The Koryo Academy:
The Ten-Thousands

Some background on the number in East Asian culture and history

Yesterday our the Koryo Tours Facebook page reached 10,000 likes. Thank you all for your online support! Today we'd like to take the opportunity to briefly discuss the meaning and use of '10,000' in Korea as well as neighboring countries in East Asia.

In Korean man (만) refers to '10,000'. For those familiar with Chinese or Japanese, this shares a common origin with the character wan (萬/万). This word is used both as an exact number, say in population statistics or counting currency, but also a stand in for a nebulous large amount of things in poetic, lyrical, and political writings.

"A silk curtain of a thousand strands / countless [ten-thousand] pearls sprinkled about" the 9th century poet Korean Choi Chi Won once wrote of the Kuryong Waterfall at Mt. Kumgang.

Perhaps the most recognisable usage is in the expression 'Long live!' or 'Ten-thousand years to' so and so or something.That is manse in Korean, wansui in Chinese, or banzai in Japanese. A term originally reserved to praise the Chinese Emperor a la 'God Save the Queen', it has come to be applied to any numerous figures and organisations in East Asia from political persons great and small, political parties of all persuasions, and even world revolution.

In recent western memory banzai is probably the most familiar of the three, having once been the battle cry of the Japanese Imperial Army. The Chinese wansui was often associated with Chairman Mao Zedong (see above) leading some naive ideologues around the world, perhaps on account of bad translation, to believe that the 'Great Helmsman' would live forever. Today the words are still affixed on the Tian'anmen gates in Beijing

In Korea the term is used to praise both the DPRK's top leadership, the Korean Revolution, and the Worker's Party of Korea. "Call 'manse manse', and bring about revolutionary victory!" heard in the Song of People's Sovereignty above). You can see manse written on Monument to Party Foundation in Pyongyang (below) as well as inscribed in giant red letters on rock cliffs throughout Korea.

Since the Japanese terms banzai is commonly associated with Japan's former imperial expansions, we'll leave you with a more mundane example of it is usage: the iconic end credits of the 1984 sci-fi classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the 8th Dimension.

The Koryo Academy is a regular posting on Korean history, culture, and language.

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