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!