“I changed my name to Mi-eun. From now on, please call me by my new name only.” My friend kindly corrected me when we met for the first time in seven years. “I wanted to get a new start in my life. You know, my grandmother always said my old name was ill-fated.”
Even some job-seekers in South Korea are changing their names, in an attempt to improve their fortunes.
“I don’t necessarily believe the fortuneteller’s word that I will pass the exam just by changing my name. But I did it out of desperation,” 29-year-old Jeon Sae-mi (pseudonym) told daily newspaper Hankook Ilbo. She was told by a fortuneteller that there is a “discordance between her fate and her name according to Chinese philosophy.”
This act of legally changing one’s name is called gaemyeong in Korean. Gaemyeong isn’t like coming up with a cool nickname you just randomly feel like having. You have to go through a formal change in your birth certificate, passport and bank account, and go around asking everyone around you to forget your old name and start calling you by a new one instead.
New names are often suggested by fortunetellers, who calculate your supposed destiny according to the Chinese horoscope. There is a diverse array of methods and philosophies; but one of the most common methods involves the ‘Four Pillars of Destiny,’ which each person is supposed to be born with. The pillars each signify the year, month, date and time of one’s birth, which are each represented by ten heavenly stems and twelve zodiac animals.
These pillars are then translated into yin/yang and the five earthly elements (fire, water, wood, metal and earth), after which the fortuneteller can interpret your destiny by analyzing the dynamics between the different elements.
For example, if your name has ‘conflicting elements’ — wood and fire for instance — a fortuneteller may suggest you get a different name with a better combination of Chinese characters (each syllable behind most Korean names stand for a Chinese character, called hanja in Korean). Of course, the method and conclusion of the interpretation can be very different from fortuneteller to fortuneteller.
According to the Name Guide, which specializes in gaemyeong laws, Chinese philosophy is a common reason for changing names: Over 30 percent of minors and 15 percent of adults change their names because “the name is not good according to the name-philosophy.”
And this is a legitimate ground to request a change. Name Guide reported that in 1994, nearly 70 percent of the applicants, discontent with their names because of the reasoning given by Chinese philosophy, were approved by the courts.
“The rate of accepting gaemyeong requests is even higher these days,” Name Guide stated on its website. “After the Supreme Court sentence on gaemyeong in 2005, an increasing number of cases respect the applicant’s subjective opinion.” The 2005 ruling stated that as a general rule, all requests for renaming should be accepted, unless related to criminal purposes.
According to the Court of Korea, approximately 149,000 people applied to change their names last year, which is about 20,000 more applicants compared to ten years ago.
Jeong Sang-jin, a sociology professor at Sogang University, told daily newspaper Hankook Ilbo that the rising popularity of gaemyeong partly has to do with the increasing social instability South Koreans are recently facing. “The gaemyeong frenzy can be seen as a trend where responsibility is shifted to the individuals. You’re blaming your name, hence yourself, for the cause of your grievances, not the social structure,” Jeon argued.
You may laugh, or think it’s too much, that some people are changing their names based on the advice of a fortuneteller. But think of it this way: Changing your name is much easier than changing the social structure. Perhaps the practice of turning to fortunetellers, or “namers” as they’re called, is a desperate attempt to change something that’s within closer reach, something that’s actually under one’s control.
Cover Image: Fortunetelling is a common sight in many East Asian countries. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)