‘Stop stealing our culture’! Why a dress has made South Koreans mad at China — Analysis

A hanbok is a traditional Korean dress that was worn at the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies. This has exposed a flaw in the way we view clothes.

China had a representative of each of 56 of its official ethnic minority groups at the Winter Olympic Games’ opening ceremony. They were dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. Amongst the group was a woman from the ethnic minority Korean population in China’s north-eastern regions, close to the peninsula itself, a product of geography and overlap at a time when borders were less absolute. 

A hanbok is a traditional Korean costume worn by this woman was on display. It was a simple representation of Korean culture. However, it drew ire online from right-leaning politicians and netizens who thought China had abused them. “appropriating”Their culture. Beijing eventually clarified that it wasn’t true and said the hanbok were Korean. However, this proved to be a deafening truth.

It isn’t a new charge. It’s been a continual theme of China-South Korea relations in recent years, which has stemmed from a nationalist backlash against Beijing. Kimchi is a traditional Korean fermented cabbage recipe. Last year’s scene in Korean historical drama featured Chinese dumplings. This led to food row. 

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Similar attacks were made when K-pop’s star praised an athlete from China for winning a medal. The level of sensitivity is off the scale, and it is a metaphor for the two country’s different sizes, statures, and historical relations.

South Korea is home to a unique, rich and diverse culture. I am proud to be able speak for the people of South Korea. Korean culture is admired for its diversity and ability to adapt to new situations. It boasts great cuisine, art, and traditions, modern pop icons such as BTS, and global hits like the film ‘Parasite’ and ‘Squid Game’. Korea has much to be proud. 

Its troubled past and its relationship with China make it a source of conflict under the surface. Modern nationalists are reluctant to acknowledge that South Korea shares a lot of cultural similarities with its big neighbor. 

If you look around South Korea today, you will frequently see Chinese traditional characters known as ‘Hanja’, Chinese traditional medicine, the celebration of the (Chinese) Lunar Calendar, and a society historically built on the principles of the Chinese philosopher Confucius – one sharing many traditions and customs. 

It would appear to be a harmless comment to say that both countries share a certain degree of cultural overlap. Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for more than five hundred years between the 14th and 19th centuries, was heavily influenced by China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties. Yet, Seoul’s modern nationalism, which seeks to portray identity as absolute, rejects these links. So what is Korea’s has always been Korea’s, and the idea of China claiming any of it becomes a point of attack.

Part of this impressum is politics. The historical dynasties of Korea, before Japanese imperial rule between 1910 and 1945, were known as “tributary states”Chinese Empire. This led to a saying in Korean called ‘sadaejuyi’, meaning ‘following the great’, or is sometimes more critically termed ‘flunkeyism’ – something which 20th century Korean nationalism began to reject. 

The ideology sees Korea as an independent country. This is also true in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. That country’s official philosophy – ‘juche’, roughly translated as ‘self-reliance’ – has as its core that North Korea must be sovereign and not dependent on any other country for anything. 

As China has started to rise again as a cultural and economic power, South Korea’s  population has started to feel a creeping cultural insecurity from their powerful neighbor’s influence and stature. It’s similar to how this plays out in America, where China’s increased strength has provoked deep-seated concerns. Without the hegemonic aspect of it, South Korea’s insecurities embody similar themes, centering around a fear of a perceived loss of status or displacement.

While China and Korea are still closely related nations and enjoy a strong economic relationship, their perceptions of Korea have become an expression of those concerns. The Chinese are comfortable saying that aspects of Korean culture derive from them, but for the citizens of the smaller country, this becomes sensitive – a perceived assault on their identity and independence. 

South Korea’s alliance with the United States has only made this phenomenon worse, such as when China retaliated against Seoul for the imposition of the THAAD missile defense system in 2016. The perception that Beijing wanted to make South Korea conform to its will only made matters worse. In the context of changing geopolitical environments, there were questions as to who Korea should owe allegiance and where it stands between superpowers. 

It has led conservative South Korean politicians, such as the leading opposition candidate, Yoon Seok-yeol, to actively accuse the administration and party of the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in, of “subservience” to Beijing. The shadow of ‘sadaejuyi’ hangs over South Korea’s politics, and projects insecurity about its own place in the world.

Some find the entire controversy over a Korean dress during the Beijing Olympics ceremonies tedious. The United States is more likely to have caused harm or violated Korean national dignity than China. While Koreans are furious at China for hanboks and kimchi, the United States exercises considerable political control over Seoul. It effectively controls its northern border and acts as a roadblock to peace negotiations with Pyongyang. The United States also has operational command of the whole South Korean army in wartime. Also, it maintains control over the semiconductor industry. The target of their anger, China, does not have such political power. However, Koreans seem unenraged at any of these actions. 

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It is important to ask what will happen as world’s geopolitical and tectonic plates shift. Korea did not join America’s boycott of the Winter Olympics, nor has it joined in any of Washington’s anti-China initiatives. But Yoon, who remains the frontrunner to become president in next month’s election, is urging his country to “take a side” –  America’s, of course – something that would put Seoul on a collision course with Beijing in the future. The situation would escalate to something more grave and potentially more destructive than an argument over clothes and pickled cabbage.

We don’t see Italians complaining about Americans using pizza, or Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh people all fighting over the definition of an ‘English/Scottish/Irish/Welsh Breakfast’. However, Asia’s cultural conflicts are a reflection of insecurity and political tensions. 

Insistence on cultural absolutism by the Koreans is a sign of a lack in confidence in a continent that has suffered from post-war divisions and unresolved conflicts. This contrasts with Europe’s fostered unity, reconciliation, and peace. South Korea has made its place in the world, and is now proud of it. However, the country faces a difficult decision: Will it look towards its east, rather than the west?

Statements, opinions and views expressed in this column do not reflect those of RT.



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