First Things First

WILLIAM BURKE lectures on economics at McCoy College, .Johns Hopkins University. This is his first appearance in the ATLANTIC.

There’s one problem that headline readers and other students of Oriental history thought they had licked until the Koreans came along. I’m referring, of course, to the important question of where to put an Oriental statesman’s last name — first or last.

Naturally, a hard-and-fast rule has always told us to put a Chinese last name first and to put a Japanese last name last, so that we would never dream, for instance, of speaking of Tse-tung Mao or Kai-shek Chiang. The Chinese, after all, developed an honorable tradition in putting last names first, and woe betide the Oriental who ever dared reverse the procedure. But then along came those Westernizing Japanese, and the first silly thing they did was to put their last names last. Even some of the Chinese fell under the spell of this fad; for example, those two enchantingly named ornaments of diplomacy, Wellington Koo and Hollington Tong. Aside from these few mavericks, plus the ninety million Japanese, there seemed to be no exceptions to the ancient Chinese tradition. But we reckoned without the Koreans.

Well, the Koreans are not called the Irish of the Far East for nothing. For imaginativeness and ingenuity in name shifting, they can’t be outdone; in other words, you never can tell when they are going to put their last names first or vice versa. Nonetheless, we can detect in their actions a faint glimmer of consistency, which permits us to state Two Rules of Korean Last-name Placement.

Rule No. 1. Korean statesmen are entitled to put their last names last after one month’s residence in the United States. This rule encompasses not only the well-known case of that longtime resident, Syngman Rhee, but also several seemingly contradictory cases that developed during the Korean War. At that time, as all name-droppers will remember, three different interpretations of our rule were called into play. The ambassador, alter a short residence here, reversed his name in the Western manner; the premier, after a week’s stay, returned home with his Korean name inviolate, but the then chief of staff (General Pak Sun-yup) announced in the midst of an American tour that he would temporarily reverse his name because he was tired of being called General Yup. So far, no problem. But the Koreans, like the Irish, find it impossible not to introduce politics into any situation, and so have recently forced us to develop a second rule.

Rule No. 2. Korean statesmen who place their last names last will, after a suitable interval, be removed from office by last-name-first Koreans. The workings of this rule were demonstrated vividly in 1960 when Syngman Rhee was removed from office, and again when John M. Chang (last name last) was replaced by Chang Do-yung (last name first). Now, some name-callers may argue that this rule does not apply because last-name-first Chang was replaced by another last-name-firster, Pak Jung-hi. We reject that argument, however; the truth is that Chang either was not allowed enough time to reverse his name or else was mistaken for the previously deposed, last-name-last Chang.

All of this discussion leads to the statement of an important new Oriental law, to wit: All Orientals residing on islands (such as Mr. Rhee in Hawaii and the ninety million Japanese in Japan) place their last names last, and all Orientals residing on the mainland place their last names first. The exceptions to this law are minor and can quickly be disposed of. The new Korean government can easily demonstrate the validity of this law by shipping Mr. Chang off to Hawaii to keep Mr. Rhee company; in fact, it may decide to ship the other Chang along too. And, if I am not mistaken, Mr. Chiang on Formosa has already stated his willingness to demonstrate this law by rejoining the last-namefirst contingent on the mainland.