[SERI COLUMN] Classic know-how gets a modern spinFifty years after embarking on a storied path to modernization Korea is nearing the ranks of the top-10 economies in the world. In that time, the nation’s science and technology have made significant gains, though some naysayers may say mature technologies from abroad were the main drivers of the economy’s rapid growth.
Basic science and source technologies admittedly remain relatively weak, but that does not negate the fact that Korea is on par with advanced countries in those areas.
This begs a few questions: Have Korea’s traditional technologies affected or contributed to modern scientific and technological development? Was there something that could be described as science in Korea’s traditional society, and if so, how can it be used today?
There is no doubt that science and technology existed in traditional Korea. There are many science-related cultural assets that range from premodern times to today that are familiar to most Koreans. Indeed, some have world-class bearing.
They include “Palman Daejanggyeong,” or “Tripitaka Koreana,” one of the world’s oldest collection of Buddhist scriptures carved on more than 80,000 wooden blocks; “Goryeo Cheongja,” or blue celadon pottery; and movable metal-type for printing.
But despite their outstanding nature, these assets were not widely celebrated because people from society’s lower class made many of them. The rapid inflow of Western technologies in postwar modernization and industrialization further deepened the departure from traditional technologies.
But nowadays, traditional know-how is generating renewed interest and appreciation because of its use in everyday products and services.
For example, makgeolli - a Korean rice wine made using traditional fermentation - enjoyed a 55 percent increase in sales in 2009, up to 200,000 tons from 130,000 the year before.
Skin care products containing Oriental medicine, like Sulwhasoo of Amore Pacific and Sooryehan of LG Household & Health Care, are now positioned firmly as premium brands. Sulwhasoo became a best-selling cosmetic line in 2009, beating global luxury cosmetics made by Lancome and Chanel.
Their popularity largely relies on consumer preferences for products that use healthy, natural ingredients; a revived interest in tradition as a response to scientific and technological advances and uncertain economic conditions; and a better understanding of the components and functions of traditional technology.
How can these circumstances be used to develop traditional technology? And how can such technology be used in the modern world?
Reinterpretation, improvement and convergence are three key approaches.
First, reinterpretation adds modern value to traditional technology. Makgeolli is a prime example. The drink had a reputation for producing bad hangovers, and it was widely regarded as rural.
Reinterpretation overcame those hackneyed views. Emphasis was put on the merits of its fermentation technology and its ample supply of dietary fiber, amino acid and lactic acid bacteria.
Second, modern technology can be used to improve traditional technologies. A prime example would be the use of hanji, traditional Korean paper. It was once limited to changhoji (traditional paper made from mulberry bark), calligraphy and crafts.
But today, it can be used to make products more environmentally-friendly and functional. It can be used in construction materials, clothing, wallpaper and laminated paper.
Another improvement may be seen in hanok, or Korean traditional houses. By remodeling kitchens in a Western style and installing insulation to keep the home at a comfortable temperature year round, a hanok can feature modern comforts without sacrificing its traditional ambience.
The last approach is convergence. Traditional technologies can add value to various industries and products. For example, traditional natural dyeing can be used to make food, cosmetics, hair dye and environmentally-friendly paint. Previously, it was only used for textiles.
The medical and beauty industries are also finding ways to use traditional methods of fermentation. Active academic research is under way to find cures for various illnesses, such as atopic diseases, by fermenting ginseng and red ginseng. A shampoo was also developed using Oriental fermentation to prevent hair loss.
Once regarded simply as part of our legacy, traditional technologies can be reinvented and used in a variety of ways.
On the corporate level, they can be used to add value and for differentiation.
On the governmental level, each region’s traditional technologies and resources can be commercialized to generate income in the provinces and to raise the national image.
Traditional technologies will have moder!n value only when they continuously evolve to meet the needs of the modern era.
*The writer is a research associate at Samsung Economic Research Institute.
By Lee Joon-hwan