The people of Korea: the people wearing white clothes

In the old days, the people of Korea were known for wearing white clothes, as it was thought to symbolise peace. This custom of wearing white clothes earned the Korean a nickname that can be described with a four characer word:
백의민족 ~ white clothes people

This in turn comes from a four character hanja word:
白衣民族

Let’s look more closely at the individual characters:
白 (meaning: 횐, pronunciation: 백) ~ white
衣 (meaning: 옷, pronunciation: 의) ~ clothes
民 (meaning: 백성, pronunciation: 민) ~ people. Literally “100 last names”
族 (meaning: 겨레, pronunciation: 족) ~ offspring of the same forefather, related by blood

The last two characters might seem a bit odd for most Westeners, but here comes my own, personal, home-made interpretation:

First let’s look at some statistics about Korean last names:
More than 1 in 5 is named Kim! More specifically 21.5% of the Korean population is named Kim.
The Lees follow suit with 14.7%
Park accounts for 8.4%
The Jungs count 4.8%
Closely followed by Choi at 4.7%
Last among the most popular last names we find Cho counting 2.9% of the population.
That means that only five last names account for some whopping 57 percent of the Korean population!
(source)

It also means that if you line up people with the top 100 last names you are likely to have accouted for pretty siginificant fraction of the population.
Considering that so many of people share last name, it makes sense that a Kim is not just a Kim, and not all Kims are related. There are different blood lines of Kims, Lees, and Jungs etc. Each line of Kim decending from a particular Kim is considered a “clan” of it’s own.
Some names have enjoyed higher status than others and like some British titles, family names have been traded among people in need of cash in return for status. Nevertheless, since a very large fraction of the Korean population shares last names, the total number of common last names really isn’t that big – especially considering the size of the country and its population.

Fun fact:
Until 1997 it was prohibited to marry someone from the same clan. Since each clan counts quite a few people, that ruled out quite a few potential couples that weren’t actually closely related. The particular legal article lost its effect in 1997, but it was only removed from the Korean civil code in 2005 when the law was revised. Nowadays the opportunity to marry someone sharing your clan name is based on how closely related you actually are rather than the fact that you shared an ancestor back in the ancient days.

To not get into the legal issues of marriage in present day Korea, let’s return to the hanja:
If you bring together all of the clans (all the last names), you have “a people”!

I don’t know if this has any relation to how the term actually came to exist, but this is how I made sense of it when I heard it 🙂 I hope it will also help you remember this four-character hanja 🙂

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