Friday, December 30, 2016

Why are there so few Korean surnames?

In a phenomenon that may be completely unique to the Korean culture – which comprise some 75 million people who live on the Korean peninsula, and another 7 million in the global diaspora -- only three surnames, Kim, Lee and Park, account for the appellations of nearly one-half of all Koreans. ...

On the whole, according to various accounts, there are no more than about 250 surnames currently in use in Korea (in contrast, in Japan and the Netherlands there are more than 100,000 active surnames in each society). Korea's paucity of surnames and the heavy concentration of a handful of those names are linked to the peninsula's long feudal history and its complex relationships with aggressive neighbors China and Japan. ...

Korean names use Chinese characters, reflecting the Korean aristocracy's adoption of Confucian naming models (i.e., full names) as long ago as the fifth century. Commoners on the peninsula did not have that privilege.

“For much of Korean history, only the elite had surnames,” [Professor of Asian Studies Donald] Baker said. “Those elites tended to adopt surnames that would make it plausible to claim that they had ancestors from China, then the country Koreans admired the most. There were only a few such surnames. So, when commoners began acquiring surnames [later], they grabbed one already in use to bask in the prestige of the families that were already using that surname.” Baker further noted that Korea was an aristocratic society until the modern era, with only a few families at the top of the social ladder. “That limited the number of 'high-prestige' surnames available,” he added. ...

Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, told IBTimes that during the late Silla period of Korean history (coinciding with the ninth and 10th centuries of the Christian era), the practice of adopting Chinese-character surnames among the Korean nobility became popular. ...

Eugene Y. Park, Associate Professor of History and Director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies at University of Pennsylvania, told IB Times that by 1392 (the start of Chosun dynasty), roughly 70 percent of Koreans were using surnames -- meaning everyone but slaves.

By the time the Japanese Empire seized Korea in 1910 (upon the collapse of the Chosun dynasty), most Koreans already had surnames, and those who didn’t simply adopted the surnames of their masters, who had a limited number of names available.
--Palash Ghosh, IBTimes, on all those Kims, Lees, and Parks