Broadly speaking, it is always a delicate task whenever a foreigner attempts to speak with any amount of insight on the major cultural tenets of their host country. Specifically, it is perhaps even comical that an American, someone from a country and culture founded a mere 300 years ago, would even attempt to comment on a cultural phenomenon of a people that goes back before the Roman Empire.
Certainly many people with far better understanding and authority have spoken on the Korean idea of 정(jeong), and as such I have no illusions of blowing anybody away with some sort of previously-unheard-of analysis. As a matter of fact, I will be relying on an authoritative source that is already written by a westerner, for a western audience, Daniel Tudor’s Korea: The Impossible Country.
I’ve commented about this before; but stereotypes, while often over-exaggerated, can help a person unfamiliar with a culture take their first steps towards understanding. Also helpful, is finding a way to relate your personal experience to the new things you are learning. Which, in popular belief, may be something close to impossible. Jeong is often cited among a host of “emotions for which there is no word in English”. (Linguistic protip: anytime anyone says, “there is no word for X in language Y”, they’re bullshitting you.)
The truth is more nuanced, of course, and often deals with the ways cultures focus attention or categorize important cultural mores. In the case of jeong, sure, there may not be any single word that matches one-to-one in English. But, this is not the same thing as saying cultures based in the English language don’t feel similar emotions, or have words for explaining those emotions. English-speaking cultures have simply cut up their categorical slice of pie differently than Korean, meaning they are focused more on certain aspects of these emotions; or approach them in a different way.
Let’s keep in mind that we are evolutionary beings; it would be hard to imagine a sense of emotion that one group of humans feel that another is categorically unable to feel as well, or that somehow your language decides this for you. Such an argument, at the very least, requires a dump-truck of evidence.
WITH THAT (nearly 400 word) disclosure, let’s get into it.
First, some explanation (I know, what was all that before this?!). My favorite book (seriously. Not just “one of my favorites” or “I realllllllly like this book”. This is my singular. Favorite. Book.) is C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. In it, he describes and looks at how we approach our relationships (from a Christian perspective, but also applicable to British/American culture in general). I will list them here, and then we will use them to compare and maybe help explain some of what jeong is to Koreans, using American/British words and meanings.
My first draft of this essay droned on and on and on, trying to iron out all the details, peek behind every shadow and sweep every corner to make sure I wasn’t drawing false conclusions, or saying something else equally laughable. It kind of ended up being a drag. The initial idea for this came from reading Tudor’s book and thinking, “Hey! This reminds me of stuff I read in Lewis!” So, this time around, I’ve decided to simply quote the texts with simple introductions and let you, the esteemed reader find meaning in it yourself. Or not. I mean, whatever; I won’t be offended.
The Four Loves is broken up broadly into, duh, four categories. They are:
Storge – Affection
Philia – Friendship
Eros – Romance
Agape – Unconditional love
The reason Lewis uses these four Greek terms is that, in the Bible, each of them are often loosely translated to “love” in English. This cover-term is sufficient in a general way, but is also necessarily vague. Lewis breaks down our “love” into the “four Greek ‘loves'”.
To begin, Tudor:
“[Jeong] is not felt purely within the heart or mind of an individual but is a connection that exists “between” two or more people, with [experts] likening it to a cord linking people to each other” (pg 92).
“”Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers” (pg 67).
“You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him” (pg 71).
Jeong as it relates to country:
“Skeptics may contend that jeong sounds very similar to love or friendship. To an extent, this is true, but unlike love or friendship it may exist between members of a group as large as a geographical region or an association or society: people from the same hometown, soldiers from the same regiment, and graduates from the same university or school can feel a sense of strong mutual support and obligation based on jeong” (pg 93).
“Love never spoke that way. It is like loving your children only ‘if they’re good,’ your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful. ‘No man,’ said one of the Greeks, ‘loves his city because it is great, but because it is his’” (pg 28).
“In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting–any of these chances might have kept us apart” (pg 89).
Jeong is irrational:
“Between those who share it, jeong is ‘beautiful’ and ‘makes us human,’ says a manager at POSCO, Korea’s largest steel-making firm. It inspires people to do more for each other than they know makes rational sense. … Jeong is ‘unreasonable,’ according to one Korean company executive, and ‘makes it necessary to do things one otherwise would not do. It is the opposite of logic’” (pg 94).
“Affection, as I have said, is the humblest love. It gives itself no airs. People can be proud of being ‘in love,’ or of friendship. Affection is modest–even furtive and shame-faced. Once when I had remarked on the affection quite often found between cat and dog, my friend replied, ‘Yes. But I bet no dog would ever confess it to the other dogs!” (pg 34)
On the so-called “hateful Jeong”:
“It is even possible to have jeong with a person one does not like. For example, the expression “miun-jeong” (hateful jeong) describes the bitter interdependence of an old married couple, or of co-workers who cannot stand one another but would feel bereft if one of them were to leave the firm. One acquaintance of the author confided that the reason he married was that he felt this kind of jeong – in contrast to what we might term romantic love – with his partner, despite their constant rows and apparent unsuitability to each other” (pg 93).
“In my experience it is Affection that creates this taste, teaching us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who ‘happen to be there.’ Made for us? Thank God, no. They are themselves, odder than you could have believed and worth far more than we guessed” (pg 37).
Finally, my closing thoughts, written after reading Tudor’s chapter on jeong.
“정 is at once the cover-term for any emotion between people and the most specific element of that relationship. It is the conduit through which other emotions find motivation. 정 maintains the passion of romantic love, the sense of worry and preoccupation of gift-love, the inescapability of need-love and the durability and unexpectedness of affection.”