‘Seoul Searching’: The History, Politics and Prejudice behind the Re-naming of Korea’s Capital in Chinese
On 19 January 2005, Seoul Mayor at the time and South Korea’s president at present, Lee Myung Bak, announced his desire to see the Chinese name for Seoul changed from the traditional rendition of Hancheng （漢城）, to Shouer (首爾). Lee made clear that he was motivated by a simple desire to remove a potential cause for Sino-Korean “confusion.” He further suggested that the principal beneficiary of the name change would be those Chinese in some way connected to Seoul. If Mayor Lee had hoped for an uncontroversial re-naming, he was proven right for the most part. Not only did the Chinese government grant Mayor Lee’s wish quickly and quietly, but regional media outlets also remained notably low-key on the naming issue. This article argues, nonetheless, that there is good reason to believe that Lee’s move was driven by overarching concerns about China’s growing regional clout, and that the significance of Seoul’s name change in Chinese extends well beyond semantics; it can in a sense be seen as a test-case for the PRC’s ability to leverage soft power in the region, and allay the concerns of its neighbours about the implications of its geo-strategic rise.
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