山村訓長但知覓

The Sanchon Hunjang
(usually clicking on the photos yields an enlarged version)

10/31/2005

 

Owl that man!

Xu Shen 許愼 허신's dictionary 《說文解字 설문해자》 defines the word "owl 梟" as "An unfilial bird that eats its [own] mother. Thus at the winter solstice [we] catch and dismember them. The character comes from [the graphic elements of] a bird's head on top of a stick."

☞ 許: 허락할 허, 愼: 삼갈 신, 說: 말씀 설, 文: 글월 문, 解: 풀 해, 字: 글자 자.


So those Chinese folk somewhere got the idea that owls eat their own mothers, which is one of the greatest sins in the view of those who highly value the respect that offspring should show to their parents. We see the same cultural idea reflected in a graphic bit of verse by 韓愈 한유 of the mid-Tang:

鴟梟啄母腦, The owl pecks it's mother's brains--
母死子始翻. Mother dies as offspring begins to fly.

☞ 鴟: 올빼미 치, 啄: 쪼을 탁, 母: 어미 모, 腦: 뇌 뇌,
死: 죽을 사, 子: 아들 자, 始: 비로소 시, 翻: 날 번.


This damns the owl to being a symbol for evil. As if that weren't enough, some cultural dictionaries say that the characteristic sound that the owl makes is heard by Chinese to be their word for "dig, dig" as in "dig a grave, 'cause this one's not going to make it." It's said to be the sound one hears right about the time you breathe your last. (Unfortunately I've only seen this in English sources, so I don't know what the "dig" word they are refering to is.) Just to show I didn't make this up:

The hoot of the owl is much feared. It is said that when any one is going to die the owl is heard calling out, "Dig! dig!" Of course, they think it is telling them to dig the grave that will soon be needed, and they instantly expect the death of the sick man.


And this practice of dismembering them and placing their heads on pikes at the winter solstice in order to ward off evil adds another meaning to this word: to gibbet someone (actually the English gibbet usually refers to locking someone up in a cage like this one...


...to die and have their remains act as a deterrent to like-minded evildoers. In contrast, 梟首 효수 (note: that's usually a transitive verb, as in "owl's head that man!") refers specfically to posting only the head of an evil-doer in a public place...

☞ 首: 머리 수.


...for the same purpose.)

The last definition for this word in the small dictionary on my desk is "mountain peak," which must owe something to the macabre resemblance of the Oriental gibbet to a mountain. This combination reminds the Sanchon Hunjang of 切頭山 절두산, or "Lopping-heads Mountain" in Seoul and the sad events that took place there.

☞ 切: 끊을 절, 頭: 머리 두, 山: 메 산.


The word 梟 is also used to describe the character of 劉備 유비 in the 《三國(志)演義 삼국지》 (I know those don't read the same. Fact is that this book is called by different names in China and Korea. What can a poor Sanchon Hunjang do about such complications in the real world? But hey, Amazon is selling several translations of it in English.), something like an "inappropriately aggressive hero figure." I suppose the logic must be something like "as long as he produces results, people will overlook his over-the-topness, but if he's not careful, he will end up with his head on a gibbet."

☞ 劉: 죽일 류, 備: 갖출 비, 三: 석 삼, 國: 나라 국, 演: 멀리 흐를 연, 義: 옳을 의, 志: 뜻 지

Comments:
Add reading your website to the reasons I need to step up my Chinese character study.
 
Como interesante sea su blog y a mi, me encanta leerlo por lo menos porque tiene una vista y entendemiento de la corea que en verdad la me siento muy celoso. Disagraciadamente, aunque tiene la habilidad de escribir y leer en el chino por el resto de nosotros que no podemos, ¿que no sería mejor si nos da por lo menos una explicación de loque está escribiendo? Claro que sí sólo está escribiendo por los que lean el chino, pues nimodo pero como haya muchos que tienen interes in la corea pero no intiendan el chino, por favor escriba una nota por el cual podemos entender la significanza de loque dice. Es como el espanol-si soy el único que lo entienda, no sirve ¿no?
 
Mightydog,

Get off it, if the headmaster wishes to write on his blog in Chinese then so be it. If you can't understand it then go learn Chinese or keep quiet. Just because you don't appreciate the Chinese doesn't mean other fell the same way as you.

Headmaster, I love you and I love the Chinese. Keep it up!
 
Damn, I knew that I should have studied Spanish harder in high school...
 
Don't change a thing, the fact that you write 한문 is one of the reasons I come here. 그런데 한문 어떻게 그렇게 잘 하실 수가 있죠? 너무 궁금해 물어본 거예요. I know it will take me many years before I get to your 수준.
 
Mightydog: Thanks to Babelfish, I think I got most of your Spanish comment. I don't disagree. The real irony is that you wrote that comment at the same time that I was explaining how the original posting had gone public in that state by mistake. ^^

Waygugin: Hmmmm. I really don't know what to say to that.

I started blogging 한문 related topics because it gets me off my lazy, complacent butt and at least reading and thinking. I think the only secret is good dictionaries--not 옥편 which give definitions focused on modern Korean words--that give lots of example sentences showing how classical Chinese words were used, along with time to sift through them. The dictionaries I have, but time is always in short supply... ㅠ.ㅜ

Thanks for the note of encouragement!
 
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