University of Leicester Taekwon-Do Club

Six Korean Concepts


"The distinction between a tight fit versus a loose fit is marked in Korean but not in English. A cap on a pen would be a tight fit relationship, while a pen on a table would be a loose fit relationship. English does not mark this distinction in the same way, instead emphasizing the "containment" versus "support" relationship, for example: the coffee is in the mug or the mug is on the table."


Taken from the original article at http://thormay.net/koreadiary/doityourway.htm:

Perhaps the most useful summary in Oak & Martin's book for non-Koreans is the explanation of six controlling concepts : chemyeon, neunchi, kibun, bunuiki, cheong and han. The matrix of these elements determines the relationship of the group to an individual; (note that in this traditional Korean equation individual importance is inferior to that of the group). Successfully managing the six elements is the key to satisfactory living, the authors say. [... ]

Still, we need to know what these magic names mean. Chemyeon is closely related to the Western concept of face (myeon translates as face). However, chemyeon is vastly more important than the mere problem of saving personal embarrassment. Any personal failure is a loss of chemyeon both to the individual and to those groups in which he is embedded. Your sensitivity to preserving other people's chemyeon according to their position and values is a critical test of your civilized behaviour. Thus, to refuse a drink, for example, might be seen as an attack on the hospitality of a host. The name of the game is balance, or harmony: all participants should contribute to maintaining a kind of emotional comfort zone. Of course, if you have no relationship with another party (Oak and Martin curiously do not discuss this), you have little risk of either losing chemyeon or causing them to lose it. The countless Korean drivers who park anywhere, blocking roads, walkways and locking in other cars seem outrageously selfish to an insensitive foreigner like me, but they clearly conceive of no civic obligation to an anonymous community which does not engage their chemyeon.

Neunchi is a formalized ideal of the sensitivity we probably all hope for but often fail to achieve. Neunchi is the ability to read the sub-text, the implicit messages in a social situation, and then (this is the Korean part) react in a way which preserves the chemyeon of the other person. Oak & Martin cite the example of a teacher who asks a question, then perceiving that the student can't answer it, deflects the question to another student. This not only saves the first student's chemyeon, but boosts the (Confucian) authority of the wise teacher and wins student loyalty to their superior. [...]

Kibun is variously translated as the mood or vitality or life-force of a person. When the kibun is sour, body and mind are felt to be adversely affected. You have an obligation to be sensitive to the kibun of other members in your group, even if your own kibun is frail. Thus you do not refuse that shot of soju which is going to put you under the table. You keep the jolly spirit of the party and preserve your host's chemyeon by accepting it graciously. But then, being desperate, you don't drink. The host, using his neunchi to understand your situation, is deeply grateful for your help in saving everyone's kibun.

A close relative of kibun is bunuiki, which is the business of preserving atmosphere or mood in a social relationship. Nothing uniquely Korean about that, but again it is the consequence of being a party-pooper which gives these two ideas a pivotal place in the Korean worldview. In a perfect Korean relationship, nothing should threaten the integrity of the group, for the group (not the individual) is ideally the measure of all that is humanly valuable. The goal of bunuiki is generally to be convivial, but perhaps because it is a conscious obligation, the outcomes are planned. You don't hunker down in little circles of friends at a party. Everyone sticks together in one big group and plays the programmed games. Spontaneity is not expected.

OK, OK, back to the real world (I'm a pathological party-pooper) : at least for an outsider, there often seems to be an extreme duality in Korean relationships. As the new friendship/association/party/job starts off we are all out there in the wide, sunny blue yonder. The bunuiki positively bubbles with generosity/optimism/boundless ambitions. But the strain of smiling so widely seemingly can't last. Someone stubs their toe on a small problem, and suddenly the whole mood turns upside down. Bitterness, recrimination and paranoia are in the stars. Korean politics, for those who can bear to look, is a perfect pantomime stage for these sagas of love and hate.

While chemyeon, neunchi and bunuiki are played on the wing in social games, what a Korean takes home is his abiding knowledge of attachment to other people, and his seething resentment for all the injustices the world has inflicted on him. The first idea, that of attachment, is called cheong, and the second, the bad vibes, is called han.

The balance of cheong attachments may be best reserved for those which involve affection, but it can also include work colleagues and others who may even be disliked, but to whom there are nevertheless extended obligations. While cheong has some cost, it is also a source of security and satisfaction. Your cheong partners, notably your family and close friends, are those whose company you will seek, and who will extend you help in times of difficulty. Although cheong is a Korean label, it's substance is of course found in every world culture to varying degrees.

Chinese and other East Asians easily recognize the Korean idea of cheong, but are apt to complain (like most other "foreigners") that in business or pleasure it is frequently impossible to enter a Korean cheong relationship - Korean ethnicity is too often an absolute qualification. In the West we talk about acquaintances, and friends of varying intimacy. In modern urban societies, the actual rules for forming these friendships are anything but clear, and they can be quite unstable over time. Some people never master the trick at all, so anomie is a recognized social ailment. Also, some individuals are so adapted to non-attachment that they are fairly contented 'loners' (I probably qualify). Non-attachment is pretty close to a Confucian idea of evil, or at least extreme selfishness. Yet one suspects that the reality of life for the new Korea's intensely urbanized population may not be so different from New York or Dusseldorf. Korean ideology may not have the words to talk about anomie and the single life yet, but daily existence for many is surely already ahead of the language.

Then there is the bad news, the devil in the cellar of your soul, the han. Perhaps han is an ego trying to get out of its box. For a stereotyped Korean at least, when chemyeon goes into deficit, there's a lot of han about. Inevitably in a collectivist society, the individual gets trodden on, and has to suppress personal hopes and priorities. This generates resentment, but the social architecture does not sanction a constructive way for the resentment to be dissipated. The black bile of han brews in its witch's pot, and has been blamed for everything from explosive driving habits to the chronic alcoholism endemic in the culture. Korea's history itself, a small nation caught as a buffer state between ravaging giants, gives Korean nationalism han on a grand scale (which makes the objective telling of history extremely difficult even for supposedly independent Korean historians). Much Korean literature is built around the dramas generated by han.