The history of Korean rhetoric is the history of translation of and communication with its neighboring foreign cultures. From its early period of the Three Kingdoms to the later Yi dynasty, Korea sought its own ways of expression under the influence of Chinese culture. More recently, from the beginning of the twentieth century to its independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, the influence of Japanese culture was predominant. Since then, Korea has been strongly affected culturally by America.
Before its annexation to Japan in 1910, Korea had maintained a mimetic rivalry with China, especially in terms of Confucianism. In traditional Confucian culture, words and expressions are undervalued as mere vehicles for conveying Tao and thoughts. This tendency was enhanced by the introduction of Buddhism and the natural philosophy of Laotzu and Chungtzu, both of which placed emphasis on spiritual identification apart from verbal and literary communication. However, this spiritual and occult tradition was challenged by new ideas: a modern educational system from Japan and democracy from America. While Confucianism is conservative in expression of private emotions and loyal to the established social hierarchy, development of democratic government in Korea went in tandem with the spread of public opinions and public speaking. Rhetoric plays a crucial role in Korea’s modernization and development, both politically and economically.
In the Three Kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla, only the ruling classes were literate enough to understand and communicate in Chinese characters, and literacy was equated with political power. However, even in this period, Korean efforts to express their own native thinking found a solution in the inventions of idu, hyangchal, and kygyol, variations of the Chinese language in its syntax and pronunciation. In the later twelfth century, Lee Kyubo (1168–1241) in his essay “A brief commentary on the subtle will in poetry” argues that the subject and content of a poem come before word arrangements. Here he repeats the Confucian doctrine that speech and writing are vehicles to deliver authentic will and virtues of a person. A good style is one that performs this function well. Hence, the study of style in Korean rhetoric is not the end in itself, but the means to manifest the personality of the writer or speaker. The relationship between the will and its expression is also found in the controversy of li (the general principle or reason) and qi (energy or individuation) among Yi Hwang (1501–1570) and Yi I (1536–1584) and their disciples in the Yi dynasty. Li is the equivalent to the invention of a topic; qi the arrangement and eloquence of words.
While the study of Korean rhetoric and communication foregrounds the literary content, the proper study of style is not disregarded. Pak Chiwon (1737–1805) in his introduction to Lee Jaesung’s Sodanjukchi (“A writer is like a general of soldiers”) argues for the importance of style, as Cicero likens the arrangement of words to military strategy. According to Pak, words are like soldiers, the content a general, and historical examples and anecdotes the moats and bulwarks of a castle. Metaphors are similar to the task forces. However, the most important thing is variation of style depending on the given situation. Here Pak emphasizes the efficiency of sirhak (practical learning), ignoring the philosophical debate of li/qi.
The invention of Hangul, the Korean alphabet, in 1443 is the landmark event for selfexpression by Koreans. While communication in the Chinese characters was mainly confined to the literati and the yangban (gentlemen) class, hangul made it possible for women and lower people to find ways of self-expression. But the official language of the government was still Chinese, and the practice of direct petition from the people to the king or queen supported the use of the Chinese language, together with the Korean traditional examination for recruiting bureaucrats, which was based on the Chinese classics.
However, hangul became a dominant language, especially with the introduction of Christianity and the translation of the Bible into Korean by early Christian missionaries. The complete Korean Bible was published in 1938. With the introduction and spread of Christianity and the establishment of modernized advanced schools, western rhetoric and pulpit oratory were also introduced into Korean culture. They helped the development of identification of colloquial and literary styles. This development also expedited the increase of literacy. These changes in the ways of expression were accompanied by a desire for democratic society. The publication of the Independence Newspaper and “new novels” dealing with love affairs and self-awakening were offshoots of this desire.
The study of rhetoric in Korea before the enlightenment period was mainly focused on the importance of will and content of speech and writing, whereas style and modes of expression were under close attention from the end of the enlightenment throughout the whole of the twentieth century. This study of style is closely related to the scholarship of Japanese rhetoric, which was mainly concerned with stylistics of belles-lettres. The first Korean textbook of rhetoric, Practically applied composition (1909) by Choe Jaihak, devotes most of its pages to stylistics and metaphors, with rare attention to invention and arrangement. At the top of the stylistic study in Korea stands Yi Taejun’s Lectures on composition, which is still published in Korea. Yi’s book suggests some examples of composition and then analyzes them in terms of style and diction. Both of these textbooks were written under the strong influence of Japanese rhetorical books.
The independence of Korea from Japan in 1945 opened the floodgates for free speech and self-expression. This time the influence of British and American rhetoric was apparent. Following I. A. Richards, Kim Kirim’s New lectures on composition focused on remedies for misunderstanding in communication. The need for a remedial rhetoric was evoked by the birth pangs of a new nation, torn asunder by the ideological struggles of communism and democracy. Still, a “reduction” of rhetoric to eloquence and style was perpetuated in the teaching of composition at college and university level.
In the 1990s, Korea experienced a restoration of rhetoric, including invention and logic. This tendency is reinforced by the new university entrance examination, which demands critical inquiry and writing. The introduction of a new law school system is expected to invite further studies of reasoning and logical proof. And feminism is breaking the wall that confined rhetoric to men.
- Choe Jaihak (1909). Practically applied composition. Seoul: Huimunkwan.
- Kim Kirim (1949). New lectures on composition. Seoul: Minjungseokwan.
- Yi Taejun (1940). Lectures on composition. Seoul: Munjangsa.