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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Entertainers with uiri

Kukmin Ilbo (via Media Daum) (note the change of Latin pronunciation from Kookmin to Kukmin) tells that a bunch of heavy-league entertainers have sent a petition for release of the gangster boss Mr Na, head of Seobang-pa organization, who has been arrested for evading taxes by curb loans and by selling foreign beef in his restaurant as Korean beef.

The entertainers, who included the movie actor Choi, singers Kim and Yi, tv actors Kim, Im, Yun, Pak etc are moving in their display of ûiri (uiri) towards the arrested Mr Na: "He had meat (kalbi) sets delivered to movie and tv staffs on festive days, and he is a good supporter of arts."
The lawyers that Mr Na has hired maintain that he hasn't sold imported beef to customers but given it as a gift to Japanese, celebrities, and steady customers." The police see that the entertainers may not have taken the initiative to write the petition by themselves, but that they have only borrowed their names for entertainment agencies, who have close links with Mr Na.
Choi Min-su, Sim Eun-ha and Lee Byeong-heon in 'White Nights'
Choi Min-su, Sim Eun-ha and Lee Byeong-heon in 'White Nights'

So the question arises who are these entertainers? Fortunately there are the reader comments below, where someone enlightens us that the names have been given in Hankook Ilbo: Choi Min-su, Yi Hwi-jae, Yi Hun, Im Ch'ae-mu, Kim Min-jong, Yun Ta-hun, Pak Sang-myôn, Kim Serena.
Choi Min-su is perhaps the best known of these, at least from having had the honor to appear with me in one scene in the 1998-99 drama "White Nights" (백야 3.98). I agreed not to have any lines so that I wouldn't have stolen the scene from Mr Choi with my telegenic qualities, so I ended up being an extra playing just a Russian (?) guy sipping beer at a bar. (In fact I had no idea what they were shooting, when my Romanian fried dragged me to the place after I had just arrived in Korea. I recognized Choi Min-su on the set, and learned later it was a drama called White Nights when I asked some of my Korean acquaintances what it is that he appears in.)

I mentioned the concept ûiri (義理) above. It's a common East Asian term, prononunced giri in Japan. During my time in Korea I don't think I ever encountered in everyday speech, but from elsewhere I've learned to associate it with relations of loyalty best (or worst) exemplified with gangsters, as here in the relation between Mr Na and the entertainers (or their agencies).

Kim Gyuhang has recently had a note on the term in his blog, pointing out that the "male bonding" meaning of the term is actually the Japanese giri, which has the same Chinese characters: "one has to give as much as one has received." For him, the original meaning of the word is "what a human being should do as a matter of course" (인간이 마땅히 해야 할 도리 [道理]). That meaning is not dependent on individual relations but reflects some kind of an universal morality. (But has that morality, at least in East Asia, ever been distanced from relations; at least not in terms of classical formulations.) I'm uncomfortable with the meaning of uiri as understood in the first sense, but I'm afraid even with the other, more original or not, definition we cannot escape the giri-kind of a meaning of 義理.

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