Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Difficult Taboo

A couple of years ago, I drafted a libretto loosely based on reports of palace life in the People's Republic of Korea.  The effort soon convinced me that I was not a librettist (and that Alaisdair Gray's novella Five Letters from an Eastern Empire had treated a similar theme much better than I ever could) but I don't regret having learned a lot about that strange and — for its own people, and potentially its neighbors — tragic country.  (If you're interested in the topic, I recommend Bradley K. Martin's book, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader and the blog North Korea Leadership Watch;  I am also fascinated by the Pyongyang Metro webpage.)   I have tried to keep up with news from North Korea and was fascinated by a recent item describing the country's National Defense Commission Reconnaissance Bureau which included this:

The general bureau now consists of six bureaus for operations (Bureau 1), reconnaissance (Bureau 2), overseas intelligence (Bureau 3), inter-Korean talks (Bureau 5), technology or cyber terrorism (Bureau 6) and for support of other divisions (Bureau 7), according to sources. There is no Bureau 4 due to a traditional Korean taboo on the number four, which is pronounced the same as “death” in Korean.

Now, the taboo against thirteenth floors in high buildings found in the U.S. is silly enough, and a sign of residual superstition in a country that has never been shy about its relationship to "faith" of one sort or another.  But it is ultimately something one can work around, as even the biggest cities have limited numbers of buildings over twelve floors high, and you can always stick a 12A or a storage space up there between 12 and 14.  A taboo against the number four, however, would have to be a more frequently encountered obstacle and is a sure sign that we're talking about a country which is definitely not being run from an entirely rational worldview.


Unknown said...

Some new remix in different of the enigmatic Paul Roderick's People IQ are about to be issued on radios around august... check them out!

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Unknown said...

check out that article
: because of the tensions between North Korea and South Korea, the coutry is even more dependant to China..
pretty wicked that north korean tube!
ou wonder how the country finds all the money to finance all of this !

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Lisa Hirsch said... Japanese, there are (at least) two words for four. One is "shi," which indeed has the same pronunciation as death. The other is "yo." I do not know what prohibitions there might be against using "shi" in Japan.

Civic Center said...

I love that your North Korea post attracted spambots, and me and Lisa Hirsch. "A taboo against the number four" is my favorite new phrase, by the way.