Hanbok in Beijing Olympics opening ceremony stirs public furor
The appearance of a woman wearing hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Friday has sparked public furor in Korea over what many believe to be a Chinese claim to a Korean heritage and culture.
The woman in question was wearing a light purple hanbok as she walked around the stadium with dozens of other representatives of ethnic minorities in China, together carrying the country's flag.
A video streamed during a rehearsal of the ceremony, introducing the traditional costumes and activities of each region, showed footage of several people appearing to be making rice cakes, wearing costumes similar to hanbok.
A subtitle at the bottom of the video read, “From Baishan,” a city in China’s northeastern Jilin Province.
Though there is a group of ethnic Koreans living in China, called joseonjok in Korean, the appearance of the hanbok-clad woman carrying the Chinese flag reminded many in Korea of the recent Chinese claims on Korean culture and heritage, such as kimchi, Korea's fermented cabbage dish, and gat, a type of traditional hat worn by men from as early as the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. - A.D. 668).
“This is outrageous. The government had better not let this one pass,” reads one Tweet by a Twitter user on Friday that’s been retweeted over 12,500 times over the weekend. “It’s just another attempt by China to put forward its Northeast Project.”
Launched by the Chinese Academy of Social Science and financially supported by the Chinese government, the Northeast Project was a five-year research project from 2002 on the history and current situation of the frontiers of northeastern China.
Applying a contemporary vision of China as a unified multiethnic state to ancient ethnic groups in the region of Manchuria and northern Korea, the project caused ire in Korea for claiming that ancient Korean kingdoms in northeastern China were Chinese polities because of their location within the borders of the modern Chinese state.
Over the years, there have been numerous online petitions filed to the Blue House, asking the president to speak out against China’s Northeast Project.
“People are worried that Korea will lose its unique culture to the Northeast Project, which China is stepping up day by day,” reads a petition to the Blue House made last March in protest of a plan to build a Chinatown in Gangwon. “It is time to confront China, who continues to plunder our native culture such as kimchi, hanbok and gat.”
The petition was signed by over 670,000 people within a month.
Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hwang Hee, who attended the opening ceremony of the Olympics in person on Friday, was himself also clad in hanbok at the ceremony.
When asked if he would protest the inclusion of hanbok as an official costume of ethnic minorities in China, however, Hwang said he will not.
“I don’t think [an official complaint to the Chinese government] is necessary at this point,” Hwang said during an interview with Xinhua on Saturday. “But I do think it will be necessary to meet with government officials responsible for the matter, such as the Chinese minister of sports, to convey to them the public opinion in Korea over the incident.”
Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday it is “closely monitoring the various trends in cultural disputes,” adding it has continued to emphasize to China the “necessity in respecting [each other’s] unique culture.”
“There is no doubt that hanbok is one of our representative cultures that is recognized around the world,” it said. “The ministry will continue to promote Korea's unique culture, such as hanbok, to the international community through various diplomatic channels.”
There was a major feud over kimchi between netizens of China and Korea in 2020 after the nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times ran an article claiming that Chinese paocai, a type of pickled cabbage, has become the international standard for kimchi.
Last March, Koreans forced SBS to cancel the TV series "Joseon Exorcist" after it showed King Sejong, the king who created Korea’s language, eating Chinese mooncakes and Chinese dumplings.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]