A performer at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics drew widespread condemnation for wearing the hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, in a bid to represent China’s different ethnic groups.
What has followed are waves of criticism coming in from social media users in South Korea and by politicians and activists, accusing China of “cultural appropriation”. But the incident is not without precedence—there have been many similar instances in the past and there is a larger political context to these controversies.
There are approximately two million ethnic Koreans, with a large percentage of them living in China near the China-North Korea border. These ethnic Koreans were among those being represented as one of China’s many ethnic groups.
But the major issue with the use of the hanbok to represent these groups is actually linked with China’s attempts to assert that various aspects of Korean culture are of Chinese origin. This instance, following a series of similar cases, was interpreted as yet another move by China to appropriate an integral part of Korean culture and identity.
The most prominent incident before this occurred in 2020 when CCP mouthpiece Global Times claimed that China had “led” the development of an international standard for ‘paocai’, a dish of fermented vegetables in China, after the dish received certification from the International Organisation for Standardisation [ISO]. The newspaper said that the move meant an “international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”.
The use of the word ‘kimchi’ by the Global Times had particularly riled up social media users in South Korea who accused China of “attempting to appropriate” a globally-recognised dish in Korean cuisine when the ISO certification had been specifically applied to ‘pao cai’, a type of pickled vegetable found in Sichuan cuisine, very different from ‘kimchi’.
So severe was the backlash that South Korea’s agriculture ministry was forced to issue a statement saying that the ISO certification “had nothing to do with kimchi”. “It is inappropriate to report (pao cai winning the ISO) without differentiating between kimchi from pao cai from Sichuan,” the ministry had said.
A 2020 Guardian report stated that following the controversy that had erupted over the ownership of ‘kimchi’, Chinese internet users stated that they had every right to claim the dish as their own. The reasoning that was given for these assertions was that a large percentage of ‘kimchi’ was produced in China because of the side dish being an integral part of everyday meals and being consumed in such large numbers in South Korea.
A New York Times report stated, “Nearly 40 percent of the factory-made kimchi consumed there is imported from China, and the tradition of making the dish locally is fading as Korean families eat more non-Korean cuisine.”
According to a Guardian report, there were a string of provocative messages on Weibo, like, “Well, if you don’t meet the standard, then you’re not kimchi,” and “Even the pronunciation of kimchi originated from Chinese, what else is there to say”.
Still, when it comes to international certifications and recognition, the UNESCO agrees with South Korea, given that in 2013, it added ‘kimjang’ (the process of making ‘kimchi’ in a community setting) to its list of intangible heritage.
It is difficult to trace whether ‘kimchi’ or ‘pao cai’ was first created and whether one influenced the other, if at all that happened. But some food history experts believe that the two are completely different dishes. While ‘pao cai’ is a dish of fermented (or pickled vegetables), ‘kimchi’ is a side dish created using cabbage, garlic, red pepper powder and ginger with its own process of preparation.
Apart from the dispute over ‘kimchi’, a controversy arose in March last year concerning the historical-supernatural Korean drama ‘Joseon Exorcist’. After merely two episodes were aired, Korean viewers accused the show of historical inaccuracy over the production’s use of Chinese-style props for a show set during the Joseon dynasty in Korea. Over 200,000 people petitioned the Blue House, the presidential office, to cancel the show and thousands of complaints were sent to the Korea Communications Standards Commission.
The criticism compelled the production company and the broadcaster SBS, one of South Korea’s leading channels, to apologise for the historical inaccuracies. So intense was the public backlash that major corporate sponsors pulled their ads and cut their ties with the show and local governments withdrew their support for the production where the filming was ongoing.
In 2004, Bruce Klinger had published an interesting piece in Asia Times on these continuing controversies between China and South Korea. “Beijing’s attempt to usurp a key component of Korea’s history and claim that Koguryo was a “subordinate state that fell under the jurisdiction of the Chinese dynasties” inflamed both Koreas, and it may lead South Korea to re-evaluate its growing strategic relationship with China,” Klinger had written.
Some researchers believe that these revisionist attempts by China are moves to justify or create a historical basis for China’s imperialism today, one that it is attempting to do first by manipulating soft power as seen during the Olympics opening ceremony and the ‘kimchi’ incident.
“The simmering Koguryo dispute appears to have been triggered by China’s deletion of all references to Korean history prior to 1948 from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, rather than acceding to South Korean requests to correct Chinese misinformation,” Klinger had written.
China had gone one step further by creating the ‘Northeast Asian Project’ in 2002 to give academic and scientific credence to its assertions about Korean history.
China has defended its move. The Chinese Embassy in Seoul issued a statement saying, “It is not only their wish but also their right for representatives of all ethnic groups in China to wear national costumes to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics….The Korean people in China and the north and south of the Korean Peninsula share the same origin and have a common traditional culture including clothing.”
In South Korea, ruling party lawmaker Lee So-young wrote on her Facebook page on Saturday: “We deeply regret that hanbok appeared among the costumes of Chinese minorities at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics.”
Weeks before the presidential election in March, Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea candidate, wrote on his Facebook page: “Do not covet (our) culture. Oppose cultural appropriation.”
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