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[Kim Seong-kon] Koreans’ sense and sensibility of colors

By Korea Herald

Published : May 31, 2023 - 05:30

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Linguists say that the Korean people have an extraordinarily keen sense of colors. For example, Koreans do not simply say something is red, blue, or yellow, or reddish, bluish or yellowish. In fact, the Korean language has numerous, rich adjectives depicting the subtle nuance of different colors. Among others, "bulgu-jukjuk hada," "pureut-pureut hada" and "nori-kiri hada" come to mind, all of which are hard to translate into English, but delicately describe complex tinges of red, blue and yellow in detail.

When we refer to variant hues of black, we also use a variety of expressions, such as "gomu-tuitui hada" or "gomu-surum hada." Likewise for different touches of white, "hiku-muri hada" and "hikeut-hikeut hada" are good examples.

Strangely, however, we often do not differentiate between blue and green. For example, we call a green traffic light a “blue light,” a green lawn a “blue lawn,” and green buds “blue buds.” Of course, we can distinguish the two colors and have two different words for them: “chorok” for green and “parang” for blue. However, we seem to think that green is just a variant of blue, rather than an independent color.

In the eyes of foreigners, therefore, it is a Sphinx’s riddle why the Korean people do not differentiate these two entirely different colors. Perhaps we value the three principal colors red, blue and yellow, plus black and white, so much that we treat other colors simply as variations of them. Perhaps that is why we do not call it a “green light” when we see a blue light, even though we do the other way around.

Indeed, if we take a closer look, we can notice that those diverse, dazzling adjectives are invariably derived from the five main colors. If that is true, we should refrain from favoring the main colors only, and value other colors as well, giving all of them unique, independent identities. Then, we can truly appreciate the value of colorful diversity and understand the deeper meaning of the phrase, “the rainbow coalition.”

It is also intriguing that people from different cultures see different colors from the same object. For example, both the Koreans and the Japanese think that the color of the sun is red. Indeed, when drawing the sun, Koreans color it red. Likewise, the Japanese national flag displays the red sun.

However, Americans think that the color of the sun is yellow. Children’s books always color the sun yellow and so do elementary school students’ drawings. Scientists say that the original color of the sun is white. Interestingly, the Taiwanese national flag has a drawing of a white sun in a blue sky.

Traditionally, the color red signifies danger and prohibition, blue symbolizes freedom and safety, and yellow implies warning and caution. In addition, we use expressions such as white-collar workers and blue-collar workers, based on the usual clothing of different classes. Colors also have political implications. For example, the color red has been an emblem of communism for a long time. Accordingly, the national flags of China, North Korea and the Soviet Union are all red, and people call communists “reds.”

Since the collapse of communism in the 1990s, however, the color red has been free from political symbolism. Blue States and Red States in America well reflect such changes, as the former refers to the US States that support the left wing Democratic Party and the latter the right wing Republican Party. In Korea, too, politicians in the left wing Democratic Party wear yellow shirts and those in the right wing People’s Party wear red shirts.

Nevertheless, we cannot forget our situation that hostile North Korea with its formidable nuclear weapons sits right above us. We know that North Korean politicians have never given up their plan to unify the Korean Peninsula under their red flag. If so, we cannot lower our guard against the color red.

Strangely, however, we do not seem to pay heed to our perilous situation. Indeed, we often completely forget the menacing nature of the color red, and tend to be too generous about the extreme left wing ideology that has seriously undermined the foundation of our country. Perhaps that is why some foreigners jokingly remark that South Koreans may have red-green color weakness, despite their superbly keen perception of colors. Of course, it is nothing but a practical joke, and yet we should bear it in mind.

It is hopelessly banal and even embarrassing and that we still should be color conscious in the 21st century. Unfortunately, however, our situation is radically different from other countries. We cannot allow it if some people try to color our country red or change the color of our national flag to red.

With our keen sensibility and perception of colors, we should discern a sinister shade of crimson color lurking in our society and prevent it from spreading all over our country.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.