What Is Jung And How Can We Kill It?, Part 1

No Jung, Bajung Gadung Gung

I’ve had that little ditty running through my head ever since I read Roboseyo‘s great post about the movie Crossing, and how South Koreans seemed both unwilling to fund it and now unwilling to see it.  Here’s the money shot:

In my darker moments, I think that South Korea’s apathetic attitude toward what’s happening in the North (other than insofar as Kim Jong-il might have weapons that threaten the south) is the ultimate refutation of Koreans’ claim to have that mystical “jung” — some deep connection between humans that only Koreans could experience or understand. How could you claim “jung” — some deep, humanizing connection between Koreans, when many of your own are starving to death and eating dirt just to remember the feeling of having something in their stomachs, and you won’t even go to a damn movie about it?  The filmmakers had a hell of a time even finding funding for their movie, because South Koreans keep NK at SUCH an arm’s length.  Investors didn’t think the film would make any money.  No jung, gentle readers.  No urgency?  No feeling of need to have this story told?  No jung.

Badung gadung gung.

This is to me the central mystery of Korean life.  How can Koreans go from one extreme to the other so violently and clearly, dividing the inhabitants of the world along these stark lines into ‘people’ and ‘obstacles’. 

Disclaimer:  I’m not stupid.  Before you read on please know that I am aware I am making generalizations that do not apply to every single person in Korea.  If you’re one of those people whose only response to things you’re not familiar with is to say ‘That’s not true of everyone.’ then please consider your one good line taken and keep quiet.  I’m sick to death of people adding nothing to a conversation except the ‘this is a generalization’ caveat that another neglected to include.  It’s not conversing, it’s cherry-picking.

Anyway, I have been developing a theory for a while now that basically goes like this:  social functions can either be produced on-site (i.e. internalized) or out-sourced (i.e. regulated by society).

Example 1: Helping those less fortunate can either be done out of an inborn compulsion which leads to charitable acts or by the collection of taxes to fund social welfare programs.  The former would be an example of on-site philanthropy, while the latter would be out-sourced philanthropy.

Example 2: Maintaining order among waiting people can be achieved by having everyone in society respect the concept of lining up (on-site maintenance of order) or by devising systems in which people take numbers, orders are assigned according to some system, etc. (out-sourced maintenance of order).

Example 3: People can be encouraged to help their elderly parents by instilling in them a sense of duty (on-site responsibility) or by binding them by law to do so (out-sourced responsibility).

You didn’t think I was going to give you three examples where Korea out-sources its good behavior and North Americans readily take responsibility, did you?  No, no society has yet managed to educate  its people to the extent that they do everything they ought to do without any prompting.  Some Americans still need laws to prevent them from chucking their elders to the wolves.

So what does it have to do with jung? All this week I’m going to be developing on the question of jung, empathy and care for your fellow man, in this five-part series.  Every morning, in your feed reader.  Only at the Joshing Gnome.

Incidentally, the aforementioned little ditty I couldn’t get out of my head is:

노정, 빠정가덩겅,
노정, 빠정가덩겅,
정이란 없단말이졍,
노정 빠덩겅 껑가덩겅.

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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~ by Joe on June 30, 2008.

14 Responses to “What Is Jung And How Can We Kill It?, Part 1”

  1. so, uh, does badung gadung gung mean in English?

    thanks for the kind write-up, eh? I’m looking forward to your essays through the week.

  2. Robo,

    It sounds like a cross between, “ba-dum-dum” (the drum sound people mimic when making a cheesy joke) and samulnori, to me, but from the ditty at the end it looks more like a percussive version of “la-la-la” — nonsense syllables that deep the beat in a vocal tune. Curious whether I’m right, but I have heard people sing stuff that sounded like that.

    Joe,

    I think you’re generalizing about people who generalized about generalizations. Sorry, someone had to say it. But seriously, yeah, this lines up very much with some thoughts I’ve been having lately.

    Personally, I’m thinking cultures transition at the speed of death, meaning, much more slowly than at the pace of social change. Societies change very rapidly, but cultures never keep with this. Enter Alvin Toffler and the cheesball-brillliant Future Shock.

    I figure researching the Gin Craze — another long period of slow, painful social change that happened concurrently to massive urbanization and industrialization, but in England — will probably shed some light, but the basic notion I’m pushing is that this whole breakdown of task-duties, wherein certain things get outsourced or internalized, to use your terms, necessarily changes when changes on the order of urbanization (which, as Toffler calls it in another book, is “The Second Wave,” the first being the establishment of agriculture and cities/empires depending upon it, if I’m remembering my Toffler correctly) hits.

    Like I said in another comment here earlier today, I think it was, sometimes you feel like you’re surrounded by people who just moved to the city, and aren’t used to city life yet. People stepping off escalators and not moving so as to avoid bottlenecking the people behind them, people fighting to be first onto or off any public transport vehicle, and so on. That latter’s a good example of a case where no really consistent system has been established, at least not effectively. Lining up and letting people off before you get on the subway hasn’t been internalized, and at the same time, external regulation of subway behaviour is so rare (I haven’t seen it, though you have, apparently, with the guys stopping people getting on when the train is too full) as to be ineffectual in general terms.

    Anyway, I’m enjoying this series so far. I have a feeling I’ll be referring to it when I do get to my “Gin Craze and Soju Daze” posts.

  3. Ooof, one caveat:

    I’m as leery as any properly educated person about universalizing patterns, claiming every culture goes through the same 3 stages, and so on. I see parallels, not sameness, between 17th century English culture’s relationship to gin consumption and soju in Korea today. Big differences, too.

    But I feel like in Korea, a lot of things have neither an external system of regulation nor really internalized rules governing behaviour, and it’s by looking at how those things gel during periods of apparently radical cultural transition that I think we can explain this. I’m thinking a lot of the things that are necessary for being a civilized human being in a city are less necessary in a village: not that village people are uncivilized — except the musical group by that name, damn them — but that the specifics of city life necessitate a whole new repertoire of behaviours, etiquettes, and attitudes that would be unnecessary in less-crowded, less-bottlenecked settings like villages and small towns.

    More later.

  4. Rob,
    No jung, badung gadung gung kind of goes to the tune of 얼러리 껄러리, if you’re familiar with that little children’s taunt song.

    Gord,
    This is why I’m glad I let go of my inhibitions and decided to tie all my crackpot theories together. It draws out everyone else’s interesting way of looking at the question.

    Generalizations, yes, absolutely.

    I hadn’t really thought of the question in terms of societal change. In my mind it could go either way. Balki Bartokamous didn’t bum-rush the ‘L’. I don’t think that my grandparents, who were born in thatched cottages in rural Ireland, were particularly uncaring or rude, despite living in New York City. I think it has more to do with the ideas underlying the society wherever that society happens to be taking place.

    I feel like in Korea, a lot of things have neither an external system of regulation nor really internalized rules governing behaviour, and it’s by looking at how those things gel during periods of apparently radical cultural transition that I think we can explain this.

    Yeah, but I think what you’re feeling is the absence of an established order specific to the situations you’re thinking of. What takes over is the underlying order of ‘let’s agree to not be people to each other.’

  5. Ah, I see I didn’t explain enough. 🙂

    Weirdly, I think you’re overlooking a point about the plasticity of individuals. I figure that, regardless of where your grandparents come from (and how much of the urban coping mechanisms they’d acquired in Ireland), they entered a New York City that had been urban for a long time — long enough to develop a routine toolkit of such coping mechanisms, even without the legacy systems imported from the Old Country’s urban centers. (Some of which, I imagine, had been shipped to small centers via literary depictions of cities and so on.)

    Cultures change very slowly — at the speed of death, as I said — but individuals change at, say, at least half the speed of immigration, or at worst at the speed of reproduction… or, often, faster. In other words, people adapt, and as you’ve done in Korea, to some degree they adopt enough of the general operating system (or a dual boot setup, or a virtual emulator application) of the society into which they immigrate in order to interface with others relatively successfully. (Or, failing to adapt, they don’t thrive there, but nonetheless, if they remain, their offspring tend largely to adapt the locally available software from peers anyway. Like language, actually… a lot like language.)

    So I guess I’m saying that what we could call “urban etiquette,” much like “modern urban planning,” is something that has only very tentatively begun to develop and be applied in Korea. People (especially younger ones) emigrating from, say, Gochang to Seoul are likely to behave the way most Seoulites behave after ten years here — which is, in many ways, like people immigrating from Gochang to Seoul. However, I’d expect (young) people (or at worst their offspring) from Gochang who emigrate to, say, Seattle or Edmonton not to behave like Seoulites at all, but rather more like Seattleites or Edmontonians. (Provided they are routinely exposed to the local urban culture, and not just some ethnic enclave.)

    I think it has more to do with the ideas underlying the society wherever that society happens to be taking place.

    That’s possible. The thing that makes me think otherwise, though, is that I think a lot of this is in slow transition too. My fiancée finds a lot of public behaviour by Koreans quite inconsiderate, for example — the story she told me after traveling with a friend to Thailand was that she was quite put off by the Koreans in the airport, and also found odd some of her friend’s “Korean” habits of mind and behaviour — like not returning a polite and friendly hello to a hotel employee, for example, or not tipping anyone, ever. (Living abroad for a year might count towards the difference, of course, but I wonder how much of a role it had for her.) Meanwhile, I’ve heard many students complain about the behaviours of older Koreans, and when one ventured a snickering notion of putting up with it until they can behave badly too, the laughter seemed to me quite nervous. I don’t think the prospect of becoming a subway-seat-pouncing, cell-phone-hollering, curly-haired, visor-wearing ajumma appeals to most of the students I know, especially those who’ve grown up in the city.

    I feel like in Korea, a lot of things have neither an external system of regulation nor really internalized rules governing behaviour, and it’s by looking at how those things gel during periods of apparently radical cultural transition that I think we can explain this.

    Yeah, but I think what you’re feeling is the absence of an established order specific to the situations you’re thinking of. What takes over is the underlying order of ‘let’s agree to not be people to each other.’

    Right, but for many types of situations, we have that same essential practice in most Western cities. Living in cities is, for people not used to it, quite a traumatic shift precisely because people have to learn to tune out the vast majority of stimulus, including people all around them.

    But here’s where we get into what I’m planning to examine in those Gin-and-Soju posts — the borderline between software and hardware: the built-in size and complexity limits of human social networks (and thus limits of inbuilt algorithms for altruism), and how the societal trauma of having cultural software that is incompatible with the network environment.

    To run with that “wet robots” notion of yours, that is.

  6. Look, I get the general point you are making ,and myself have been exasperated beyond all sense by Korean bullshit, BUT… Joshing Gnome, you are being cheap and sloppy in this.

    You wrote this:
    “How could you claim “jung” — some deep, humanizing connection between Koreans, when many of your own are starving to death and eating dirt just …”

    You’ve fucked it up. Either you get ‘jung’, which is not a hard concept, and mis-explained it, or .. you’re wrong. Based on the rest of your writing, I’d say the first one.

    Jung is a deep humanizing connection between two anybodies. Being Korean is not part of it. You are right to say that the knee-jerk “foreigners can’t understand this” is bullshit, but the fact I have experienced is that Koreans will declare a friendship is ‘jung’ with no hesitation and for the same reasons as they consider a this way to a fellow Korean.

  7. I never wrote that, I merely quoted Roboseyo. That’s not really my style. I tend to agree with you, that jung is a deep humanizing connection between anybody and has nothing to do with being Korean. Problem is, some Koreans would take issue with that, claiming either that jung is uniquely Korean or that Koreans have some greater than average claim to the emotion.
    And yes, as you said, Koreans do not only feel jung towards other Koreans.

  8. […] concept in a society that is, on basic operating principles, a society of amoral familialism. Start here, and then catch up: post 4 should be up soon! (And, I’ll be back at those comment threads […]

  9. […] it underwent becoming a modern (or postmodern) society. Korea has not. As I wrote in some comment at The Joshing Gnome: Personally, I’m thinking cultures transition at the speed of death, meaning, much more slowly […]

  10. […] – Why Lee Hyori’s Breasts are a Metaphor For Korean Celebrity Culture The Joshing Gnome – What is Jung and How Can We Kill It? Korea Beat – Most-Read Naver Stories of the Week (Weekly) Metropolitician – Ajussis Ruin Everything […]

  11. […] – Why Lee Hyori’s Breasts are a Metaphor For Korean Celebrity Culture The Joshing Gnome – What is Jung and How Can We Kill It? Korea Beat – Most-Read Naver Stories of the Week (Weekly) Metropolitician – Ajussis Ruin Everything […]

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  13. […] and especially “jeong” or “social harmony” (if we must translate it): as The Joshing Gnome argues, it seems almost absent from most interactions, thus the object of constant […]

  14. […] in a heavily militarized, psychopathic dictatorship is, indeed, South Korea. It’s not just jeong that’s in short supply here, but also, it seems for a certain segment of the population, […]

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