Was Seoul always called Seoul?
Even Old New York, was once New Amsterdam. Why they changed it I can’t say. People just liked it better that way! -They Might Be Giants
So go the lyrics in the chorus of a popular song about the name change of the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). The quote can easily be remedied with minimal research. Wikipedia says that in 1664, New Amsterdam was surrendered to the British and renamed “New York”. So we have the reason and the date.
What does this have to do with Korea at all?
Plenty, actually. You see, I live in a city called Seoul. It is unique in that it is a major place name in Korea that cannot be written in Chinese characters. Busan is 釜山 (“Cauldron Mountain”), Gwangju is 光州 (“Light State”), and Pyongyang is 平壌 (“Peace Land”). Seoul, on the other hand can only be written in Hangeul, or phonetically. In Korea, Seoul is written as 서울. Outside of Korea it’s usually written as Seoul. Japanese cities all have Chinese characters, so the Japanese get around the problem by writing the name of Seoul in katakana (ソウル) , as they write the names of other cities that don’t have official Chinese characters.
What about the Chinese? Don’t they HAVE to use Chinese characters to write the name of the city?
In 2005, Korea wanted to make a Chinese-specific name for Seoul, and came up with 首尔 (uh… “you first”? That might be a strange name for a city, but the characters weren’t chosen for meaning, but for sound in Mandarin Chinese.) Shǒu’ěr is how it would be pronounced in Chinese. Before 2005, they simply called it by an old name, 漢城 (er… “Chinese City”).
(Edit: Dear commenters. I KNOW that 漢城 was never intended to mean Chinese City. I’m just saying that this is what it translates as in current meanings of the characters. Stop arguing with me about what it might have meant in the past.)
So wait, Seoul wasn’t always the name of the city?
No, not at all.
During the Japanese colonial era, the name for the city was Keijo 京城 (“Capital City”), pronounced “Gyeongseong” in Korean. Before that, it was called Hanseong 漢城 (“Chinese City”) and also Hanyang 漢陽 (“Chinese Light?”) The city wasn’t always the capital of the country, so it is quite understandable that the city’s name changed.
Edit July 26, 2013: I’ve translated Hanseong 漢城 as”Chinese City” which might suggest that I think this name was given to the city out of deferential respect to Korea’s historically more powerful neighbor to the north, but the city was named after the river it sits on, the Han river. Another translation of 漢城 could be “City on the Han river.” But then we have to ask ourselves how the river got its name to answer the question of whether this is in deference to the Chinese. I don’t feel like researching that, but there is a movement to change the name of the river漢川 (Chinese River) to 韓川 (Korean River).
Well, what does Seoul mean then if it can’t be written in Chinese Characters?
Absolutely nothing! Okay, that’s actually not totally true. The best answer I have heard is that the name Seoul is an abbreviation of an ancient (meaning pre-Chinese domination of Asia) Korean word that means capital city. It’s an indigenously Korean word from the time before Chinese Characters infiltrated the Korean language. I have a little trouble believing this, however, because Hangeul was made in the 1300’s, long after Chinese characters had infiltrated the language. How would anyone have had any record of this ancient word? If such a record exists, it would have had to have been written in Chinese Characters! And these characters’ pronunciations can change over time. So at best, “Seoul” is the current reading of Chinese Characters that were used hundreds or thousands of years ago to approximate the pronunciation of an ancient Korean word. That’s not too accurate if you ask me, but then again, my understanding of investigative linguistics for languages without writing systems (as Korean was in ancient times) is sorely limited.
So anyway, when did Seoul become the name of the city, and why?
This is the problem that I’ve been having for quite a while. I’ve asked many many many people about when the name Seoul came into effect, and what the reasons were. Most Koreans that I have asked simply don’t know or don’t care. Those who claim to know can’t give me a straight answer, or give me false answers. An answer I am looking for would have the date and the reason. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know the exact date, and the reasons are varied.
It’s pretty clear that the Japanese officially changed the name from Hanseong to Keijo 京城 (Gyeongseong). Afterall, the city was the “Capital City” of their newly acquired colony, and calling the city “Chinese City” might only have lead to confusion. Japan was already calling it’s own capital Tokyo 東京 (“East Capital”) instead of its original name, Edo. Their former capital Kyoto京都 (“Capital District”). It made sense in that calling the city “Capital City” wouldn’t confuse people with the names of their already established capitals. This name change happened in 1910, when Korea officially became a colony of Japan. (Again, date and reason.. pretty clear.)
So.. here’s where the hard part comes, finding out who chose the name Seoul, when, why, and when the name was officially changed.
Here’s how a typical conversation has gone when I ask for clarification on the matter, even from graduate level history professors. This isn’t a real conversation I’ve actually had, but it might as well be, as this is how they often go down.
Me: Why is this city named Seoul, and when did it start being called Seoul?
Professor: Seoul is an indigenous Korean word. It is so unique that it can only be written in Hangul. It is a totally Korean word.
Me: Yes, I know that, but why is the city named Seoul, and when did it start being called Seoul?
Professor: It can’t be written in Chinese Characters and it comes from an original Korean word that meant capital.
Me: Yes, I know that, but why is the city named Seoul and when did it start being called Seoul?
Professor: It’s an ancient word, from before the time that Chinese characters came to have an influence on all Korean words. You see, almost all Korean nouns are actually based on Chinese characters. Train, for example is “Ki-cha” which means “machine car”. Baseball, for example is “Ya-gu” which means “field ball”.
Me: Yes, I understand, but why is the city named Seoul and when did it start being called Seoul?
Professor: Well, the city was called Gyeongseong before, when the Japanese were here, and before that, it was called Hanseong, and Hanyang.
Me: YES, I KNOW, BUT WHY IS THE CITY NAMED SEOUL and WHEN DID IT START BEING CALLED SEOUL?!?!??!?!?!?
Professor: Well… It’s a native Korean word.. and.. (etc)
As you can see, nobody I have come in contact with seems to know about it.
The OBVIOUS answer would seem to be that the name Seoul was crafted after the Japanese were defeated in 1945 so that Koreans wouldn’t have continued to call their capital city by a Japanese name. The Korean from the Ask a Korean blog gave me an answer that pretty much said just that. (I later found this answer to be not completely true.)
How is it not true?
Well, while researching for a totally unrelated topic, I came across the picture to the left. As you can see, an American document from the era that Japan was in control of Korea calls the city Seoul. Perhaps the Americans were smelling that war was coming soon and called it Seoul to spite the Japanese. But, this at least proves that the name was older than 1945.
Another document, a tourist map made by the Japan Tourist Bureau, shows both names, further suggesting that Seoul isn’t a name made by revolutionaries or members of the independence movement, if a Japanese government agency is willing to use it.
So it’s pretty clear that the “when” answer to the question is sometime between 1910 and 1937 at the latest.
(Edit: Thanks to some new information from an anonymous reader, it appears the name Seoul is much much older, even being used as early as 1882 in a New York Times article! So, the when question is pushed back much earlier, and now perhaps the idea that the city was going by the name Hanseong at the time could be false.)
Even if we accept that Koreans didn’t like the name Gyeongseong (which we don’t know for sure). The question remains, why did they change it to Seoul? If the purpose was to remove Japanese influence, then why didn’t they just go back to what the city was originally called, Hanseong? My speculative guess would be that this is because they wanted to have a name for the capital city that had no foreign influence, so as to project the idea of true independence. Though again, this is speculative. Nobody seems to be able to explain it to me.
I also used to question why the Gyeongseong name has lived on. There’s still a Gyeongseong High School, for example. The road between Seoul and Busan is called the Gyeongbu expressway (Gyeong for Gyeongseong, Bu for Busan). However, I’ve decided that the name of a high school is a lot different than the name for a capital city, and calling the road Gyeongbu means it goes from the capital to Busan, not necessarily that the capital is named Gyeongseong. (This would be similar to how people call the beltway around Washington, DC as “The Capital Beltway”.)
Well, this is still a mystery to me, so if ANYONE can give me any insight, that sheds light on the situation, I’d be eternally grateful. (I’ve already checked the wikipedia page, there isn’t any information about exactly when the name Seoul was made, but it lists speculations about its etymology. We know for sure that the name was officially changed to Seoul sometime between 1945 and 1948, when the Republic of Korea was founded with Seoul listed as its capital.)