It’s sometimes possible to tell the class of a character in a Korean historical drama just by looking at their name.
For instance, Yangban nobility might have grand titles or auspicious names. But the Cheonmin ‘humble people’ often don’t even have a surname and call their children names like Gye ttong, dog turd!
It’s usually male characters who are named after poo. But I believe there’s a female lead called Gae-ttong in the historical romantic comedy Flower Crew: Joseon Marriage Agency.
The lowest class could be called other kinds of poo, too. For example, there was 말똥 (mal-ttong) ‘Horse Manure’. 소똥 (so-ttong) ‘Cow Pat’, 쥐똥 (chui-ttong) Rat Droppings, and 닭똥 (dak-ttong) Chicken Poo!
But for some reason, Gye-ttong was the most popular name! Although personally, I’d rather be called Horse Poo than Dog Poo. 🤔 (Who’s with me?)
Female slaves could be named after certain months of the year. And March is a particularly popular month for a peasant girl’s name. (삼월)
Anyway, getting back to dog poo (a.k.a gye ttong). Here’s just a quick word on the spelling and pronunciation of ‘ttong‘ 똥
In RR (Revised Romanisation of Korean) the first character ㄸ is spelled tt. But I’ve also seen it spelled with dd, (which I prefer) as in gye ddong.
ㄸ (tt) is a plosive and tense consonant, which basically means it’s pronounced with a lot of oomph. Hence the double letters, I suppose!
But as this sound isn’t used as the beginning of English words, it’s hard to pronounce it. And it’s not easy to distinguish between the pronunciation of ‘tong‘ and ‘ttong‘. 🤔 Listen to the pronunciation of gye ttong.
I’ll have to keep working on that.
So WHY DID PEASANTS HAVE SUCH LOWLY NAMES?
So in the past, the lower classes thought that unpleasant names would bring good health and long life. (Korean)
Life was tough as a servant. On top of that, the mortality rate was also high for everyone, so it was likely that babies would die before their first birthday. So parents didn’t want to tempt fate by giving their child a precious name.
Hence, naming children after everyday or unpleasant things like dog muck became common.
RIGHTS OF THE CHEONMIN CLASS
The hard lives of servants/slaves is often shown in historical dramas. And the storylines often focus on the poor being mistreated by the powerful yangban nobility.
We can see this in Mr Sunshine. The protagonist Eugene escapes from his owners as a child after they beat and kill his parents. He hides in a crate to get to the USA. For another example, there’s the drama Chuno (SBS 2011) about the slave hunters who chase and catch runaway slaves!
The chonmin had professions that other classes considered distasteful And they lived in a separate community and upward social mobility was almost impossible for them.
Although there are some notable exceptions. For instance, one of King Sukjong’s concubine Suk Bin (ak.a Dong Yi and mother of King Yeongjo) came from the slave class, so her story is amazing and unusual.
Social Classes in the Joseon Period
CHANGES WITH INDUSTRIALISATION
This idea of not tempting fate continued into the 20th century when it came to registering the birth of children. Up until the 1960s and the industrialisation period it was common for parents to wait a year or more to register the birth of their children.
So today, many people who were born before the industrialisation period (pre 1970) will actually be older than the birthdate on their birth certificate. For instance, someone’s official age might be 80, but their actual age 82.
Calling children lowly names like Gye ttong has continued too, but it’s not as common as it was! And it is just a nickname; a term of endearment (!) ‘Gye ttong‘ won’t be the actual name on the birth certificate!
Clearly, the belief that names can bring good luck (or bad) continues. After all, there are professionals who specialise in helping new parents pick auspicious names for their children.
Book Review: The Dwarf about the struggles during industrialisation in the 1970s. It’s said to be the most important post-war Korean novel.
Book Review: Park Chung Hee from Poverty to Power
NAMES & CONNOTATIONS
Names come in and out of fashion. And these days nobody is called after a month of the year, because the months still conjure up connotations of the lower classes.
Other names are also not popular anymore. For instance, in My Name is Sam Soon, people laugh every time they hear Sam Soon’s name because it’s so old-fashioned! (Or so I am told! I can’t tell that her name sounds old-fashioned!)
On the other hand, Ji Young is a very popular first name for a girl these days, hence the title of the book Kim Ji Young Born 1982. (There’s an English translation of this book now, but I haven’t read it yet) Here her name represents the women born in the 1980s.
Here’s my film review of Kim Ji Young Born 1982
But anyway, the meaning behind Gye ttong is actually quite sad. Poor people felt that if they chose a precious name for their children, they might lose them to sickness or other misfortune. This doesn’t seem to be the case with members of the nobility though. But I’ll look into that in another post.
50 Questions on Korean Life and Culture