The Korea Herald


For better luck, some Koreans change names

By Korea Herald

Published : July 31, 2012 - 20:28

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When Yu Do-hyun looks at her ID card, she experiences a brief moment of confusion. The face staring back at her is a familiar one, but the name is something she had to get used to. Three years ago, Yu was persuaded by her father to change her given name.

“At first when I saw my new name, it was strange and I hated the sound of it,” Yu, who was once known as Young-ah, said. “It’s like a man’s name.”

Her father’s intention wasn’t to make her name sound more androgynous, it was to bring her better luck, especially in finding Mr. Right. Frustrated by unmarried offspring, some Korean parents are taking another shot at giving their kids a name they can be proud of. Lonely-hearted singles, too, are parting with the names they’ve grown up with in favor of a more virtuous one.
A row of saju tents near Pagoda Park in Seoul (Yonhap News) A row of saju tents near Pagoda Park in Seoul (Yonhap News)

During the last decade, at least 725,000 Koreans legally changed their name. Gaining official permission to do so was made easier by a Supreme Court ruling in 2005. There are no statistics on how many people register with new names for the sole purpose of receiving better luck.

For help with selecting a more auspicious name, one doesn’t have to look far. Tents set up outside women’s universities advertise name-changing advice. Type “name change” into Korean portal site Naver and you’ll be hit with a deluge of mostly shady looking agencies specializing in the art of creating better names.

But most people do it the old fashioned way ― seek the consultation of fortune-tellers or other divinely inspired mediums.

“I ask the gods if a new name can be fulfilling for one’s life,” says Tae Eul, a shaman priest, known in Korean as a “mudang.”

Tae Eul says of his clients who ask for his guidance in choosing a luckier name, two-thirds are unmarried or divorced women concerned with finding a soul mate. The men, he says, are more concerned with their bank accounts.

“You have to be very careful about changing your name, because it can determine the rest of your life,” Tae Eul, who communes with the spirit world inside a small shrine located in his Nonhyun-dong apartment in southern Seoul, said. “How a person’s destiny unfolds is based on luck and their saju.”

Saju is the belief that one’s birth date determines their destiny. It’s believed to have been practiced throughout East Asia for millennia. All dates correspond to the five elements: earth, metal, water, fire and wood. And so do Korean names based on Chinese characters.

Tae Eul explains that bad luck occurs when one’s saju and name are in conflict. It not only can prevent a person from finding a spouse but also lead to trouble after the wedding.

“Usually there is a collision between the spirits found within the names of the partners. If a man has a fire spirit in his name and the woman does, too, that could lead to more fights,” in which case Tae Eul recommends the husband change his name. “I’ve seen a lot of improvements.”

Giving credence to fortune-tellers like Tae Eul, some young women who have undergone a name change say they do feel more fortunate.

“In the past, when I went through some negative experiences, I felt my old name was not bringing me good luck,” says Roh Hee-seung, 27, who until five years earlier was named Lan. “My new name is like a lucky charm.”

Roh will marry her long time boyfriend later this year. When asked if she thinks her new name had some influence, she says she’s not too sure about that.

Other so-called name change experts say luck has nothing to do with it. It all comes down to science, says Hwang Seung-hyun.

“Pure Hangul names possess sexual energy,” Hwang, a lecturer at the Name Theory Lab, said. He believes Korean names that contain syllables ending with certain consonants are more erotic than ones that do not. “This energy is stimulated when it’s spoken by a partner. And through its attractiveness it helps some people find a soul mate.”

Some observers point out that in the Korean context, people just don’t feel as connected to their given names as those from the West. Whether someone chooses a new Korean name or uses an English name to speak with foreigners, it produces a sort of “avatar effect,” according to Jasper Kim, the founder of the think tank Asia-Pacific Global Research Group.

“I think Koreans, when they feel so constrained with their lives, so pressured and so busy, that this ability to enter into a different persona through a different name is something that can be appealing for a lot of people,” Kim said at his office at Ewha Womans University, where he teaches in the Graduate School of International Studies.

Kim says that South Korea’s rapid growth from a dirt poor nation a generation ago to one of the world’s wealthiest economies has left many feeling lost. And they are seeking comfort in traditions like saju and shamanism.

“They look to the past for a security blanket,” he said.

Even some involved in the name-change business see an error in thinking that a new name can be a quick fix for the problems of modern life.

“Koreans have a tendency to desire a new life and start over again because they think their current life is so bad,” says Tae Eul, the shaman priest. “Life isn’t really bad, it just all depends on how well you cope with what you are given and handle the circumstances that you are living with.” Tae Eul adds that he thinks it’s a sad situation that so many people want to change their names.

But for Yu Do-hyun, the woman whose father pressured her to take on a new name, there is no looking back.

“After I changed my name, I feel more confident,” she said.

Yu does note that despite her father’s hopes, her love life has pretty much remained the same. But her new name has resulted in some unwanted attention.

“Because Do-hyun is a male’s name, I got a lot of spam mail for sex partners and Viagra,” she said.

Yu is not so sure if that’ll help break the ice on her next date. (Yonhap News)