Dress at Winter Games' opening ceremony fails to impress
“Is that hanbok?”
Many Korean viewers who were watching the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony on Friday were outraged when they saw a woman dressed in hanbok, or traditional Korean attire. The Korean public is accusing China of yet another attempt to claim Korean culture as its own. The two countries have been feuding over cultural elements from hanbok to kimchi in recent years.
“China is using the Olympics to distort history” and “Stop stealing our traditional culture,” read YouTube comments by Korean netizens under the footage in question.
The supposedly ethnic Korean woman donning hanbok was part of a ceremony during which representatives from China’s 56 ethnicities carried the Chinese flag together. China is known to showcase its ethnic diversity, especially at international events such as the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. But back then, the appearance of a woman in hanbok was barely questioned.
What changed since then? Experts say this “hanbok controversy” shows how intense the clash between China’s Sinocentric nationalism and Korea’s anti-Chinese sentiment have become.
Such parades of representatives from ethnic minorities in China is emphasized as a symbol of national unity. While the Han Chinese majority which takes up 92 percent of China’s population of 1.4 billion, China also consists of 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities, most notably the Zhuang, Hui, Manchu, Uyghur and Miao people.
Approximately 1.8 million ethnic Koreans (0.14 percent) reside in China and are referred to as Chaoxianzu, meaning Joseon people, named after Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). They enjoy a degree of autonomy in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Northeast China’s Jilin Province, where the woman in hanbok is reportedly from.
“There are over 50 ethnicities in China, so the Chinese government promotes a concept called Zhonghua minzu, or the ‘Chinese people,’ to unify the nation,” said Ban Byung-yool, an emeritus professor of history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies who specializes in the Korean diaspora.
“This expanded definition of 'Chinese people’ does not only include the Han majority, but also every minor ethnicity that lives in Chinese territory. It’s a new concept strategically created to unify people. According to the idea, all ethnic minorities living in China are part of the ‘Chinese people,’ thus all their history and cultural traditions like food, music and dance are also part of Chinese culture. So although each ethnicity wearing their traditional dress is not a problem per se, Koreans view it as a serious issue because such claims are the underlying premise. China uses this concept for its Northeast Project too.”
The Northeast Project was the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s historical research project funded by the Chinese government. It claimed that ancient Manchurian and Korean kingdoms were regional governments of the ancient Chinese empire, attempting to incorporate parts of Korean history into Chinese history. The project officially took place from 2002 to 2007, but the historical and cultural disputes it sparked are alive and well.
“Since China’s territory and population have historically been so large, maintaining unity among numerous ethnicities has always been a top priority for Chinese rulers since ancient dynasties,” said Park Kyung-suk, a history professor at Yonsei University specializing in modern Chinese history.
“Rulers in the past tried to use Confucianism and communism to unify people, but now that those ideologies are less effective, the current leadership is resorting to nationalism. From Chinese leaders’ point of view, the concept of ‘Chinese people’ absolutely cannot be compromised. Koreans aren’t obligated to accept their stance, but it helps us understand why China keeps presenting these ethnic diversity parades.”
From the perspective of Koreans, such strategy means more than China’s domestic policy. The presence of ethnic Koreans in China inevitably means that China claims elements of Korean culture also belong to the “Chinese people.” This form of Chinese nationalism was not in full swing back in 2008, especially prior to Chinese President Xi Jinping taking office in 2013. Since then however, Xi’s nationalistic stance has led to the surge of chauvinism in China, notably among younger generations.
Rising cultural tensions between Korea and China became full-blown in late 2020, when a Chinese game developer launched a Korean version of its dress-up mobile game “Shining Nikki” which featured hanbok items as a “special Korean item.” Chinese netizens claimed the clothing originated from China and lambasted the developer, leading it to shut down its Korean server altogether.
Around the same time, kimchi became a topic of heated debate when the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) announced new regulations for manufacturing pao cai, or Chinese salted fermented vegetables. Despite the ISO’s stipulation that “this document does not apply to kimchi,” Chinese media such as the state-run Global Times called it “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China.” A dispute ensued and prompted an official statement from the Korean agricultural ministry that kimchi and pao cai are two different dishes. Nonetheless, popular Chinese YouTubers continue to upload videos about kimchi with hashtags like “Chinese food,” much to the fury of Koreans.
“The feud between Korean and Chinese netizens escalated after that game in the winter of 2020,” said Joo Chang-yun, a professor at Seoul Women's University’s Department of Communication and Media.
“Hanbok originated from Korea and ethnic Koreans who migrated to China are simply preserving their traditional roots, so it’s absurd for Chinese netizens to claim that hanbok comes from China. China’s younger generation has especially become very nationalistic. Meanwhile, anti-Chinese sentiment has intensified in Korea, also particularly among younger Koreans in the past two to three years due to various issues like the Covid-19 pandemic, fine dust pollution from China, China’s sanctions against Korea after the installation of [the anti-ballistic missile defense system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] Thaad, Chinese fishermen illegally working in Korean waters — issues that are closely related to Koreans’ everyday lives."
As a result, Joo said anti-Chinese sentiment in Korea is much more intense than it was in 2008.
“Koreans could simply accept the appearance of hanbok as ‘ethnic Koreans migrated, settled as members of Chinese society and are still preserving their roots.’ But accumulated anti-Chinese sentiment is at its peak nowadays and deeply ingrained into Koreans’ collective mentality. That’s why this issue that may seem trivial is facing so much backlash.”
The Korean public perceives the woman wearing hanbok during the ceremony as a continuation of China’s historical distortion and a sign that Sinocentrism is rearing its head again.
An additional factor behind the outrage is that China continuously claims Korea has historically been under Chinese rule. Korean dynasties paid tribute to Chinese Empires, as did Japan and Vietnam, but were never under China's direct control. Nonetheless, during a 2017 meeting with Donald Trump, Xi allegedly told the then-U.S. President that “Korea actually used to be a part of China.” China’s persistent attempts to incorporate Korean history as part of its own is why Koreans find the hanbok controversy unsettling.
“Koreans know the history of ethnic Koreans moving to China, but to people who don’t have that background information, China’s presentation of hanbok in their events makes it look as if Korea was part of China,” said Jeon, a political science student who watched the ceremony. “Knowing that Chinese people have been tenaciously pushing the claim that hanbok originated from China, it’s hard for me to accept this as an innocent celebration of diversity that China claims it to be. It feels like intentional, subtle propaganda.”
The enraged public is now criticizing the Korean government for not officially issuing a complaint to China. A civic organization even sued Korean culture minister Hwang Hee for dereliction of duty on Sunday as an act of protest. Prof. Joo said there is no real practical justification for Korea to issue an official diplomatic complaint.
“Netizens are free to express disdain about this incident, and there is no doubt that these displays of ethnic minorities are for the Chinese regime’s agenda,” he said. “Still, as a nation, Korea must be diplomatically careful. Since the Chinese government didn’t openly state during the ceremony that hanbok is from China, and it’s true that ethnic Koreans are part of China’s population, the Korean minister technically has nothing to protest against. It would be even more controversial if ethnic Koreans were excluded from these ceremonies. And from those ethnic Koreans’ point of view, what are they supposed to wear at those events apart from hanbok?”
At the same time, he added that he understands where the anger toward the Korean government is coming from.
“What’s also true is that the [current Moon] administration has not been properly voicing Korea’s opinions and interests to China,” he said. “It has been careful when dealing with China considering its economic power and influence on North Korea. But the Korean people view this as a timid attitude. So considering the public sentiment, it’s also inevitable that Minister Hwang is receiving blame. That onus comes with his office.”
“Public sentiment won’t and cannot change overnight, because it’s a matter of emotions,” said Prof. Ban. “There’s so much resentment from the Korean side, but China’s not going to stop presenting ethnic minorities in their official events. So the two nations’ feud is a bit like shouting at walls, and the criticism toward each other isn’t really reaching either side. Becoming more tolerant and open would be great, but Korea and China will be in this dynamic for the foreseeable future.”
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]