Thursday, October 13, 2016

What does 草綠同色 (초록동색) mean?

When I was studying Korean Language and Literature at the University of Hawaii, my literature professor, Peter H. Lee, had us read the English translations of "The Nine Cloud Dream" (구운몽 - 九雲夢)" and "The Tale of Chunhyang" (춘향전 - 春香傳). Later when we were asked to give our opinions of the two stories, I said I really enjoyed reading "The Nine Cloud Dream," but I was not very impressed with "The Tale of Chunhyang." My professor told me that if I were to read the Korean version of "The Tale of Chunhyang," I would probably change my opinion of it.

In the Korean version of "The Tale of Chunhyang," this is the dialog between Mong-yong and Chunhyang before Mong-ryong revealed who he really was:
몽룡너는 기생의 딸인데 본관사또의 청을 듣지 않았느냐?
Mong-ryong: “You are the daughter of a
gisaeng. Why did you disobey the request of the official of this post?"
춘향저는 기생도 아니고 이미 지아비가 있습니다그래서 사또의 청을 들을  없었습니다.
Chunhyang: “I am not a
gisaeng, and I already have a husband. Therefore, I couldn't accept the request of the official.”
몽룡나는 지나가는 어사이니 청도 거절하겠느냐?
Mong-ryong: “I am a passing Secret Royal Inspector. Will you also refuse my request?”
춘향‘초록은 동색이요가재는  편’이라더니 양반들은  똑같은가 보우차라리  목을 베시오!
Chunhyang: “Green is the same color, and the crayfish sides with the crab, so all yangban seem to be the same. I would rather be beheaded.”
In the last comment of Chunhyang, notice the expression "초록은 동색이요," which I translated here as "Green is the same color." I do not remember how it was translated in the book I read, but if it were translated as "Green is the same color," I would have thought to myself, "That's a weird thing to say," and just included it among all the other weird expressions in the story. Now, however, I can appreciate the expression because now I know what "초록은 동색이요" means.

초록 (草綠) means "grass (草) green (綠)" or simply "green." It is a combination of 초색 (草色) and 녹색 (綠色), both of which also mean "green," so "초록은 동색이요" literally means "grass and green are the same color" or "This green and that green are the same color."

When Mong-ryong asked Chunhyang if she would accept his request even though she had denied the request of the other official, Chunhyang assumed he, too, was going to request that she sleep with him, so when she said, "Grass and green are the same color," she meant, "All yangban are the same," implying they all want the same thing.

In Chinese, "초록은 동색이요" is written as "草綠同色 (초록동색)," which literally means "Grass (草) [and] green (綠) are the same (同) color (色)."

By the way, the expression "the crayfish sides with the crab" (가재는 게 편) is similar to the English expression, "Birds of a feather flock together." A crayfish and a crab look similar in many ways, so one would expect them to take each other's side against an animal that looks very different.


  1. Great post! It really makes all the difference in the world to read things in the original language, no matter how accomplished the translation may be in some cases. Which (Korean) version of 춘향전 do you recommend reading? It seems like there are so many different versions and adaptations that it's hard to know which one is the most 'authentic.'

    1. Thank you, Mathieu. As for recommending a version, I do not know enough about the book to do that. Besides the English version I read in Hawaii, I had a cheap Korean version I bought in one of the Seoul subway tunnels for 500 or 1,000 won. Personally, however, I am kind of interested in finding a 한문 version with lots of notes because I was not very impressed with the Korean version I had, either, whatever version that was. I feel my Korean ability at the time was not good enough to appreciate the beauty of the writing, which I suspect was the reason my professor was so impressed with it. For example, when I read the Korean version probably 30 years ago, I most likely did not understand the expression "초록은 동색이요," and there were probably hundreds of other similar expressions in the book I did not fully understand. Back then, we did not have personal computers or the internet, so I could not have Googled the expression and there were no notes in the version I had.

      Finally, instead of reading the most "authentic" version, I would suggest getting the most popular version because there must be a reason it is the most popular.

  2. Thank you for your response! Very good last point- I'll leave the 'authentic' version for scholars, and I totally agree about having a version with 한자 notes. I stumbled across a beautiful edition of 춘향전 in a university library before which was printed to look like a two- to three-hundred-year-old book, writing top to bottom, old-fashioned brush stroke-type 한글 font (with 한자 notes) and each page a folded sheet of paper with the texture of tissue paper. The story was quite enjoyable to read, but the book itself really made it a unique reading experience. I felt like I should be sitting cross-legged in 한복 at one of those low study desks like a 선비.

    Since I first came across your blog, one thing I have been dying to read is your own personal story of how you learned Korean, how you became interested in the language to begin with, and your experiences of how Korea and the perception of non-Koreans in Korea has changed over the years. Forgive me if you've already written about this and I've overlooked it. If it's not too much to ask for, it would be a real treat to read an account of your experiences with Korea and Korean given the amount of time you have spent studying the language and culture (obviously in great detail, considering the depth of your posts!).

  3. Mathieu, I have written a little bit about my experience, but I might try to write more detail, even though it may not be interesting to many people. Today, I posted about my learning experience at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, a place where I did not learn much at all.

  4. Sorry for the late response, I just noticed your comment here. I really appreciate you taking the time to write about your experiences like that! I find the language learning process to be fascinating and it's always a pleasure to hear about other people's experiences, particularly with Korean. What prompted me to respond to this post again was that I'm currently reading a book called 조선 노비들 (by 김종성) which reminded me of the dialogue in your post here. So far it's a very interesting, enlightening (and often depressing) account of slavery here in Korea. The story of 춘향 was mentioned in the book in relation to female 노비 being used in government offices particularly to 'entertain' important guests with sexual favours. Overall, it seems like a very good book so far and I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on it if you have read it since you clearly know a great deal about Korean history.