“To make a mistake and not correct it” voted Sino-Korean idiom of 2022

Posted on : 2022-12-12 16:54 KST Modified on : 2022-12-12 16:54 KST
Each year the Kyosu Shinmun surveys professors across Korea to select a four-character proverb that embodies the year
President Yoon Suk-yeol and Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min head to a memorial altar set up in Seoul Plaza for victims of the Itaewon crowd crush disaster on Nov. 11, just days after the tragedy killed more than 150 people. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol and Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min head to a memorial altar set up in Seoul Plaza for victims of the Itaewon crowd crush disaster on Nov. 11, just days after the tragedy killed more than 150 people. (Yonhap)

South Korean professors selected “gwa-i-bul-gae” as their sajaseongeo, an idiom consisting of four Chinese characters, of the year for 2022.

The expression, which means “making a mistake and not correcting it,” came in first by an overwhelming margin in a nationwide survey of university professors.

The Kyosu Shinmun newspaper reported Sunday that “gwa-i-bul-gae” was selected by 476 out of 935 university professors (50.9%) who responded to an email survey administered between Nov. 23 and 30 by the company Macromill Embrain.

“While this year brought the inauguration of a new administration, the hope and anticipation were only temporary,” the newspaper said.

“From the scrutiny of first lady Kim Keon-hee’s doctoral dissertation to the furor over President Yoon Suk-yeol’s ‘Biden’ remarks and the human tragedy of the Itaewon disaster [on Oct. 29], no proper explanations or apologies have been given for anything, and this behavior of making mistakes and refusing to correct them has left the South Korean public trembling with anxiety,” it continued.

The Kyosu Sinmmun’s process of selecting the 22nd “sajaseongeo of the year” began when the 12 members of its recommendation committee nominated 22 expressions. These were narrowed down to five by a preliminary review team, and the winner was eventually selected in a survey administered to professors around the country.

The winning phrase “gwa-i-bul-gae” was nominated by Park Hyun-mo, a professor at the Yeoju Institute of Technology and director of the King Sejong Institute of Statecraft and Leadership.

“Whenever a mistake comes to light in South Korea, regardless of whether it’s the ruling or opposition party, they show no intention of fixing it. Instead, they say it’s ‘the president’s fault’ or insist that ‘the previous administration was worse,’” he explained about the reasons for his nomination.

“In this context, we don’t see any politicians taking responsibility even when we see the kinds of incidents you would expect from an underdeveloped country, like the Itaewon disaster,” he added.

Park went on to say, “If you look at the ‘Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty,’ there are several examples of rectifying mistakes and achieving virtuous outcomes.”

He attributed King Sejong’s wisdom as a ruler to his attitude of expressing remorse and effecting improvements.

“When King Sejong suffered diplomatic embarrassments after appointing the wrong person, he would express his profound regret for sending someone based on his mistaken impression. He also expressed his ‘deep regret’ for the death of many commoners in Hamgyong Province from a plague after he failed to implement preventive measures,” he noted.

Other professors gave various reasons for choosing the idiom.

“There are a lot of people who refuse to acknowledge their errors,” said one survey respondent, a humanities professor in their 60s.

“When you don’t acknowledge it, you have no reason to apologize, and so you have no need to fix anything,” they lamented.

Many lambasted the backward and petty nature of South Korean politics. A sociology professor in their 40s said, “You don’t see any sign of concern for the public’s welfare in the behavior of either ruling or opposition party politicians, who are focused on party interests and put politicking ahead of the country’s future development.”

Another professor in their 60s who works in the art and physical education field said, “When the ruling party becomes the opposition, it’s exactly the same as when the opposition becomes the ruling party.”

As proposed solutions for the refusal to correct mistakes, many echoed the suggestion of a sociology professor in their 60s, who stressed that the “essence of a leader in legislation and administration alike is a willingness to correct one’s mistakes, to lead by example so that similar mistakes aren’t made again, and to clear one’s mind.”

Similarly, a medicine and pharmacy professor in their 60s called for “blaming yourself instead of blaming others,” while a humanities professor in their 50s suggested a “Korean society where we take the first step by reflecting on ourselves.”

In its Chinese form “guo er bu gai” (過而不改) the phrase “gwa-i-bul-gae” first appears in the “Wei Linggong” chapter of the Analects. There, Confucius is quoted as saying, “To make a mistake and not correct it: this is a true mistake.”

The phrase also appears multiple times in the “Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty.” An example can be found in an entry on June 27 of the third year in the “Diary of King Yeonsangun,” which observes how Yeonsangun refused to correct his error when retainers objected to his employment of juniors.

By Lee You-jin, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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