By Yang Sung-jin
A newly-discovered copy of “Nokoldae,” a Chinese language textbook popular during the Choson Kingdom, is widely perceived by experts as the key to unlocking the previously unknown lives of Koryo people and restoring much of what is missing in records of the colloquial Chinese used during the Koryo Period.
The copy of “Nokoldae” that was recently found in Taegu, southeastern Kyongsang province, is written in Chinese, suggesting it might have been one of the basic texts on which other Korean-language versions were based.
Having emerged after four centuries, the discovery is a true blessing for Korean linguists who had until recently been searching in vain for data about the era.
“Nokoldae”‘ should also serve as a useful source for social and economic studies of the period while laying a firm foundation for further research into formal trade between the Koryo Kingdom and China, among other subjects.
Even more crucial for linguists both in Korea and China is that the book, discovered by Kyongbuk National University professor Nam Kyon-hee, seems to be the first, and perhaps last, of its kind in that the language recorded therein is an ancient form of Chinese mainly spoken in Beijng, then the capital of the Yuan Dynasty.
This authoritative language textbook was repeatedly brought out in new versions by the Choson government as China underwent changes of rulers from the Yuan to Ming to Ching Dynasties.
While Korean versions of “Nokoldae” and other editions written in the Ming and Ching dialects are relatively well-preserved and available, the Taegu version of “Nokoldae” deserves special academic attention as its 40-odd pages contain colloquial Chinese as it was once spoken in Beijing.
The contents of the Choson version of today’s “Business English Guide” are true to the book’s title. “No-” is a suffix meaning “sir” in Korean and “-koldae” is Mongolese for “China or Chinese.” So the word, “Nokoldae,” was the proper appellation when a Choson traveler was addressing a yet-to-be-introduced Chinese.
The book is composed of 48 chapters that contain the story of three
Koryo businessmen crossing the northern border with a Chinese, all of whom jointly encounter various everyday situations. The textbook offers exemplary dialogues rich in colloquialisms that would have been useful in conducting language drills.
Small wonder then that Sayokwon, a Choson government agency dealing with public interpretation and translation, regarded “Nokoldae” as the undisputed “Bible” of the Chinese language.
In “Nokoldae,” the three Koryo merchants travel to the city of Beijing mostly on foot. The trio leaves Kaesong, the capital of Koryo, and passes Uiju to enter Manchuria before setting foot in the city of Beijing where they sell horses, ginseng and ramie clothes in exchange for Chinese silk products and sundry goods.
According to the book, Koryo people had yet to try roast meat and they preferred dried food to soups and noodles, an interesting historical fact that might give a crucial hint as to the development of cooking techniques in East Asia.
There was apparently a customs clearance procedure at a border control area called “Tokangcho” when Koryo merchants entered Chinese territory. The hottest item for the Chinese was none other than wild ginseng collected from the former Silla Kingdom. Koryo citizens, on the other hand, favored cheap trinkets and gadgets imported from China over luxury goods.
As the purpose of the book was to teach “business” Chinese, included is a chapter in which a Koryo merchant is depicted engaging in negotiations with a Chinese horse trader. The chapter offers over 20 variations on the Chinese word for horse. Another dialogue, in which a Chinese merchant buys silk, introduces dozens of words for silk clothing and related items.
A notable feature of Beijing-based Chinese linguistics as evidenced in this version of “Nokoldae” is that regional Chinese and Mongolese were mixed together to form a new language.
As a result, some sentences in the textbook reflect the influence of Mongolese, a branch of the Altaic language, and thus show confusion in word order, breaking the traditional Chinese linguistic formula of subject-verb-object.
Chinese Proficiency Test
The quality of “Nokoldae” was unbeatable. Yet supply never really caught up with demand for the popular textbook. In 1423, the Ministry of Rites called on King Sejong to publish more copies of “Nokoldae” so that students could more easily study Chinese.
The textbook was used as the basis for tests designed to promote or demote public translators, or “yok-kwan.” According to a 1426 article in “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty,” yok-kwan had to sit for a regular test covering major Chinese classics and “Nokoldae.”
The examination system actually required students to recite most of the contents of the text, an onerous task even for language-buffs: “Since yok-kwans are making frequent trips to Beijing as members of diplomatic delegations, they have little time to memorize this material. Therefore, only a couple of the books, including ‘Nokoldae,’ should be put on the list to be recited during the test.”
A report dated Oct. 19, 1480, that was compiled by official Lee Chang-sin for submission to King Songjong offers an intriguing hint as to how long after Yuan China’s decline, and the parallel decline of the Beijing dialect, Choson language students were still unwittingly cramming the contents of “Nokoldae” into their heads.
“When we visited China, a Chinese official took a look at ‘Nokoldae’ and ‘Paktongsa’ (another popular Chinese textbook). He said that since the Chinese in these books are the old-fashioned version of Yuan China, they do not get across the meanings properly. Therefore, these books should be updated right away,” Lee suggested.
The new version came out immediately as King Songjong accepted Lee’s advice and recruited more competent Chinese speakers to join the project to update the publications.
Despite the government-level efforts to promote foreign language studies geared to diplomatic purposes, dependable Chinese speakers were in short supply for the most part. In 1537, a high-ranking official, Kim An-ro, pointed out the reason: “Even though everybody should learn Chinese, few command the language competently. People avoid it, assuming that studying the language is a lowly job below their class.”
According to Kim, the Choson government formerly recruited young and bright officials willing to learn Chinese as public officials as a special exception in the state examination. But the system stopped for some time, dampening the mood to learn the language.
When Kim was ordered to head Sayokwon, where incompetent yok-kwans remained idling, he put them under a strict test and kicked out those who failed.
“Since I expelled the incompetent lot, young yok-kwans are studying very hard these days,” Kim said.
How hard? Just look at today’s salaried workers who bang their heads on cassette tapes before taking TOEIC, a widely used English test in Korea — and a much-dreaded yardstick for promotion.