When a dress is not just a dress

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When a dress is not just a dress

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

 It is déjà vu from what we saw 14 years ago. At the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, a young girl dressed in hanbok, Korea’s traditional dress, was among people who moved a large Chinese national flag to a flagpole. A woman wearing hanbok was also a member of a choir singing the Chinese national anthem.

In fact, ethnic Korean women, called joseonjok in China, wearing hanbok have made repeated appearances at major Chinese events. At the opening and closing ceremonies of the annual National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March, representatives of joseonjok wore hanbok to the events. It has been an established tradition and a practice backed by law since the Chinese revolution in 1949.

Although the appearance of a woman hearing hanbok in the opening ceremony of the Winter Games has sparked a public furor in Korea over what many believe to be a Chinese claim to a part of Korea’s heritage and culture, it is a sensitive issue over which to start a diplomatic dispute. China will defend itself by saying that the absence of joseonjok would be seen as discrimination considering that 55 other ethnic groups were featured in the opening ceremony. China will also say that it makes no sense for a joseonjok woman to dress in anything other than hanbok.
At left, a joseonjok — an ethnic Korean living in China — performer wearing hanbok joins the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics last Friday. At right, Culture Minister Hwang Hee watches the scene at the stadium. 

Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hwang Hee said, “Ethnic minorities refer to the groups who could not become a country,” but that is factually wrong. The 56 ethnic minorities in China include Russians, Mongolians, Kazakhs and Uzbeks, too. China will not seriously take a complaint lodged by a Korean minister who has such a poor understanding of the issue.

But the latest controversy should not be dismissed as a Korean overreaction. The key point is that the Korean people’s anti-China sentiment has boiled over. We must think about why the Korean people are now expressing fury after keeping quiet in 2008 when they saw the same scene at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics.

Needless to say, China has caused the anti-Chinese sentiment in Korea. The starting point was China’s retaliation for Korea’s decision to allow the deployment of the U.S. Thaad missile defense system. Lotte Mart, which operated 112 stores in China, shut down its business eventually, and the Chinese tourists who flooded Myeong-dong, Seoul and Jeju Island disappeared. The Korean people vividly saw the narrow-mindedness of the Chinese people, although they call their country a great nation.

Following the economic retaliation, China’s attempts to claim Korea’s culture fueled anti-China sentiment. After China’s pao cai — a type of pickled vegetables — was listed with the International Organization for Standardization, China’s state media outlets claimed that Korea’s argument that it is the origin of kimchi had become groundless. Internet encyclopedias published by China’s research institutes claimed that hanbok, kimchi, and ondol — the traditional floor heating system of Korea — all originated in China. These attempts at cultural appropriation violated the Korean people’s cultural identity.

The Korean government, however, made no response. “What would we gain if we pick a fight?” said Culture Minister Hwang. His remark was extremely irresponsible. The people are not demanding the government pick a fight for every claim by China. The people are upset because the government has failed to do its job in the first place and belatedly defends itself by saying there is no point to challenge China.

In the international community, it is a firmly established perception that Korea is the home of kimchi. Then, it is the government’s job to start an international standard system for kimchi and prevent China from challenging its reputation.

But the government made no such effort. While the Chinese campaign to steal Korean culture has progressed, the Korean people’s anti-China sentiment grew deeper. The Moon Jae-in administration’s supine attitude toward China only fueled the anger.

Whether the target is the U.S., China or Japan, it is never desirable for the public sentiment toward a particular country to grow extremely hostile. Koreans’ anti-China sentiment has been added to their deep anti-Japan sentiment. That only helps Korea isolate itself.
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