Many people wear Hanbok in Korean cultural heritage sites such as Gyeongbokgung palace since Hanbok is Korean traditional costume.
/Photography by Kang Da-hyun
For Koreans, it is natural that Kimchi and Hanbok are traditional Korean cultures. Therefore, the current situation in which China is insisting that the traditional cultures of Korea belong to China, and the fact that Koreans must make the world recognize that this is not true can be very shocking. In addition, the dispute is very serious because it is not merely claimed by a few. Now, it seems like Korea has to put in effort to protect traditonal culture.
China claims that Kimchi is their traditional culture
One of the Korean traditonal cultures that China claims to be theirs is Kimchi culture. On November 28th, 2020, Global Times, Chinese public media, reported that Pao cai’s manufacturing method was registered with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Although Pao cai is a pickled vegetable, which is completely different from Kimchi, China claimed that Korean Kimchi is a branch of Pao cai and that China has become the world standard for Kimchi. However, according to the document of ISO, Pao cai’s standard does not apply to Kimchi. Also, on January 9th, Li Ziqi, one of the most influential YouTubers in China, uploaded a video clip of her making Kimchi on her YouTube channel, informing the viewers that Kimchi is Chinese food by adding the hashtag “#Chinesefood” on the video.
As such, China is claiming Kimchi culture as their own culture in various ways. However, the fact that making Kimchi is Korean culture does not change. Although China says that Kimchi is a branch of Pao cai, those two are very different. According to the 2001 announcement by the Codex Alimentarius, Kimchi is a fermented food made by mixing cabbage with a mixed seasoning made of red pepper powder, garlic, ginger, green onion, and so on. However, Pao cai is a salted vegetable product made of cabbage, mustard stems, red pepper, radish, and carrots. It is more like pickles. In addition, there are historical records about Kimchi culture in Korea. The first time Kimchi appeared in Korean literature was during the Goryeo dynasty. According to the phrase “The pickled radish is good to eat in the summer, and salted Kimchi is a side dish throughout the winter,” in Yi Gyu-bo’s “Donggukisanggukjip,” we can figure out that there were pickled radish and salted radish, which are now considered to be Dongchimi, a watery radish Kimchi, in Goryeo dynasty. Also, through the word “Dimchae,” which refers to Kimchi, written in records of the Joseon dynasty, such as “Hunmonjahoe,” we can see that people ate Kimchi at that time. As for the Kimchi that uses red pepper powder just like today, “Sallim Gyeongje” is the first literature to talk about it. Since then, various books show that over time, Kimchi has become similar to what we eat today.
Insistence that Hanbok is Chinese dress is appearing
Hanbok is another culture that China claims to be their culture. Many Chinese people have a strong perception that Hanbok is their traditional costume. In November 2020, “Shining Nikki,” a mobile game made by Papergames, a Chinese game company, launched a Hanbok item and introduced it as a traditional Korean costume. However, when the item was launched in Chinese server, Chinese netizens criticized the company, insisting that Hanbok is a traditional Chinese costume of the Ming dynasty. In the end, on November 5th, Papergames declared that they would erase the Hanbok item and withdraw from the Korean server.
However, the tradition of Hanbok has lasted for 1,600 years in Korea since the Three Kingdoms period, and this can be confirmed from tomb murals of Goguryeo and relics of Silla and Baekje from the 4th to 6th centuries. Also, Hanbok is a northern costume culture advantageous for horseback riding, unlike the southern costume culture such as China’s “Hanfu” and Japan’s “Kimono.” Of course, China’s influence on East Asia and Hanbok is undeniable since China was a powerful country. However, if interpreted according to China’s assertion, the influence that Goryeo contributed to Hanfu during the Yan dynasty cannot be ignored, and it can be said that Hanfu copied Hanbok, too.
Korea and China are having a clash over Korean traditional culture
Aside from Kimchi and Hanbok, China claims many other Korean traditional cultures as their own. In 2011, China tried to apply for registration of “Arirang” as China’s intangible cultural heritage, insisting that it is a song of the Korean tribes, a minority ethnic group in China, but failed. Also, just before the Lunar New Year holiday this year, when SM Entertainment’s idol community application Lysn announced that the customer center would be closed during the holiday season and marked the Lunar New Year as “Korean New Year,” many Chinese fans gathered and said that “Chinese New Year” is correct. They also argued that Korean New Year is a copy of Chinese New Year.
Many Koreans are strongly criticizing China’s perspective about Korean traditional culture. On the website of Cheongwadae’s national petition, some petitions pointing out China’s continuous cultural distortions and demanding a strong voice of the government were registered. About this issue, Hwang Hee, the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, stated that it is not from the Chinese government’s position, at a press conference held at the Central Government Complex on February 25th. Rather, he said that this situation would become fuel for promoting Korean culture to the world and emphasized that it is an opportunity to promote and respond by investing in finance and human resources actively. However, many Chinese people continue to insist that Korean culture belongs to China through SNS, and do not hesitate to attack if there is any content contrary to their claims.
Why is there a dispute between Korea and China over Korean traditional culture?
The reason for the dispute between Korean and China over Korean traditional culture can be explained in two ways. One reason is Sinocentrism. It refers to the ideology that China is the political, economic, and cultural center of the world. Although communications with the world are active in the 21st century, there are many Chinese who are still immersed in Sinocentrism. Professor Park Young-hwan, professor of the Department of Chinese Language & Literature, expressed his thoughts on the relationship between Sinocentrism and China’s claim about Korean culture. “It has not been confirmed that the cultural process is promoted by the Chinese government. However, from the perspective of the recent cultural debate, it seems that there is an inherent sinocentric thought among many Chinese. According to Sinocentrism, China must always be the center of East Asia culture. A representative case is the Dano festival debate between Korea and China in 2005. At that time, when Korea applied for the Gangneung Dano Festival as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Intangible Cultural Heritage, Chinese government and people said Korea was robbing China’s Dano festival. However, this was a total misunderstanding. It can be seen from the fact that in 2009, four years later, China’s Dano festival was designated as a World Heritage. In fact, I think the debate on Hanbok culture is also very pointless. The costume culture was influenced by each other. The idea that either side only had a one-sided influence is wrong. In other words, to say that Hanbok is entirely influenced only by Chinese costumes is an idea that Sinocentrism is embedded in. This perception is a cultural phenomenon that emerged after hosting the mid-to-late 2000 Olympics, as the Confucian culture revived along with economic development in Chinese society.”
Another reason is the Korean tribes in China. China is a country consisting of the Han and 55 minority ethnic groups, and Korean tribes are one of the minority ethnic groups in China. China is using this fact as a proof of why Korean traditional culture is China’s. Professor Park also said, “Since Korean tribes live in China, they are clearly Chinese by nationality. Therefore, it can be said that the Kimchi culture of Korean tribes is also a part of Chinese culture. However, it is very regrettable to express Kimchi as Chinese culture based on the formalities without considering the position of Korea which is a suzerain state of Kimchi culture, since China has 56 ethnic groups and 56 different cultures. At least marking and mentioning Kimchi culture as a Korean tribe’s culture is consistent with the reality of the diversity of Chinese culture in which 56 ethnicities coexist, and I think that is also the minimum respect for the culture of other country.” However, many Koreans think using Korean tribes is a shallow trick. They think since Chinese government is having problems with minority ethnic groups, including Korean tribes, who want to be independent, they are saying that Korean culture belongs to China in the process of emphasizing that Korean tribes are Chinese.
It is difficult to deal with China properly
Unfortunately, dealing with China’s claim about that Korean traditional culture belongs to them does not seem that easy. One of the reasons is “China money,” which means China’s huge capital. Subordination to China money results in many censorships to suit the tastes of the Chinese government. Such censorship is not only limited to Chinese companies, but also foreign companies that do business with China. If the companies do not comply with the demand for censorship, entering the Chinese market is impossible. As China’s influence increases, more and more companies are seeking ways to be favored by Chinese officials and publics by following the censorship or supporting China’s policies and arguments, such as territorial disputes in the South China sea. Korea is no exception to the China money issue. For instance, Korean dramas are conscious of the Chinese market as dramas are produced in collaboration with Chinese entertainers and broadcasters to increase profitability and avoid regulations. In particular, as the drama production method has changed from a screenplay to a pre-production system to receive pre-deliberation by China, there are concerns about the infringement of the freedom of creation, deterioration of the quality of work, and the difficulty of dealing with cultural feuds with China properly.
The lack of global awareness of Korean culture is also a reason that it is difficult to respond properly to China’s claim. The fact that Hanbok and Kimchi are Korean cultures may seem natural to Koreans, but foreigners may not know this well unless they have interest. Although the Korean wave is becoming popular, it still needs a lot of improvement. Especially, since there is still a fixed idea that Asians are all Chinese, it may seem to foreigners that Chinese culture and Korean culture are the same.
Various efforts are needed to refute China’s claims
Then, what kind of effort will be taken to deal with China’s claim that Korean traditional culture belongs to them? Right now, many people are responding to the problem in their own ways. Professor Seo Kyung-duk of Sungshin Women’s University posted a Kimchi advertisement in the New York Times. The advertisement, titled “Korea’s Kimchi, It’s for Everyone,” emphasized that Kimchi culture is a Korean culture and was registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. Also, Google Korea revised the origin of Kimchi from China to Korea since Korean netizens pointed out that China was marked as the origin of Kimchi when they enter “Kimchi” or search for the origin of Kimchi in Google’s English version.
However, these are not enough. To refute China’s claim that Korean traditonal culture belongs to China, we need rational mindset instead of just being angry. Professor Park said, “Using culture as a material to bring unpleasant feelings to both countries is not advisable. It is necessary not to respond emotionally but reasonably and respect each other’s cultures. If there is reasoning and persuasion through accurate data, the other person will also think reasonably.” He also emphasized continuous attention and love to our culture. “For example, Koreans eat Japanese Natto a lot these days. If Natto is consumed more in Korea and less in Japan, this Natto culture may move from Japan to Korea. If Koreans do not preserve Kimchi and Hanbok culture preciously, it can also cause cultural movement.”
Just getting angry will not do anything to overcome the problem of China claiming that Korean traditonal culture belongs to them. Knowing about Korean culture accurately should come first. In addition, continuous interest in this problem and a strong response to prevent the loss of Korean traditonal culture are needed. Professor Park emphasized that we cannot overcome the cultural conflict between Korea and China just by responding emotionally. He said that we must know our culture accurately and respect each other by quoting Confucius saying “‘Do not force others to do what I do not want.’ Therefore, cherishing only my culture, disparaging other’s cultures, and thinking about me and others in a dichotomous way is a misconception that goes against the trend of the global era.”
Kang Da-hyun firstname.lastname@example.org
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