The Garden of Morning Calm

« previous post | next post »

[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey]

You’ve probably heard Korea referred to as the “Land of the Morning Calm.” That’s a nickname for Korea that’s been used in the West at least since the 19th century.

And perhaps because Koreans agree that “Morning Calm” sounds mystical and romantic, it’s been picked up lately—often for commercial purposes—in South Korea, too. Korean Airlines, for example, has frequent flier perks for members of its “Morning Calm Club.” In 1996, an arboretum east of Seoul was given the name, “Garden of Morning Calm.”

But the nickname is a chimera, the result of a mistake—and probably one made by some starry-eyed Westerner infatuated by the mysterious Orient. ‘Morning Calm’ is a mistranslation of an ancient name for Korea, a name known only from ancient Chinese records.

In the 1st century B.C., when Chinese ethnographers were exploring the Korean peninsula, they heard a name that local people were using. The Chinese visitors didn’t know who those exotic local people were, or what language they were speaking, much less what the word meant. As ethnographers, they simply recorded the word they heard by using the sounds of their own Chinese characters as phonetic notations—just the way Chinese speakers transcribe foreign words even today.

The characters they transcribed the name with 朝鮮 had nothing to do with meanings. Since the Chinese were using the characters only to represent sounds, we have no way to know from those characters what the mysterious, ancient name ever meant.

Besides, the two characters they used can't mean ‘Morning Calm’ anyway! In the Chinese-language reading of the name of Korea (Cháoxiăn), the first character can’t mean ‘morning’ (the reading can only be associated with ‘tide’ or ‘court’). The second character is even farther away. It means ‘rare, few, seldom’; and never ‘calm’. [The readings given here are of course those of modern Mandarin, but the phonological distinctions they represent are reflected in early riming dictionaries.]

Nevertheless, despite the mystery, that most ancient of Korean names still endures today, preserved through the Korean-style readings of the characters. Thus, “조선” (“Choson”) is now the North Korean name of the country; and, as a traditional name, it’s used in South Korea as well.



The whole business is just another instance of how the old mythology about Chinese characters invariably leads people down the garden path!

Even so, no matter how bogus it may be, Koreans obsess over that 'morning calm' nonsense. Heck, we have no idea if what those Chinese explorers heard was a language ancestral to modern Korean, anyway! (It sure couldn't have been something that should be called "Korean" at that early time.) In any case, in later eras Koreans' traditional mythology picked up on what was recorded in those Chinese annals, saying that the ancestor of the Korean people, "Dangun" (you know, the guy who was sired by a god and born from a bear) founded Joseon (now known as 'Old' Joseon 고조선, since 'Joseon' was the name chosen by the last royal dynasty for their state). And, I mean, Koreans still look everywhere, trying to find some ancient word from Korean or Altaic–or anywhere!–for 'morning' that might fit, not realizing that the Chinese reading of 朝鮮 shows it couldn't be about 'morning' or 'calm'.

To add to Koreans' discomfort, some wags have also pointed out that the Western interpretation of the name as 'Land of the Morning Calm' was almost certainly created to parallel the sobriquet 'Land of the Rising Sun' used when they were referring to Japan. That idea particularly galls Koreans, of course.


Selected readings


  1. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 7:58 am

    It's like the kanji representations of the US or England in Japanese: 米国 , 英国 respectively.
    Which could be misinterpreted as land of rice , land of heroes.

  2. Michael Watts said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 8:26 am

    an ancient name for Korea, a name known only from ancient Chinese records.

    Huh? 朝鲜 is the current Chinese name for (North) Korea.

  3. Phillip Minden said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 8:33 am

    So, how what's the analysis of the second-stage mistake, from 朝鲜 to morning calm?
    (Incidentally, Google Translate has 朝 as 'morning', and Yandex Translate as 'toward'. Both have 鮮 as 'fresh'.)

  4. Jongseong Park said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 9:43 am

    This post heavily relies on the premise that 朝鮮 should be interpreted based on the Mandarin Chinese reading Cháoxiǎn. However, what it fails to consider is that various readings have been in use historically, including Cháoxiān and Zhāoxiān, and the popularity of Cháoxiǎn seems like a more recent phenomenon.

    The two readings of 朝, zhāo ("morning") and cháo ("court"), go back to Middle Chinese trjew and drjew respectively. The court-related sense of drjew is usually explained as referring to the morning ceremony or a morning audience at court. The homophonous 潮 drjew/cháo ("tide") is also explained as originally referring to the morning tide. So even if we assume that the drjew reading is correct, we can't dismiss a semantic connection to morning out of hand.

    Japanese has only a single Kan-on reading for 朝, chō, but in Go-on there is a distinction between chō and , derived from MC trjew anddrjew respectively. Wiktionary states that both the "morning" and "Korea" sense are from MC trjew.

    In Cantonese, the usual reading of 朝鮮 is Ziu1sin1, using the same reading as in the sense "morning" derived from MC trjew.

    So it is presumptuous to suppose that it is the Mandarin Chinese reading that happens to be currently popular that we should base our interpretation of the ancient name on.

  5. ~flow said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 10:21 am

    To be fair, a 19th c western writer trying to understand what 朝鮮 might mean and having nothing but the Kangxi dictionary at hand might very well be tempted to translate 朝 as 'morning, as in the Chinese name for Korea': 〔古文〕晁【唐韻】【廣韻】【集韻】【類篇】【韻會】𠀤陟遙切,音昭。【說文】旦也。从倝舟聲。【爾雅·釋詁】朝,早也。【詩·鄘風】崇朝其雨。【傳】崇,終也。從旦至食時爲終朝。又朝鮮,國名。This to me reads as if I could fully assume that 朝 was always read zhao, means 'early' (hence, 'morning'), and is part of a country's name, 'Zhaoxian'. Either the editors of the dictionary were at fault, or they didn't deem the alternative reading to be important, or it didn't exist at the time for whatever language(s) (Mandarin/Guanhua/Literary Sinitic) they describe.

    We can say for sure that nowadays the correct reading of 朝鮮 is Chaoxian, not Zhaoxian, but how far back can we trace this? Certainly the 1st c BCE document (sadly not identified above) did not come with a reading annotation, did it?

    Further, consulting my 東亞現代活用玉篇 pocket dictionary of Chinese characters as used in Korean, I find, under 조: 兆早造鳥調朝助祖, and under 초: 初草招; estimating the overall pattern of how ㅈ and ㅊ correspond to Mandarin zh- and ch-, I think I am in favor of saying that where Korean has ㅈ, Mandarin has likely zh-, and where Korean has ㅊ, we find Mandarin ch-. This is no hard and fast rule, however, just a trend (if it should turn out to survive careful counting); it is also complicated by the fact that some Mandarin d-/t- also turn up as ㅈ/ㅊ (as does, confusingly, 鳥, but we already talked about that one on LL).

    So by this evidence as well, I should be in favor of assuming that 朝鮮 was originally read Zhaoxian, and that 朝 was just a fancy way of writing 早 zao 'early', the two characters being homophone in Sinokorean and sharing part of their meanings.

    As for 鮮, offers 'new' (新的,不陈的,不干枯的:~果。~花。~嫩。新~。),
    'tasty' (滋味美好:~美。~甜。这汤真~。), 'splendid' (有光彩的:~明。~亮。~艳。),
    'tasty food' (味美的食物:尝~。时~。) and 'seafood such as fish and shrimp' (特指鱼虾等水产食物:海~。鱼~。) but not ‘rare, few, seldom’, although the Kangxi does have 鮮,罕也。 and similar so this seems to be one older meaning. 段玉裁 in his Shuowen commentary helpfully tells us that while the character was once used to write the name of a kind of fish, it was later borrowed to write 'fresh' and 'rare' (鮮魚也。出貉國。按此乃魚名。經傳乃叚爲新鱻字。又叚爲尟少字。而本義廢矣。), which still doesn't tell us what the character could have meant to the authors of the 1st BCE first mention—if they did use this specific character at all, because we probably only have a later copy which for all we know could contain replacement characters anywhere. I should add that I think what the English term 'Morning Calm' here means is exactly what is signified by the German word 'Morgenfrische', i.e. the cool, fresh air that one breathes in first thing in the morning, and the peaceful quiet that is so refreshing before the business of the day, so I have no qualms to go from 'fresh' to 'calm'. (BTW Koreans do love to get up early and I myself did so when there, between three and six a.m.; they then love to take a short hike in the hills, shouting at the top of their lungs. So, 'calm', yeah, but certainly fans of early mornings.)

    To be clear, I do not claim that Morning Calm is *the correct interpretation* of 朝鮮, only that a careful investigation turns up evidence that make it a quite reasonable one. Names being names they always live in a limbo realm where they are just labels and at the same time seem to contain deeper meaning. Using a writing system like the Chinese which builds such intricate and tightly knit links between sound and meaning it is hard not to also read the meanings when sound was all that was intended.

    As for the remark that "The Chinese visitors didn’t know who those exotic local people were, or what language they were speaking, much less what the word meant. As ethnographers, they simply recorded the word they heard by using the sounds of their own Chinese characters as phonetic notations"—do we have a source for this claim? Otherwise, we cannot know what the Chinese visitors knew or thought, or how they thought of their writing system. In absence of such a source, I can just as well claim that the visitors asked around for the name of the country, and when people told them, they looked at each other, saying, "Wellwell, Morning Calm they call it, what a beautiful name for an eastern country indeed! Let us put this into our records for our readers will certainly like it!".

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 10:45 am

    This post conjures up the image of Chinese ethnographers exploring the mysterious East recording names in unfamiliar languages. But early contacts would have been more extensive than that. The earliest reliable records of 朝鮮 Joseondate to the Warring States Period in China, when the northeastern Chinese state of Yan was often in conflict with Joseon—on one occasion, Joseon is supposed to have lost vast tracts of land to Yan. Later, around the time of the establishment of the Han dynasty in 202 BC, Joseon took in many refugees from Yan, one of whom overthrew the king and became ruler of Joseon himself. So at least by then, part of Joseon's population must already have been Chinese-speaking. Even going back, it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility that the name 朝鮮 was recorded by someone with at least some knowledge of what it meant in the original language.

    The term 고조선 古朝鮮 Gojoseon, "Old Joseon", was in use before the founding of the last royal dynasty in 1392, because there were multiple ancient states known as Joseon. Before the Joseon mentioned in the Records of the Grand Historian, there were the mythical tales of 기자 箕子 Gija, a sage that arrived from China, and of course of 단군 檀君 Dangun, who were supposed to have ruled over Joseon. Dangun's Joseon was therefore called Old Joseon.

    As for the language spoken in Joseon, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that at least some of them spoke Koreanic. It is thought that Koreanic first started arriving in the southern part of the Korean peninsula around 300 BC, associated with the appearance of a characteristic Bronze Age culture in the archaeological record. A profusion of proto-states appears in the historical record starting a couple of centuries later, which could be due to the influx of people from the north during the turmoil assoicated with the fall of Joseon around 100 BC. These newcomers must have been Koreanic speakers (since the result was the marginalization and eventual disappearance of any other languages that were previously spoken on the peninsula, thought to include Japonic), and the simplest explanation is that they came from Joseon.

    Regarding the etymology of 朝鮮, the Korean historian Yi Pyŏng-do (1896–1989) has speculated that 鮮 could represent the same element as the first part of the name of its early capital 아사달 阿斯達 Asadal, as "morning" is 아침 achim in Modern Korean, 아ᄎᆞᆷ achåm in Middle Korean, and あさ asa in Japanese. Though this theory is somewhat familiar to a portion of the general Korean public, I don't think it has many backers among specialists today.

  7. Jim Unger said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 10:57 am

    Perhaps a clearer case of why just looking at characters is a poor guide to understanding how Chinese used them in ancient times are the Korean names Ye (穢, 濊, or獩) , Maek (貊 or 貉), and Han (韓), discussed in section 3.1.3 (pp. 82-87) of my book _The Role of Contact in the Origins of Japanese and Korean Languages_ (2009). In particular, as explained in fn 6 (p. 83), Mark Byington found evidence that 朝鮮 was first used to designate regions on the Liaodong (not the Korean) peninsula before the 2nd c. CE. The Chinese recycled names they once used for nearby non-Chinese places and peoples, applying them to new ones they encountered as their borders expanded.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 11:21 am

    Many thanks to Jongseong Park, ~flow, and Jim Unger for a most stimulating discussion, also, of course, to Bob Ramsey for getting the ball rolling.

    One thing is certain, with all of these high level, high power cerebrations going on at Language Log, this morning can hardly be said to be calm, though thankfully it remains dignified and civilized.

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 11:25 am

    @~flow, however early the Sino-Korean readings may have been established, the earliest appearance of 朝鮮 in Chinese records would predate them. So 朝鮮 could not have been chosen based on the Sino-Korean readings, as these didn't exist yet. 朝 and 早 may be homophones in today's Sino-Korean, but were quite different already in Middle Chinese.

    I missed that the post was talking about the Chinese ethnographers exploring the Korean peninsula in the 1st century B.C. I think this must be referring to the Records of the Grand Historian, finished around 94 BC. This was only a few years after the Han conquered Joseon after a massive campaign in 109–108 BC, leading to the establishment of commanderies. The Lelang Commandery in particular, centred in Pyongyang, is thought to have played an important role in the introduction of Classical Chinese to the Korean peninsula.

    But as I mentioned in my previous comment, the name 朝鮮 appears earlier during the Warring States Period, specifically in the Zhan Guo Ce. At the start of this period, Joseon would still have been centred outside of the Korean peninsula around Liaodong before losing vast tracts of land to Yan.

    Sino-Korean ㅈ j and ㅊ ch do usually correspond to Mandarin zh/j and ch/q (at least much better than some other series like the velars, which are a mess), but there are exceptions for various reasons. Sino-Korean ㅈ j and ㅊ ch and Mandarin j and q also arise due to palatalization from different sources, from ㄷ d and ㅌ t in the case of Korean and from earlier g and k in case of Mandarin, so do not correspond in these cases.

    As I'm sure was discussed previously, Mandarin 鳥 should really be diǎo, and the unexpected niǎo could be a taboo-motivated replacement. 鳥 was 됴 dyo earlier in Sino-Korean before it became 조 jo due to palatalization.

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 12:33 pm

    @Jim Unger, South Korean scholarship assumes a continuity in the references to 朝鮮 Joseon starting in the Warring States Period of China to the fall of Joseon to the Han dynasty in 108 BC. The Weilüe ("A Brief History of Wei") relates that the Yan general Qin Kai conquered around 2,000 里 li of land from Joseon, leading to the establishment of the Liaodong commandery. This would have been around 300 BC and is thought to have pushed Joseon out to the northern part of the Korean peninsula around Pyongyang. The Weilüe continues to relate various incidents involving the kings of Joseon right up to its fall to the Han, supporting the notion that there is a continuity in the name in this period.

    The Chinese have certainly recycled names for "barbarians", notably 東夷 Dongyi for eastern barbarians, which many lay Koreans still erroneously assume to have always referred to Koreans. But in the case of 朝鮮, there is no need to assume that an earlier mention must refer to a different group since it was located outside the Korean peninsula. If we take the Weilüe at face value, the simpler explanation would be that as the Chinese expanded, Joseon were pushed out from their previous base somewhere around Liaodong to northern Korea. I know there has been a lot of scholarship interpreting the shift in material cultures in the regions involved to fit the narrative that we can gleam from the records, but I'm not as familiar with the details; all I can say is that we know that such movement of peoples is not uncommon throughout history.

  11. ~flow said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 2:58 am

    @Jongseong Park Thanks for explaining these phonetic facts in detail. Just wanting to add that when I wrote my comment I was not so much trying to provide a present-day philological account of the phonological and semantic details of 朝, 早, 鮮, which I definitely can not, but rather to point out what the facts gleaned from then-accessible sources like 康熙字典 and 說文解字 could have looked like to a 19th c Western person long before Karlgren or other serious reconstructions appeared (the conclusion being of course that to me Morning Calm is a reasonable interpretation of 朝鮮 that would also likely meet the approval of native speakers of Chinese and Korean).

    BTW you write "朝 and 早 may be homophones in today's Sino-Korean, but were quite different already in Middle Chinese.", but a cursory glance at and seems to tell me that the historical phonetic differences between 朝 and 早 (for the period given as 先秦) are greater *within the individual reconstructions* than they are between the characters; 李方桂 for one has 早: tsəgwx and 朝: trjagw which I find quite close.

    After reading the erudite B. E. Vidos' 1956 "Handbuch der romanischen Sprachwissenschaft" and a much smaller "Historische Neuenglische Laut- und Formenlehre" by Ekwall 1965 over lockdown my impression is more than ever that there are too many purely incidental and external factors are at play in the semantic and phonetic development of languages that cause the development of languages to become essentially unpredictable, not unlike the weather and for similar systematic (mathematical) reasons. (This same observation also applies to English orthography, by the way, much more so than to the orthographies of other languages that value regularity higher than observance of popular vote on a per-word basis.) I only mention that because seeing as after a century of modern efforts to reconstruct the sounds of old Chinese the reconstructions differ so much, I must assume we know rather little for certain. Vidos goes as far as saying that there isn't much of a phonology to speak of when we go into the weeds, i.e. the essentially unwritten dialects that differ from parish to parish. I think he does have a point there.

  12. Jongseong Park said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 8:57 am

    @~flow, thanks for the explanations. I for one remember being puzzled how one could get "calm" from 鮮 when I first saw the expression "morning calm" in English, and still haven't seen a satisfactory explanation. But looking at sources that 19th century westerners would have had access to could be a good step in trying to solve this puzzle.

    You're quite right that there is a lot of variation between different reconstructions of Middle Chinese. But whatever the actual realizations were, we know which characters shared the same initials and rimes through the rime dictionaries. So for instance, 朝 had either a 知- or 澄-class initial depending on the meaning, 宵-class rime, and level tone; 早 had a 精-class initial, 豪-class rime, and rising tone. From this, we know that 朝 and 早 shared neither initial nor rime in Middle Chinese. They still could have sounded quite similar despite the initials and rimes not matching exactly, but do note that the rime differences can be quite pronounced in the southern Sinitic reflexes, e.g. Cantonese 朝 ziu1/ciu4 and 早 zou2.

    You talked about some patterns or correspondence between Mandarin and Sino-Korean pronunciations earlier. Of course, some general patterns hold, because they ultimately derive from the same source. But if you look at the Sino-Korean readings of individual characters, there are lots of puzzling exceptions that differ from the expected reflexes from Middle Chinese, which must be due to random incidental factors. One oft-cited example is 灣 being read as 만 man instead of the expected 완 wan, usually explained as due to a false analogy with 蠻 만 man. This does not mean that attempts at reconstruction are futile, but it does illustrate that linguistic developments are often not entirely systematic.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2021 @ 8:59 am

    Implications of the discussion on linguistic variation here have been taken up in the comments to this post, "Ultracrepidarian" (3/4/21), especially this comment.

  14. Chris Button said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 11:10 am

    Further to some of the earlier posts, 朝 "morning" and 潮 "tide" are certainly related. Even in English, the word "tide" itself comes from a sense of division of time, which ultimately derives from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning divide and from whence also the word "time". It's from "time" that we can then understand related Chinese senses like "dynasty" and its extension into "court".

    The oracle-bone form for the left side of 朝 seems to show the sun between 禾 "millet" and is very similar to 莫/暮 "dusk" where the 禾 "millet" is instead 屮 "grass". There does seem to be an oracle-bone form of 朝 itself that includes the 夕/月 "moon" component and appears to simplify the 禾 to 屮. However, it's possible it's a variant of 莫/暮 "dusk".

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 12:00 am

    From Shelley Shim:

    I was aware that the phrase "morning calm" came from Chosun (and most Koreans think it's the meaning behind the name itself), but I had absolutely no idea that it was a mistranslation. Morning calm used all over the place today. I know that there's a dentist office in my neighborhood called "morning calm dentist office" and a hotel called "morning calm hotel" nearby. I think people use it mostly because they like the way it sounds.

    And yes, North Korea refers to itself as Chosun (조선민주주의인민공화국) and refers to South Korea as "Nam-Chosun", literally meaning "South Chosun". I also remember someone telling me when I was younger that the word "Korea" actually comes from the "Goryeo" dynasty. Apparently saying "Goryeo" repeatedly ends up becoming "Korea"…

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 10:59 am

    The earliest known use of the phrase in English was in the foreword to William Elliot Griffis's 1882 work Corea, the Hermit Nation:

    My purpose in this work is to give an outline of the history of the Land of Morning Calm—as the natives call their country—from before the Christian era to the present year.

    In Korean, this is rendered as 고요한 아침의 나라 goyohan achim-ui nara. How Griffis settled on "calm" is a mystery, but one suggestion is that he took the second character of 朝鮮 to be 禪 instead, which has the same reading 선 seon in Korean. This is the character for Zen as in Zen Buddhism, and is called 고요할 선 goyohal seon in Korean, with the same adjective for "calm" that we have just seen.

    Most discussions of this epithet that I can find in Korean tend to view it negatively, concluding that Griffis wanted to depict Koreans as weak and helpless, in contrast to the "Land of the Rising Sun". In 2001, the South Korean government promoted "Dynamic Korea" as the new national slogan, and it was explicitly chosen in opposition to this traditional image of calm (of course, the slogan was abandoned years later when the conservatives took power).

    So Koreans are indeed familiar with the expression, but those who are also aware of the history of the expression tend not to see it favourably. Its continued use in English-language branding aside (alongside such terms as "Oriental" whose finer nuances can elude Korean speakers), I don't know if there are many Koreans who are actually proud of this phrase. Most Koreans are probably aware of it but haven't given it much thought.

    @Shelley Shim: Yes, the name Korea is derived from 고려 高麗 Goryeo, but not directly. Despite the phonetic similarities of the endings in Korean and English, it has nothing to do with saying Korean "Goryeo" repeatedly. The name comes from "Core", from a European rendering of a Sinitic pronunciation of 高麗, which was latinized to "Corea" and eventually shifted to the spelling "Korea" in English. Compare Mandarin Gāolí, Cantonese gou1 lai6 or gou1 lei4, and Min Nan Ko-lê. The same name had earlier been rendered as "Caule" by 13th-century traveller William of Rubruck.

RSS feed for comments on this post