A war wages on online over Korea's most-loved heritages
Having a go at eating spicy kimchi or renting a hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) and taking selfies while touring around royal palaces normally top most lists of must-dos for tourists visiting Korea.
They would also likely be the top two cultural heritages that Korean people are most proud of.
But recently, the two Korean heritages have been at the center of a fierce spat, especially among internet users from Korea and China, following China's claims over both kimchi and hanbok.
The Kimchi battle
The major feud over kimchi between netizens of the two countries ignited after a news report made by the Global Times, a fiercely nationalistic Chinese tabloid on Nov. 29. The article announced that it has gained the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for paocai, a type of pickled cabbage consumed in China, and insisted that the new standard proves that China had set an “industry benchmark” for “the international paocai market,” which essentially includes kimchi as paocai in the Chinese language also refers to kimchi.
Although the global regulator ISO specifically stated that its definition for paocai “does not apply to kimchi,” the Chinese tabloid “misled” the readers, according to angry Koreans, which was an evident attempt to lay claim to Korea’s tradition.
The Ministry of Agriculture also said in a statement a few days after that the ISO’s paocai standard is “completely unrelated to Korean kimchi” and that Korea already has its own definition of kimchi published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2001.
But that did little to calm the Korean netizens.
Many expressed their anger on various online forum sites on large portals in both countries as well as social media channels, stating China’s claim that Korean kimchi is also paocai and that now China is the world standard for the kimchi industry, is “total nonsense.”
The kimchi incident prompted resistance from local newspapers as well as a civic group known as VANK (Voluntary Agency Network of Korea).
On Dec. 3, VANK posted a petition on the global petition site Change.Org, informing the international community that China should stop its “cultural hegemony.”
“China, which distorted Korean hanbok and 'Arirang' as Chinese culture, is now distorting Korean traditional food, kimchi, as Chinese food,” it reads.
It also added that it’s not only the state-run tabloid that is overstepping.
“In the encyclopedia of Baidu, China’s largest portal site, there is a distorted description of kimchi that it is a long cultural heritage of China and the origin of kimchi is China,” it said. “Media and portal sites with great influence in China distorting ‘the origin of kimchi is China' and ‘kimchi is a Chinese cultural heritage,’ and leaving it uncorrected, can be seen as an expression of China’s willingness to promote kimchi as a Chinese culture.”
Are Koreans being overprotective of their tradition?
Some may believe so, but many, including foreigners, insist it’s natural to perceive it that way since it’s not China’s first attempt to lay claim to another country’s tradition, including many other Korean traditions.
Experts say that Koreans can still remember the outrage they felt caused by China’s five years of Northeast project that began in 2002, which lay claim to many of Korea’s traditions and heritages.
But it's not even necessary to go as far back as 2002 to understand why Koreans are so enraged. Just before the kimchi fight was the hanbok dispute.
Hanbok versus hanfu
About a month before the kimchi incident, Koreans were infuriated by the depiction of Korean traditional dress hanbok in a new Chinese drama titled “Royal Feast.” The keyboard war between netizens of the two countries began following a photo posted on Weibo by a Chinese actor named Xu Kai on Nov. 4. The selfie featured the actor in a traditional costume that very much resembles hanbok.
This Chinese historical drama series is set in the Ming Dynasty, and the actors should appear adorned in traditional Chinese costumes of the period. However, Korean netizens began to point out that the traditional garments the actors wear in the drama are too similar to hanbok.
In response, Yu Zheng, the producer of the drama series, reposted the photo with a comment, “This is definitely hanfu (traditional Chinese clothing in feudal dynasties ruled by the Han people, the most populous ethnic group in China) of the Ming Dynasty, and it is not hanbok by the illiterate just because it was adopted in ‘Goryeo,’ which was a vassal state of the Ming Dynasty.”
Goryeo was a Korean kingdom founded in 918, which became the Joseon kingdom in 1392. It was considered a tributary or subordinate state by China. The Ming Dynasty was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang, a Han Chinese, and ruled China from 1368 to 1644.
Producer Yu of “Royal Feast” went further to backup his assertion by posting nine ancient Chinese paintings portraying people of the Ming Dynasty on his Instagram a few days later.
“Korea was China’s vassal state in the Ming Dynasty,” he said. “Korean costumes are adopted from the Ming Dynasty. Here is the evidence.”
This added fuel to already raging fire, leading Korean netizens to begin posting photographs as evidence to illustrate the difference between the traditional clothes worn during the Ming Dynasty in China and those worn during the Joseon Dynasty in Korea.
In fact, Korean traditional costume researchers say that much of the traditional attire that Chinese actors are spotted wearing on recent television dramas very much resemble that of Korea’s hanbok. Men’s mangeon, for example, is a headband made by weaving horsehair. It was worn by men around their heads to stop their hair from falling out when it was tied up in a topknot.
According to Kim So-hyun, professor of fashion industry at Baewha Women’s University, who specializes in traditional garments of Korea, the mangeon of the Ming Dynasty and mangeon of the Joseon Dynasty are distinctively different in their shape. The former covers the entire head whereas the Joseon one is thinner.
Gat, the traditional hat of Korea that was worn by men, also looked different in the Ming and the Joseon Dynasties.
“We can’t say that China did not own such hats, but the gat that Chinese actors wear in the drama series are typical late-Joseon dynasty styles that have a flat top with a long cylinder body,” Kim said. “If you look at the paintings of the Song Dynasty, similar shaped hats appear here and there, but it’s evidently different from the Joseon gat.”
While this online battle was going on, almost simultaneously, a Chinese game developer Paper Games shut down its Korean server on Nov. 6 after getting stuck in the middle of a war of words between Chinese netizens and its Korean consumers.
About two weeks before shutting down the server, Paper Games had released a Korean version of its dress-up mobile game Shining Nikki. But when controversy arose about the origin of the hanbok the Chinese game developer had introduced in the game to celebrate the launch of Shining Nikki in Korea, the company decided to take sides.
Chinese netizens complained that the hanbok that had been introduced was not traditionally Korean as it has roots in China. The tension escalated after Paper Games wrote an official statement on Nov. 4, supporting the argument that hanbok is not Korean.
Paper Games released a statement on Nov. 4 saying, “We are paying keen attention to the recent controversy over traditional costumes and culture. As a Chinese company, we want to reiterate that our stance is always consistent with our country China.”
After taking multiple actions to show its stance is clear, such agreeing with a Chinese pro-government activist’s claim that hanbok is influenced by hanfu and making official announcements that it would block the accounts of anyone spreading malicious information about China or trying to insult the country, the company deleted the hanbok from the game.
This is when Koreans became infuriated, abandoning the game and requesting for refunds for in-app purchases. Ultimately, the Chinese game developer had to pull out from the Korean market just one week after the launch.
Seo Kyung-duk, a visiting professor at Sungshin Women’s University and a self-proclaimed “freelance Korean public relations expert,” said he also wrote an official letter of complaint to Paper Games.
“If Paper Games considers itself a global company, it should first understand the basic culture and history of other countries,” said Seo. “But the action the company took recently was not right; therefore, it should sincerely apologize to Koreans.”
While the online battle continues, many experts, with differing opinions, are observing the phenomenon from a distance.
A professor of traditional Korean garments who requested anonymity said that “it’s very difficult to pinpoint what came first and what influence China and Korea shared in each other’s cultures. If China attempts to make hanbok their official traditional garment, on a government-level, then Korea can take action, but right now, I think we don’t need to be too sensitive about what’s going on online.”
However, there are others who insist that Korea should carefully observe where China is going with this and act accordingly if necessary.
“Because the issues seem to be going on only in the online world among young people, it doesn’t mean that it’s negligible,” said Professor Kim, adding that Korea should watch out for actions taken by China that use mass and popular media to unconsciously imply that some of Korea’s cultural heritages are theirs.
She went on to say that Korea should also actively use mass media and promote Korea’s cultural heritages in English so it can reach global audiences.
K-pop boy band BTS’s recent interview with American fashion magazine Cosmopolitan gained huge support from Koreans as the members picked hanbok as their favorite performance costume so far, emphasizing hanbok as “Korean culture.”
The band has been active in promoting Korea’s cultural heritages by wearing hanbok and performing in front of Korea’s royal palace.
Such interview response comes after BTS faced backlash from its Chinese fans after a remark made by the group’s leader RM while receiving the 2020 Van Fleet Award during an online ceremony in October.
RM said, “We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together, and the sacrifices of countless men and women.”
Some Chinese netizens criticized that the reference to “two nations,” Korea and the United States, disregarded the sacrifice of the Chinese soldiers during the Korean War. It is estimated that over 1 million Chinese soldiers lost their lives during the war.
“I am so relieved to see such a global K-pop group trying to fight this battle with China by explicitly saying that hanbok is Korea’s cultural heritage even after suffering from backlash not long ago,” said one netizen on Naver, Korea’s major portal site. “I think they are doing a job that the government should be doing.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]