pregnant monks built a tent house where they gave birth to the children born of the Japanese assault. The local population called the site “a place for foreign pregnancy.”

Frankly, I don’t know how reliable this story is–and like anything on the Internet, but especially heavily politically-charged history, I’m leery of taking for granted the claims on a few webpages–but nonetheless all of this is quite interesting, especially given not only Itaewon’s enduring reputation as one of the the “foreigner” places in Seoul, but also the (sometimes not-so-unspoken) impression of the place as a site of nefarious “miscegenation.”

Also interesting is that 院 and 圓, the final characters of the two names, are both pronounced “-won” and both refer to “places” in a general sense, are still slightly different. From what I can tell, 院 refers to a yard or property while 圓 means “town” or “section” (what we might in English call a “quarter,” as in the French quarter” or the “Spanish quarter” of town). I’m guessing that we can see a trace in the latter character of the (ancient) pictographic root of the word: it looks like it incorporates a visible enclosure of sorts surrounding a central radical…

… but again, hanja is alien territory to me, and I’m speculating based on the translations offered in Korean by Naver’s Hanja dictionary. Here’s the definition for 院, and here’s the definition it offers for 圓.

So, to less alien territory: here’s a little more background on Itaewon and its ongoing gentrification from Groove magazine (a freebie English mag in Korea, for those of you not living here) for those curious about the history of the area and what’s happening now.1 Especially interesting is the bit in the comments section claiming the place now-famous as “Hooker Hill” was originally a Potter’s Field, filled with the remains of the homeless and penniless, and that it ended up gaining its moniker basically because nobody else was willing to establish businesses there. As a friend of mine2 comments in response, that’s an interesting premise for a Korean horror movie… and actually, I can see the two hanja versions of the name even being quite relevant to the supernatural dimensions of such a tale…

Personally, I like that there’s more craft beer, but I’ve noticed that the neighborhood is indeed more expensive than it used to be, and suspect that this will definitely squeeze out a lot of what made it different originally. One of the old attractions to Itaewon was that one could be less of a visible minority in the area… and that’s much less true today than it was even three or five years ago. But maybe that’s just part of Korea digesting its own, er, “inbound globalization” is one buzzword being used. The dive-bar-loving twenty-something expats will always (inevitably!) find some other place to buy cheap pitches of cruddy beer, though: that doesn’t concern me so much as the misfits, creatives, and outsider types being crowded out of a place that, in many ways, was theirs in a way that isn’t reflected in what it’s becoming, and which no longer seems to have room for them even at its outer edges.


  1. And what a small world foreigners-in-Korea can be. I’m not bragging when I say I’ve met and even shared a table with probably half the people interviewed in this piece, and I know people who’ve probably known all of them at one point or another. What a tiny, tiny world. Sometimes a little too tiny, really.

  2. See what I mean about a small world?

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