Korean Myths REDBLOT

Published on February 12th, 2013 | by Stephen Redeker

Behind the Myth: The Red Pen

This series of articles by Stephen Redeker sheds light on Korean myths, folklore, traditions, and superstitions, for the benefit of foreign residents unfamiliar with them.


This month’s “Behind the Myth” discusses the common fear of writing in red ink. It is a common Korean superstition that if someone’s name is written in red, then death or bad luck will come to that person very soon.

There are a few reasons why people believe this terrible myth. In many Asian countries, red is typically associated with death (as black is associated with death in western countries). First, blood is red in color, so red ink from a pen resembles blood and generally the appearance of blood is a sign of pain and death. Secondly, when someone dies, his or her name is recorded in the family register and on funeral banners in red ink. It’s believed that this practice wards off evil spirits. When the name of a living person is written in red, however, the reverse effect occurs, so only the names of the deceased are written in red.

The only time that red ink is considered permissible is when used with a chop, a name stamp. These are often used in lieu of signatures in Korea. The red stamp makes a document official. Thankfully, no death comes from this use of red ink!

It’s wise for foreigners in Korea to adhere to the proper use of red ink, so if you want to respect this Korean superstition, remember these rules for using red ink:

1. Feel free to write using a red pen. Writing in red is permissible only if a living person’s name is not mentioned.

2. It’s okay to use red ink with a seal or stamp to make a document official.

3. Do not write a living person’s name in red ink. Teachers should not write their students’ names with a red pen. When giving a gift, it’s considered rude to write the person’s name on the card in red ink.

4. Writing a threatening letter to someone in red is acceptable, but it’s not recommended. Writing a threatening letter and using a red pen to do so? Now that would be offensive on both accounts!

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About the Author

Stephen Redeker comes from the USA and spends most of his time doing a variety of activities, including volunteering for Gwangju News magazine. "Community" and "contribution" are two words which pretty much sum up what he's about.

5 Responses to Behind the Myth: The Red Pen

  1. Pingback: Internet English – Midterm Exam | tae20825

  2. David Pollack says:

    Excellent commentary. ‘The Myth’ has spoken.

  3. I love the article, but why would you want to write a “threatening letter” to anyone, let alone in red? Great article, but that example kind of made me chuckle.

  4. I love the Korean culture of not writting a persons name with red ink. The article has clearly ststed and I am now informed and if I come to Korea I now know the colour of ink I will use when writing a persons name. I want to believe the culture of Koreans is similar to ours in Kenya. But I am wondering why teachers in schools in Kenya mark the books of pupils or students in read. I will find out why!! The do’s and the dont’s in each and every aspect in life is very important.

    • A.C. says:

      I have never been to Kenya and cannot say for sure, but in many Western countries, red ink or red pencil is customarily used by school teachers to mark mistakes on student work, such as math or writing. This is because– when paper is white and student work is gray pencil or black/blue ink– red is very easy to notice. However, most Western countries do not have a history of using red ink, because red was more expensive and fades too quickly. Red writing in Western countries is only ominous if it is real blood, or looks like blood. A message written in blood (usually animal blood) can be a threat or warning of death, or it can be the last words of a dying person (written using their own blood, often with a finger instead of a pen, because they have no pen). Seeing words in blood is so rare that it is deeply disturbing to many Westerners.

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