World Report

Semiotics in Korea

By Chie-Sou Kim

1. The history of Korean semiotics is not long. However, reporting on the present state of Korean semiotics seems a very challenging and dangerous enterprise: semiotics itself is interdisciplinary and has some characteristics of all educational systems; judging which effort is semiotic or not is difficult because the boundary of semiotics is unlimited; however, there is the possibility of limiting semiotics itself. Since semiotics is a new field of study, the study of Korean semiotics also is not free from the contradictory need of having to be open and, at the same time, having to be bounded. As the interest in semiotics increases, semiotics can be, and should be, applied to diverse fields of study; but if semiotics loses its rigidity as an academic discipline, it will be impossible to answer the question of why one studies the new field, semiotics.

In the 1930s, Russian formalism was introduced in Korea; however, since it was introduced by literary scholars, the introduction had no impact on stylistics or linguistics. The beginning of the study of semiotics as a part of liberal arts and social sciences in Korea is difficult to pinpoint, but this seems to coincide with the introduction of structuralism in Korea in the late 1960s.

Structuralism was introduced in Korea through the special July, August, and September edition of Sa-sang-gye in 1968. By publishing the Korean translations of some writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Tzvetan Todorov in the special editions of Sa-sang-gye , Hwee-young Lee (a professor of French literature at Seoul National University) and his students introduced the wave of structuralism in diverse fields of study. With this publication, a number of quarterly magazines and academic journals in Korea started publishing fragmentary studies on structuralism. These studies were really fragmentary when viewed in relation to the huge iceberg of structuralism; however, despite being fragmentary, these studies increased the readers’ curiosity about structuralism, and the readers’ strong urge to read the full texts led to the translation of the major writings on structuralism into Korean. At that time in Korea, as was the case in France, structuralism often was associated with semiotics. Consequently, the study of structuralism in Korea included the study of semiotics, and sometimes semiotics was considered a part of structuralism. To be sure, such confusion was naturally overcome by the structuralists and semioticians who strived for conceptual strictness, but the confusion was somewhat considered acceptable due to the conditions that surrounded the beginning stage of the study.

2. The introduction of a new field of study such as semiotics tends to be unsystematic and therefore may seem chaotic. For example, the complete translation of F. de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale was only published in 1990. Considering the fact that it is impossible to seriously discuss semiotics without precise reference to the writings of F. de Saussure or C.S. Peirce , this belated translation of F. de Saussure resulted in people acquiring fragmentary knowledge from simple introductory writings and not from the original text. Moreover, the fact that Peirce’s writings have not yet been translated into Korean gives the impression that, in the beginning stage, American semiotics is being excluded because semiotics was introduced in Korea by the scholars who studied semiotics in Europe. Such impression was overcome as the scholars who studied in the English-speaking world, especially in the U.S., started getting interested in semiotics. As these scholars read not only the writings of Peirce but also those of Roman Jakobson who moved to the U.S. after WW II, they aroused a renewed interest in the study of semiotics in Korea.

As a new field of study in Korea, the future of semiotics depends on the translating of its terminology. In order to found a new field of study, the establishing and organizing of the terms is the most urgent; publications of dictionaries facilitates this process. In France, T. Todorov and O. Ducrot published a Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences du langage in 1972, and A. J. Greimas and J. Courtès published Sémiotique, dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage in 1979. However, in Korea, the former was translated and published in 1990 and the latter in 1988. The order of publication for the former and the latter in France seems natural because the order is related to the developmental process of semiotics. However, the order of publication for the former and the latter in Korea does not reflect the notion of order. This shows that the process of introducing semiotics in Korea is not following the developmental stages of semiotics but the individual taste or the level of knowledge of the introducer. As is the case with the introduction of every foreign thought or new theories, the order of introduction depends on individual preferences. Therefore, which scholar or which scholar’s theory is introduced to which country at which time is the result of somewhat arbitrary choices. It is quite accidental that a new scholar, a new man of thought, a new thought, or a new methodology can be introduced in Korea depending on which academic adviser a Korean student who studies abroad meets and which theories or thoughts the student gets interested in. However, it is inevitable that a person prefers a thought or a scholar to other thought or scholar because such preference reflects that the society the person lives in possesses something that should be solved by the help of the thought or the scholar.

The recent two decades seem to be the period of introducing semiotics in Korea. Until the fall of the Jung-hee Park dictatorship in 1979, most of Korean liberal arts and social sciences searched for the ways to endure and survive the fearsome oppression of Yushin. However, after the fall of Jung-hee Park’s dictatorship, as people looked forward to the era of democracy in the spring of 1980, the new military authorities even fiercer than the previous dictatorship divided Korea into two and made Korea into a place of conflict. It is surprising that most of the major semiotic writings had been translated and published within the era of conflict. It is true that the amount of translated publications for semiotics was relatively small when compared to that of other publications at that time. However, when focusing only on the field of semiotics for twenty years since 1980, the amount of translated publication for semiotics was the largest. The translated publications in chronological order show such a trend.

It is true that the total number of these works of translation is quite small when compared to the total number of writings on semiotics; however, these works of translation show certain direction of the study of semiotics in Korea. They show that, excluding several exceptions, mainly linguists and literary scholars lead the study of semiotics in Korea, and these people had studied in France. The present state of translation shows that the study of semiotics in Korea is only in the beginning stage, and that large number of semiotics writings need to be translated.

3.However, according to the studies done in Korea, those who have studied abroad do not necessarily lead the study of semiotics in Korea. Except for the theoretical area, those who majored in Korean literature have done most of the studies of semiotics on the analysis of Korean literature or Korean cultural phenomena.

What can be observed from the list is that Hyung-hyo Kim’s work does not introduce foreign thoughts as the theoretical introspection on structuralism and post- structuralism but compares the foreign thoughts with the Eastern thoughts and philosophically explains semiotics as a new thought; that Kyung-yong Kim’s work contributes to the popularization of semiotics by translating the expert notions into general notions and providing examples from the level of everyday life; that Sung-do Kim’s work attempts to organize the life of two major scholars of modern semiotics by establishing logos and mythos like Saussurian semiotics through analyzing the theory of F. de Saussure and by explaining his understanding of Greimas semiotics as the process of moving from structure to sentiment; that Yong-ho Choi’s work provided a new approach to the study of F. de Saussure by explaining Saussure’s notion of time in critical, structural, and comparative perspective; and that The Development of Modern Semiotics forecasts the future of semiotics by synthesizing the diverse fields of semiotics. These scholars’ works contribute to the Korean semiotics becoming richer in theories by providing new interpretations of modern semiotics at the research level and not at the introductory level.

4. These theoretical introspections accompanied Korean Literature scholars’ semiotic analysis and interpretation of Korean literature. Despite the short history since the introduction of semiotics in Korea, semiotics has been applied to the study of Korean literature as a methodology for the analysis of literary works. Uh Ryung Lee (Ewha Womans University) who has lectured on semiotics in universities since 1980 is a pioneer of the study of semiotics in Korea; in his Rereading Poetry-Semiotic Approach to Korean Poetry (Munhaksasangsa , 1995), he analyzed semiotically sixteen Korean poems including Chuyongga and Jung-ju Seo’s Jahwasang. In his Semiotics of Space (Minumsa, 2000), he analyzes the poetry of Chi Hwan You, one of the major Korean poets; he deserves special attention because by analyzing how the opposing spaces become one, he shows the source of sympathy in Chi Hwan You’s poetry and how the space described in the poetry generates semiotic meaning. His semiotic interpretation of I-Ching or his architectural semiotics that will show the theory of space allocation in Korean traditional architecture including Dosanseowon deserve the attention of the semiotists of the world. Hyo-sub Song (Sogang University) theoretically established the fundamental notion and application methodology of semiotics in his studies Cultural Semiotics (Minumsa, 1997), and Semiotics of narrative (Minumsa, 1999). Moreover, he has exemplified the analysis of narrative by applying semiotics in analyzing the Korean narratives Samgukyusa and Narratives from Folklore. Sara Lee (Seoul National University of Technology) is the first poet and semiotist in Korea who earned a Ph. D. with the study Semiotic Study of Poetry (Joong-ang, 1987). Guem-chul Jung (Kangwon University) explores the theory of semiotic interpretation of divination, applies the theory to analyze Korean poetry, and presents new interpretations in his study Semiotic Study of Korean Poetry-Relational methodology of divination and semiotics (Saemunsa, 1990). Hyun-ja Kim (Ewha Womans University) succeeds in semiotic interpretation of esthetic distance in the major Korean modern poetry and classical poetry including the Zen poetry in her study Munhakwajiseongsa, 1997. Kwang-hyun Kim (Taegu University) analyzes, in the study Semiotics or Deception (Yeullinchakdeul, 2000), the everyday popular culture and the advertisements of the mass media to prove how the meanings understood naturally and clearly by Koreans in everyday life are distorted. By applying Wonhyo’s Hwa-jaeng thought, Do-hum Lee (Hanyang University), in his study Hwa-jaeng Semiotics, Theory and Practice (Hanyang University Press, 1999), presents a new semiotic theory that combines formalism and Marxism, and with the theory he analyzes ancient poetry including Hyang-ga and the modern poetry of Sang Lee and Soo-young Kim.

The fact that the above studies were done by literary scholars who majored in Korean literature needs special attention. Semiotics provided a new opportunity for the literary scholars who desperately searched for the ways to expose a new interpretation of the literary works. These scholars are not the thoughtless recipients of foreign theories but the pioneers who try to establish theories by applying semiotics to Korean literary works. They still have room for improvement in the theoretical elaborateness and refinement, but the originality of their perspectives shows new possibility in the study of literature.

5. These semiotic writings are the work of the latest decade. These writings were produced after 10 years had past since the introduction of semiotics in Korea. Two systematic events deserve attention at this point of discussion. One is the foundation of the first Institute for Semiotic Studies (ISS) in Korea at Ewha Womans University in 1987. The other is the foundation of the Korean Association for Semiotic Studies in 1994. The ISS at Ewha Womans University works as a place for the semiotics scholars to gather and study semiotics, and it constantly produces the translations of major semiotic texts and special lectures on semiotics. The Korean Association for Semiotic Studies has held monthly colloquiums and annual symposiums until 2000, and starting in 1995 the association has published eleven volumes of the journal Semiotic Inquiry.

These symposiums show that the Korean Association for Semiotic Studies has been the core of active and passionate study of semiotics and has contributed to the development of Korean semiotics in the past nine years. In addition, the fact that one to two colloquiums are held every month explains why so many numerous semiotic writings have been published in the past ten years in Korea.

6. In addition to all these activities of the Korean Association for Semiotic Studies, the society is most proud of its publication of Semiotic Inquiry. The association had published the journal once a year from 1995 to 1998, and twice a year since 1999. Every volume of the journal has a special theme and the half of the studies presented in the journal is related to the theme while the other half are the studies done under free topics. The submitted studies undergo strict evaluation and about one third of the submitted papers are turned down or asked for revision. This is the necessary step to maintain the quality of the journal.

For your information, here are the themes for each volume of the journal Semiotic Inquiry.

Semiotic Inquiry 1: Culture and Sign, Munhakwajiseongsa, 1995

2: Industrial Society and Sign, Munhakwajiseongsa, 1996

3: Contemporary Life and Sign, Munhakwajiseongsa, 1997

4: Sign and Interpretation, Munhakwajiseongsa, 1998

5: Metaphor and Metonymy, Munhakwajiseongsa, 1999

6: Language and Sign, Munhakwajiseongsa, 1999

7: Digital Culture and Semiotics, Munhakwajiseongsa, 2000

8: Korean Culture and Semiotics, Munhakwajiseongsa, 2000

9: Ecology and Semiotics, Munhakwajiseongsa, 2001

10: Body Language and Semiotics, Munhakwajiseongsa, 2001

Due to the space limit, it is impossible to introduce the papers presented in the journal in detail. However, the themes of each volume show that Korean semiotics is expanding its field of study to diverse disciplines. The Korean Association for Semiotic Studies plans to participate in the development of semiotics by presenting outstanding study results to not only the Semiotics Society of Asia but also in semiotics world ssociations. Moreover, the society also looks forward to the development of Korean semiotics in its essence; Korea has the long tradition of using an object as a sign and has rich source of ancient literature. Korean society and its history is the treasure box of signs and the Korean Association for Semiotic Studies will play the role of digging up the treasure. The Korean Association for Semiotic Studies would sincerely appreciate the encouragement from the colleagues of Asia as the society is in the beginning stage.