Saturday, August 27, 2005


The calligrapher I mentioned months ago had another "exhibition" up, this time at Sookdae Ipgu Station, not far from Smoo. I didn't see the man himself, but I recognized his work. As I perused his latest pieces, I saw this proverb (here rendered in my unprofessional hand):

I knew three out of the four characters right away (first, third, and fourth), and could guess at the mysterious character's meaning because it contains the "water" radical. Can you figure out what proverb this is? Would I be giving too much away if I said, mu han bul seong?

(If you can't figure the proverb out, comfort yourself by blaming my handwriting. Externalize your locus of responsibility, as your shrink might say.)



The Maximum Leader said...

What are you to do if you don't recognize any of the characters? How can you externalize then I ask?

Kevin Kim said...

Since "externalize your locus of responsibility" is a fancy way of saying "blame others," I'd recommend cursing me for having written in Chinese in the first place.


Anonymous said...

The first English proverb(?) that comes to mind is "No pain, no gain."

Kevin Kim said...


Yes, that's what I was thinking when I saw the proverb.

For non-Korean-speakers, a rough translation of the characters:

mu = no
han = sweat
bul = no(t)
seong = attainment, success

"No sweat, no attainment" sounds awkward to the anglophone ear; I think "No pain, no gain" serves as a decent translation.

Here's my question for you, Charles, since you're far more knowledgeable about this than I: why is the third character "bul" and not another "mu"? I normally associate "bul" more with "not" or "un-" than with "no." Plus, "mu han mu seong" is a more elegant parallel structure, like "no pain, no gain."

Color me curious,


Anonymous said...

I cannot not claim to be an expert on Chinese characters, but here is my understanding of the difference. "Mu" is equivalent to the Korean "eopda" (없다) and the opposite of "yu" (有), so we have word pairings like muryeok and yureok (無力/有力) and musim and yusim (無心/有心). Bul, on the other hand, is (as you mentioned) more of a not, non, un-, etc. But these are English translations of Korean concepts. If you take bulpyeon (不便), for example, you can translate that as "uncomfortable," but on a basic level it means "not being in a state of comfort."

In "mu han bul seong," I think, sweat is considered a concrete concept that either exists or doesn't exist--more of a noun rather than a verb. Success, on the other hand, is a state to be attained, or a process to go through (i.e., going from not successful to successful). To get away from elegant parallel English constructions, we could translate the proverb as "in the absence of sweat, one cannot attain the state of success." Does that make sense?

Sorry for the lengthy comment. I don't think I've ever tried to explain the difference between mu and bul--to myself or anyone else--so I was just thinking it out as I went along. I'm not even sure if that's right, but that's my best stab at it, at least for now.

Kevin Kim said...

Your comments aren't lengthy; check mine out in some other posts.

"I cannot NOT claim to be an expert on Chinese characters..."

So you're an expert! When you got it, flaunt it, man!


Kevin Kim said...

Explaining "mu" and "bul" feels a bit like trying to explain "nicht" and "kein" to non-germanophones, or "ne/pas" versus "ne/aucun" to non-francophones.

"Das ist kein Mahler."
--a disgusted Leonard Bernstein to his orchestra in Berlin after a particularly bad rehearsal (caught on film)


Anonymous said...

Ach! And I even read my comment over again before posting it. I assure you that was not my subconscious trying to flaunt anything. Believe me, if I had it, I would indeed flaunt it. But I'm afraid I don't have it yet.

And I think you have a point about the French and German cases. It might be that it's just difficult to explain in English.