사대주의 (Sadaejuui) in Korea: Part 1
To study the historical context of how this term came about, I focused on 사대교린 (sadaegyorin) which was an ancient alliance with China. From 770BC, Asian diplomatic order had been upheld by sadaegyorin. This alliance shows how Korea has accepted toadyism towards a stronger country for a long time. More specifically, during the Proto-three Kingdoms era (57BC till 668AD), we’ve had alliances with the Myong Dynasty, the Manchurians, Ryukyus, and Japan (shown in the figure on the left). It was meant to be a positive affirmative mutual coexistence, validated by annual bribes to make sure the alliance was still strong.
After the Three Kingdom era, the Joseon Era (1392- 1897) have united the three nations and this alliance continued with the Sui dynasty in China, which later becomes the Tang dynasty because of a revolution amongst them. This is when sadaegyorin has started to prevail. For example, including the confirmation of the Korean king’s inauguration from the Chinese dynasty, we’ve always had to make big diplomatic decisions with their consent. This persisted until the Japanese started attacking Korea in 1592 for their expansion plans, which China’s Myong dynasty was obligated to step up to protect us as an alliance. After defeating Japan in the Imjin War (1592–1598), Japan and Korea created 기유약조 (treaty to start trading with them again). Sadaegyorin was strengthened as China has aided our battles, especially later when China colonized Manchuria in the 1680s and was growing stronger.
In terms of modern history, Japan colonized Korea in 1910 until WW2 ended in 1945 by the Hiroshima bomb. This action abruptly ended all the collective efforts that have been continually rising in Korea. Korean independence activists such as Yu Gwan Sun, Kim Gu, and countless more. Because of how Japanese imperialism ending through external actions, the subject of our sadaejuui switched to the US. When Japan relinquished all of its former colonies, but because of the strategical location of Korea, we were divided into two. Politically, the South was supported by the capitalist US forces, and the North was supported by the Soviet and Chinese communist forces. In June 1915, the North launched an attack on the South with Soviet and Chinese backing, so the Korean War was a proxy war for Soviet and China vs. The US. This ideological battle continues today with each government considering itself the legitimate government. The reason why we weren’t able to unite like Germany is because of the authoritarian North Korean government as well as the strategic location bordering China.
As Hollywood movies, American products, policies, and other influences started pouring into our country, our diets, clothes, buildings, items, education, entertainment, or our way of living, in general, have drastically shifted very quickly. Just in a few decades, our country was able to bounce back economically because of democratic revolutions, such as the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement of 1980 and the June Democracy Movement of 1987. This spirit of freedom from any form of suppression of government is still being upheld over the decades, exemplified by the Candlelight Revolution of 2016. We also went through the financial crisis, during the IMF, which has forced our country to become more industrialized, creating more blue-collar jobs and dependence on IT. However, to this day, South Korea imported nearly $7 billion worth of U.S. weapons during the past decade, becoming the third-largest importer of U.S. weapons after Saudi Arabia and Australia. Our military is very much under US control and we are still technically in war with the North because of the tension amongst the East Asian hemisphere.
This contemporary context has a whole degree for it, so I can’t explain more in-depth, but I hope this helps in understanding sadaejuui’s formation and its prevalence in our culture.
When I started thinking about white supremacy after the events in the US, I started to think a lot about how the West-centric mindset has formed in the South Korean context. After many long talks with my parents, I’ve learned that 사대주의 (Sadaejuui) has always been prevalent in Korea. To fully understand this term, I tried to search it in other languages, but it seemed none of the vocabulary was fit. As my screenshots on the bottom show, I’ve asked many friends in different cultures to confirm my assumption that this word didn’t have a direct translation. It was often described as “sucking up” or “toadyism” or “philanthropy” but it didn’t hold the same socio-political context that we hold in Korea. So I started wondering why we had worded this ideology in this way.
“During the proto-three kingdoms era in 1st century BC, classical Chinese characters were brought and adapted to the Korean language. These are known as Hanja, and are still used in Korea today, though minimally and usually in literary texts.” “Unlike any other modern writing system you care to mention, Hangul is not a cobbled-together descendent of some previous form. Its unusual history began in the 15th century with a tale of sudden innovation by one visionary statesman — King Sejong the Great, who is credited with masterminding the design of this bespoke system.”
For example, the initial word that I initially chose to describe this project was 인연(因緣) which is pronounced completely differently in Chinese, but this word’s individual character holds the same meaning. 인(因) means ‘cause’ and 연(緣) means ‘connection’, so if I put in 인연 in Korean onto Google translate, it comes out as ‘destiny’. But when I put in the Chinese characters, it comes out as ‘cause’. But if you put in both of the words together, it comes out as ‘ties’. But the English word that encompasses all of these meanings would be ‘interconnectivity’.
This exemplifies how hangul (Korean writing system) is designed to entail the meaning of hanja (Chinese writing system) behind it, like an acronym. Hangul’s convenience was built because of the complexity of hanja, so it’s functioned to hold a long detailed description in a shortened format. Based on these rough background information, I will start to translate each section of the word. 사 (事) means ‘work’ or ‘business’, 대 (大) means ‘big’, 교 (交) means ‘cross’ or ‘exchange’, 린 (隣) means ‘next door’ or ‘neighbor’. 사대교린 (sadaegyorin), which is the word used for the alliance we had with China had built the ideology of 사대주의, which if you look carefully share the same two letters. The last two letters, 대 (主) means ‘lord’ or ‘king’ and 의 (義) means ‘righteousness’. Therefore, 사대주의 (sadaejuui) translates to the ideology that believes that larger power in the political climate is always right or considered king.
Mencius scripture, 춘추좌씨전(春秋左氏傳), mentions a conversation about sadaejuui: Mencius said “only a wise king knows to obey and serve the stronger countries’ ruling” and 손초 (soncho) replied “smaller countries that do not follow the stronger country is considered precious”. Mencius scripture mentions a conversation about sadaejuui: Mencius said “only a wise king knows to obey and serve the stronger countries’ ruling” and 손초 (soncho) replied “smaller countries that do not follow the stronger country is considered precious”.