Friday, July 22, 2011

Uh, No. Arirang Belongs to Korea. Thanks.

[Note: This is a reaction to Roboseyo's post, titled Nobody Owns Arirang.]

I remember the first time when I saw my family's jokbo when I was a child growing up in Korea. Jokbo means "lineage book," and it shows the flow chart of everyone who is related to me starting from the very first Korean person who shared my last name, who was born in 69 B.C.E. It was, and still is, an awe-inspiring sight. My family's jokbo is consisted of more than 30 volumes, broken down by centuries, clans and subclans. The volumes would take up two full rows of a bookcase in my grandfather's run-down house, their uniform spines forming a brick-paved road toward my origin. My grandfather would flip to his favorite pages -- dog-eared for easy reference for his show-and-tell with his grandchildren -- and point to a name. The name could be a famous scholar, general, someone I would have learned about in school history classes. After going through some dozen names like that, he would flip all the way back to the last page of the last volume. And there it was -- my name, son of my father, grandson of my grandfather, 81 generations and more than two thousand years from the fountainhead of my family.

Roboseyo, a blogger I like and respect, recently claimed "nobody owns Arirang". I disagree with his view. I begin this post with the story about my jokbo is because I sense that Roboseyo does not have my sense of connection with the past, as is typical of North Americans. I believe that once people understand the feeling of having a meaningful connection with the past, they will have an easier time understanding why Koreans and the Chinese have such significant interest in laying claim on their history and culture.

(More after the jump)

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First, a bit of background is necessary. China recently registered as official Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage such traditional rituals and songs like Korean traditional 60th birthday ritual, Korean traditional wedding ritual, and Arirang, a form of traditional Korean song. Standing alone, this registration is not terribly unusual. More than two million Koreans live in China, and a reasonable claim can be made that China is only attempting to preserve an indigenous culture existing within its lands.

But there are reasons to believe that the motive of China's registration is more sinister. China recently caused a row by commissioning a study is known as the Northeast Project, which incorporated ancient kingdoms that were generally considered a part of Korean history thus far into regional Chinese history. Many Koreans view this project as a step toward China's absorption of North Korea should North Korea fall, as the disputed ancient kingdoms stretched far south of China-North Korea border. This registration of cultural heritage is also seen as a part of that plan. Koreans suspect that the next step for China is to submit Korean rituals and songs to UNESCO as a part of Chinese cultural heritage. In particular, the registration of Arirang is upsetting ordinary Koreans, who consider the song (which has many variants) to be an unofficial national anthem, sung among Koreans since time immemorial.

Now, a bit about Roboseyo's argument. He and I agree on the ultimate point -- at the end of the day, this row is more about the worry over the Northeast Project. Where I disagree is how Roboseyo gets to that conclusion: no one owns culture, therefore no one owns Arirang, therefore Koreans are silly to be upset about China's registration of Arirang as its cultural heritage.

I disagree with that. Severely. Arirang belongs to Korea, and China deserves the outrage.

Roboseyo draws back from his older post about how nobody owns culture. What I found particularly interesting from that post is this passage:
The idea of a culture is way too slippery to talk about it as if it were you could wrap it in a box and own it, or teach it to someone. Even WHEN a culture has certain artifacts that help preserve it - The King James Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, the Koran, the George Washington Myth and the Declaration of Independence, or the Dangun/King Sejong/Lee Sunshin trifecta as anchors, those draw an outline so broad and fuzzy that the details have to be filled in, and every group of people living within that fuzzy outline, fills in the details differently.
To me, this is a silly cop-out that essentially says: "It is not possible to precisely define a concept, therefore the concept cannot be captured and utilized." It is like saying that because the concept of "furniture" can be broad and fuzzy (is a lamp furniture? What about an Ottoman?), we cannot have such a thing called a "furniture store."

"Concept" is a human invention that is based on reality, but it is not itself reality. All concepts are fuzzy around the margins precisely because it is not reality, but a reflection of reality. Even a simple concept like "door" can be quite tough to define around the margins. But the concepts continue to exist and make themselves useful because there is a core to the concept that epitomizes the essence of the concept. I cannot tell you what "doors of Heaven" will look like, but I can sure as hell tell you that the flat plank of wood, standing between my room and the hallway, with hinges and a handle, is a door. Based on my knowledge of the core "door-ness", I am able to think about whether something is a door, and something is not. I am also able to extrapolate on the concept of "door", and think about whether or not I "opened the door" for a prying question when I let slip a private part of my life. The same can be said about a concept called "Korean culture." Around the edges, "Korean culture" can be quite difficult to capture. But at the core, there is no mistaking what belongs within the concept of Korean culture.

This is even more so considering the accretive process through which culture is formed. Culture is formed when a group of people engage in the same behavior over and over again and the same behavior is passed down from generation to generation. Of course, the next generation goes through the organic process of choosing what to adopt and what to discard from the culture inherited from its predecessors. Over time, this leads to huge and dramatic changes within the culture. No one will be dumb enough to think that there has been a single, monolithic version of Korean culture that had remained static in every detail even for the last 20 years, much less for the last 2,000 years.

But, remarkably, certain parts of Korean culture -- the Dangun myth, kimchi, Korean language, and yes, Arirang -- have survived those years and are traceable far back into the distant past, just like the way I can trace my being to a single person who lived nearly 2100 years ago. And those parts sit at the core of Korean culture in a way that other, more fleeting parts of Korean culture do not. Roboseyo thinks that Issac Toast is Korean although a toast is not intuitively Korean, because one cannot find Isaac Toast outside of Korea. Sure, I agree. But is Isaac Toast as Korean as songpyeon is? Only if Isaac Toast stays in Korea for another thousand years can that conversation even begin to happen. Songpyeon belongs to Korea because it stood the test of time for Korean people. Korean people chose songpyeon over and over again for more than a thousand years. And songpyeon, along with other significant markers of Korean culture, forms the ethnic and national identity of Korean people.

Same goes for Arirang -- Korean people chose Arirang over and over again for more than a thousand years such that Arirang absolutely, unequivocally, belongs to Korea. In fact, Arirang is Korea, as it is an integral part of Korean identity. That means appropriating Arirang is not the same with appropriating Gee from SNSD. From the perspective of Korean culture, the latter is a minor annoyance and a copyright lawsuit, while the former is a grave insult and foul thievery.

*              *              *

Having said that, the naturally following question is: what does it mean that something belongs to Korean culture, and Korean culture belongs to Korea? What claim of ownership can Korea have over Korean culture?

It should be quite obvious that Korea does not own Korean culture like a person owns a piece of tangible property. It is not like the way I own my car. My ownership of my car means that no one else, without my permission, can use my car, much less take it to the shop and modify it. In contrast, anyone in the world is free to sing, listen to, and even make derivations of Arirang. In other words, the levels of exclusivity attendant to the ownership are dramatically different between culture and property.

But ownership necessarily implies some level of exclusivity. The precise location of the line that divides the permissible uses from the impermissible ones, as are common with this type of things, is difficult to determine. For example, I have always thought that Koreans' angst over Japan's supposed appropriation of kimchi to be a silly (albeit understandable) overreaction. As long as I set aside my insane, irrational food purist side, I can take the reasonable position that the Japanese are free to import certain items of foreign culture and adjust them to suit their taste, just as much as Koreans have taken Japanese pickled radish and unmistakably changed its flavor profile. A reasonable person can disagree with this by making a case for where she thinks the line should be.

But no matter where the line is set, China's action toward Arirang -- that is, specifically labeling it as a part of the Chinese culture in the government records and attempting to do the same with international bodies --  falls on the wrong side of allowable use. It is one thing for the Chinese people to naturally absorb Arirang, sing it in their own style over time, until a Chinese breed of Arirang comes to exist. It is quite another for the Chinese government to unilaterally take Arirang and claim as a part of its own culture, knowing full well what the implication of such claim would be. (Especially because unlike North Americans, the Chinese, like Koreans, know what it means to have a culture.) Such claim is made even more odious because it is transparently motivated by China's territorial ambition over North Korea when the regime inevitably crumbles.

Arirang belongs to Korea, as much as God Bless America belongs to the United States. And China is appropriating the song in an unnatural manner to further its political purpose. This is something that deserves outrage on the part of Koreans. Inability to understand this fact leads to the inability to understand the motivation of the vast majority of the world, as Americans are prone to be.

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  1. Woah...I had no idea China did that. That's pretty crazy...Arirang is totally an old traditional Korean song. Sort of upsets me a lot if those intentions are all true.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I've been a fan of you blog for a while now, but this is by far my favorite post so far.

    Like many others, I was very upset when I first heard the news surrounding Arirang, and I couldn't put into words what was so upsetting about it. I'm so glad that someone was able to express the position so eloquently. And for that, I thank you.

  3. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I was infuriated when I discovered that China had laid claim to Arirang, and I was pleased to find you so eloquently defending this position. And I know how much expats/non-Koreans get their panties in a bunch when people say this, but there really is a sense of sacredness associated with Arirang that resonates more with Koreans than with non-Koreans.

  4. I'll get into it more later, but on my way out the door...

    there's a big difference between a Canadian saying that hamburgers are a Canadian food, and a Canadian saying that hamburgers are NOT an American food...

    there's a big difference between China saying Arirang is practiced in China (which it is, among the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast) and China saying Arirang is NOT Korean. If China did that, I'd have a big problem with it, too.

    If registering something with UNESCO is tantamount to making a claim of exclusive ownership to it, I have a BIG problem with China registering Arirang. If it can be inclusive, that's different.

    I especially liked what you wrote about Isaac Toast vs. Songpyeon - degrees of Koreanness/Chineseness/whateverness is a worthwhile talk -- and in the same way Japanese Kimuchi exists, and much kimchi is manufactured in China, yet Kimchi is very deeply associated with Korea, I think we can agree that Arirang is a very, very, very Korean thing, but only peripherally a Chinese thing, (that is, only among a peripheral group of Chinese).

  5. great post, by the way. thanks for the thoughtful response.

  6. My quibble with this is that Arirang belongs to Koreans, not (South) Korea. I agree with you and Rob about the obvious implications of this, but isn't Arirang the part of the heritage of Koreans living in China? Or North Korea?

  7. I have nothing to say other than.. BRAVO, TK!! You hit it out of the park, again!!

    I dont think the Chinese government will try to steal Arirang and claim it as their own. Trust me. They wont do it. They be stupid to try to do that.

  8. Sorry, I disagree with you and agree with Roboseyo on this matter. I think he argued best, so that's all I'd like to say.

  9. North Americans don't know what it's like to have a culture? The Quebecois, Metis, Inuit, Acadians, Iroquois and a plethora of other North American cultural groups might take issue with that.

    Your entry is very well written, but you made some very broad generalizations.

  10. Yeah, sorry, I had no real issues with your post until you had to turn into yet another Korean telling me "I don't know what it means to have a culture" (you'd be surprised how often this happens). Pretty rude if you think about it, really. And I am not, as Scroozle pointed out, an indigenous person of North American, but even as a white North American I find that rude (AND overgeneralizing). By virtue of the way the US came into existence (yes, by oppression and subjugation of the native peoples, and I am no apologist for that) my ancestors have not been on North American soil long. Plus, they were farmers, so even if North Americans had had something resembling a jokpo, my family certainly wouldn't have had one (as Korean slave families did not). But I digress...the fact that my ancestors moved from one place to another place doesn't mean I don't have a culture- they brought culture with them and adapted it. Just as all culture is adaptations (a fact which doesn't decrease its power). Think about ethnic Chinese in Korea for a moment. Do they "not have a culture" simply because their ancestors moved? No, they have been in Korea for hundreds of years, most having lost the ability to speak Chinese. They are Korean, and they can also choose to consider themselves Chinese if they wish- that is their right.

    As you must know from your wide reading, Korea was traditionally a slave society (in the Choson dynasty). Democracy was not a native concept to Korea, though it was implemented after the end of decades of dictatorship and seems to have stuck and seems to be working quite well (in some cases better than France or the US). Is it fair for me to say that "Koreans don't know what it means to have democracy" simply because democracy did not spring from some distant Korean past? (This is not something I believe at all, by the way).

    1. Korea was not a slave society you idiot... where did you read that?

      The majority of people(50%) were - "Pyeong-min" - free and common farmers/craftsmen/merchants.

      The other major block(~40%) were "Cheon-min" - Korean equivalent of European peasants.

      The rest were untouchables(~7%) executioners, animal slaughterers, prostitutes, shamans, entertainers ect...

      And of course the Aristocrats (3%)

      Now comparison to European society prior to 18th century.

      European commoners could only be a part of aristocracy when knighted by Royal family - extremely rare and irregular.

      Korean commoners could be a part of aristocracy by an "regular" national exam selecting new talents to work in various government branches. - also rare but at least their rights to apply and compete for position was protected by written law.

      Korean Cheon-min had all lot more freedom and rights than European peasants as well - They had rights to wages, private possession and inheritance(they could even own land unlike European peasants), legal rights to sue his/her master for wrongdoing, rights to marry without masters permission and most importantly - rights to buy commoner's position by paying "Sok ryang ga"(Price to become a commoner) but many of them didn't do it on purpose in order to avoid higher income tax.

      No doubt Europeans have successfully abandoned feudal system in 1700s before Asians and then began to revolutionize the old democracy to be adopted by modern nations but Europe was the hardly the place of "freedom" before 18th century no they were superior to Asia in terms of human rights.

      Please get yourself out of "Eurocentric" point of view.

  11. Indeed, a great post. How Koreans value their rich heritage and culture stemming from their ancient history is something really admirable. Yet sometimes, like in this post and in many instances, the response of a typical Korean whenever issues pertaining to their heritage is raised, shall I say, is just more than overwhelming. Even if its just a man-of-the-street or a learned and respectable Korean, the response is pretty much the same: a defensive stimulus as if signaling a call-to-arms stance on the subject. The Korean has a lot of good points which I recognize myself, yet there are also unnecessary points and conclusions which may have been brought by such an unhealthy stance.

    I have not read Roboseyo's post yet so I could be greatly wrong, but I somehow get his point. China's efforts has looong been active in registering, no, sweeping all cultural heritages you can find in China for UNESCO registration. It means, this and that exists in China and part of Chinese culture. The same with Arirang, if due to geographical influences has somewhat reached China. But it would be premature to say, and judge, that it actually means China is claiming exclusively that Arirang as actually theirs (with an evil grin and stealing intent). The North Korea view has a basis, but it is too much to say that China is robbing Korea of its treasured Arirang, on the sole basis that it is registering the presence of Arirang heritage in its lands.

    This is a great post, providing insights on the issue, but would have been better without the pride, defensive, and preemptive sentiments reverberating throughout the post. And I wonder if Korea, being a country rich in culture and heritage, gets the rightful position to define who has no sense of culture or what.

  12. Robo,

    there's a big difference between China saying Arirang is practiced in China (which it is, among the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast) and China saying Arirang is NOT Korean. If China did that, I'd have a big problem with it, too.

    I think the implication is obvious to everyone except for those who focus only on words and action instead of the intent behind those words and action.




    Making a big point requires making some big generalizations. If you can recognize it as a generalization, so can everyone else. I was, in fact, counting on it.


    the fact that my ancestors moved from one place to another place doesn't mean I don't have a culture.

    Please focus on what I wrote, instead of what you think I wrote. I never once said North Americans don't have a culture. They clearly do. But they "don't know what it means to have a culture." By that I mean they are often blind to the consequences and implications of having a culture. ("what it means"). I think that's a fair statement.

    Is it fair for me to say that "Koreans don't know what it means to have democracy" simply because democracy did not spring from some distant Korean past?

    Yes. I believe that often, Koreans don't know what it means to have democracy although they currently have democracy now.


    Even if its just a man-of-the-street or a learned and respectable Korean, the response is pretty much the same: a defensive stimulus as if signaling a call-to-arms stance on the subject.

    Another country is stealing what is important to mine. It will take a culturally blind person NOT feel a defensive stimulus. That's exactly the point I was making in the post.

    This ... would have been better without the pride, defensive, and preemptive sentiments reverberating throughout the post.

    Basically, you are asking me to write as if having a culture is not important, even as I am writing about how criticial having a culture is. That is too much to ask.

  13. Thank you for writing this. I was unsure how to express my concerns over this. The first time I saw Arirang performed by non-Koreans was by Chinese-Americans at a Chinese art festival a year before the PRC's claim surfaced. On one side, I thought it was a legitimate claim by the PRC, which does have a significant number of Koreans living mainly in Manchuria. On another, Koreans are a unique minority in China, because they have two other countries that represent their cultures to varying degrees. You clarified some confusions I had with this issue.

    On a side note: As for the Jokbo, I too was awestruck by mine (the Kimhae Kim clan Jokbo takes up three shelves at the National Library) and felt bad for fellow Korean-American kinsmen, who cannot read Korean let alone Hanmun, that I decided to translate Jokbo texts into English and post them on my blog.

  14. Bonnie, I was reading your comment with interest and some sympathy when I came across "Korea was traditionally a slave society" and went "Whoah". I realize you were really saying that Korea had a 'slavery-based' economy, but it was an unfortunate choice of terms, which I hope you'll never use again (for all kinds of reasons). O.K., done with my nit-picking.

  15. @Bonnie

    I haven't read the Korean's response to your comment yet, but I do have to say one thing: I don't think the Korean ever once implied that North Americans don't have a culture. In fact, in the current day and age, America's soft power exceeds any other country's bar none, and there would be very few people who would argue this fact. No, what the majority of North Americans (read: not all) lack isn't culture, but an active connection to culture and to the past. The average North American living in the US does not value, say, a hamburger and recognize its intrinsic cultural value as much as an average Korean does with kimchi. No one is accusing you of lacking culture.

  16. Quick response to Sam: I don't see how "slave society" and "slave-based economy" in this case are that different, really. Historians of Choson Korea have pointed out that Korea had a population that was 30% or more slaves for a finite period of time (this wasn't for all of the long Choson dynasty, and certainly didn't extend back to Koryo). To call it a "slave-based economy" tends to erase the very real oppression going on. The US was also a slave society for a period (with society built on the backs of slaves), and I think arguing that this was just in the economic realm obscures the reality of situation. My comment was not meant to bash Korea- I was actually arguing that a country's past (in this case, a period of slavery) doesn't prevent big changes in the present- Korea is now a thriving democracy...though the Korean responded to my post agreeing with what I was refuting, to my surprise, saying that indeed, "Koreans don't know what it means to have democracy." I think a lot of democracy activists who fought for Korea's democratization would take issue with this statement...

    And I still think the statement "North Americans don't know what it means to have a culture" is simply wrong. Most (descendants of settlers) don't know what it means to have an culture that stretches back in a particular, situated place. That doesn't make many people's connection to the past less deep. No, of course I don't have the same connection to "a hamburger" that Koreans tend to have to kimchi. That's because a hamburger is a fast-food item. I do have connections to other home-cooked foods that go back generations.

    People HAVE tried to tell me that as an American/Canadian I "don't really have a culture." (I usually brush them off as morons, just as the Korean should probably do to the Americans he is apparently meeting who are so lacking in their understanding of what having a culture means). And people have also tried to tell me that "I don't know what it means to have a culture." I don't think either is a fair statement. Americans who "are blind to the implications of having a culture" are probably similar to young Koreans who haven't studied their history and don't have a deep connection to their past, either. But it's certainly not the case that all Americans (or even the majority) "don't know what it means to have a culture." Their understanding of what "a culture" is is simply different, based on their experiences and based on the migration of their own ancestors. For the record, I do understand why Koreans are upset about this Arirang issue (to get back to the actual topic of the post!). I also am not surprised by China's move, knowing that China's definition of "national culture" is also very different than Korea's definition of culture (China tends to include any aspect of "national minorities culture" under "Chinese national culture"). But I'm more than willing to agree that this Chinese government action could have insidious intent- it is a self-serving, governmental action, after all.

  17. There is a famous inter-American example of cultural appropriation. The day after the the South surrendered to the North, Lincoln said this when talking to a crowd:

    "I have always thought `Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize."

  18. Bonnie: I didn't mean you were insulting Korea, nor do I want to get drawn into a long argument. But since you apparently didn't get my meaning, I'll simply point out that when you say Korea was a 'slave society', some ignoramus who has absolutely no knowledge of how things stood in that obscure part of the past world might assume that the entire nation of Korea was at some point literally enslaved to another country -- say, as a result of being invaded and defeated by China or Japan. You wouldn't want inadvertently start yet another false meme on the internet, would you? If you think that sounds a bit far-fetched, well, after having seen the depth of ignorance and hostility in certain forums and question-and-answer websites, I assure you I'm not being overly sensitive. Careful wording is not just about niceties on the internet.

  19. Arirang is yours. Have it. What do I care?

    China is just doing this stuff out of political motive. Unless it's actually true and they have evidence for this claim. I defer to whatever the facts may be in this case, but I have no stake in the outcome, unlike China, which is just seeking to arrogate to itself all East Asian culture, followed, ultimately, by as much of East Asian territory as they can grab.

    You keep Arirang. I'll just keep Shakespeare as part of English heritage. Unless someone could actually prove that Shakespeare was Italian. Which would be weird, considering he made the greatest single contribution to the English language - not even literature, just language - by any one individual, and what if it was just his second language? To be not only that good at a language that you actually revolutionize it, but for it to be your second language. But Italy could still claim Shakespeare if they could prove he was Italian, even though he did nothing for the Italian language, and Italians can't even understand him.

    I guess the Chinese, similarly, can also claim Arirang, even though they don't sing it and don't know what it is. "My culture owns your culture. We may not be familiar with it, but we own it."

  20. Great post! I'm actually more curious to know how North Korea views this situation with China and Arirang--does anyone know (I'm just assuming that the voiced outrage in Korea is mainly in reference to what we hear from South Korea)? If China's pulling this move for political reasons (e.g., to swallow up North Korea if/when the government crumbles), it just seems like an insult to the North Korean government. It's like China is subtly saying to North Korea: "We're going to take over your country eventually because it stinks and is going to collapse". I'd be curious to know how that bodes with North Korean pride, especially because they tend to put on a facade to the outside world that everything is just fine and that their nation/government kicks ass. In addition, it seems like such a move from China re: Arirang would sting all the more, given that China is North Korea's biggest ally. To me, this is like having a friend who doesn't have faith in you.

    Would North Korea actually welcome China's takeover of their country (and Korean culture and heritage) in their possible demise? If so, wouldn't Korean culture and language become watered down after several generations of Chinese rule (if China were to take over)--would North Koreans even care? But, perhaps they would prefer that over being taken over by U.S.-backed South Korea? Any thoughts on the matter?

  21. I guess for me the question of claim of culture posed in North America really aren't of the same matter elsewhere. Yes NA do have culture, and have some idea what its like. We do have indigenous peoples, but like indigenous people in a lot of places their plight isn't symmetrical as Korea.

    We haven't ever really had to fight under threat to keep it. In some ways it really makes a place like the United States hard for others to understand. Others may have a style of our republic/democracy, but they didn't really evolve into it as we did.

    Now when it comes to Korea the dynamics are not the same as much of NA. How long has Korea really been independent? How much say does Korea have its unification?

    I don't think in NA you really much of a possibility of a pan-continental movement by one country to take over others. The thing is everything seems fine now, but things can change. Just like at what happened at the turn of the 20th century. If you have culture and ideas co-opted by another with some partial justification, it can then be turned into full justification. Then that can be used as propaganda, to say it is not only good for this nation, but for the other nation as well to take it over. Given Korea's past history, even current history with the North, its is geographical location; I think I can see the reasons behind the objection.

    Who owns culture is sort of a stupid question if no one is going to use it against you. No one really cares about water rights, until the effects of the use of the water is meaningful. People in similar situations as Korea realize yes it does actually matters who owns the culture, because it can be used against you.

  22. @Bonnie:

    North Americans simply do not hold onto the past (and by the past I don't mean two or three generations back, at most, but whole millennia) as much as Koreans do. This is not to say, "Koreans are better", as I presume you are culling from this statement; for good or for worse, Koreans put more store into the past and into their collective culture than most North Americans ever would. Once again, no one is arguing that North Americans are "uncultured". Rather, my take is that North Americans "don't know what it means to have culture" (and I say this very cautiously) in the sense that much of North American culture, although derivative of European, African, and many other influences, is incredibly recent. Sure, there are great vestiges of early North American culture (the mounds of Cahokia, Mesa Verde, artifacts from the colonial period, antebellum period, etc.). But the most significant and tangible products of North American culture are much more recent: the hotdog, the Hollywood movie, baseball, McDonald's. The thing is, these aspects of Americana have been so infused into daily American life that few even recognize them as cultural products. Your brushing off of the hamburger is testament to that: the hamburger is not just a "fast-food item"; it's roots to Europe and Germany as early as the 15th century and its social and cultural implications are huge - not only in North America, even, but throughout the world.

    For Koreans, their connections to the past and to their culture is much more real. It's not that they have "more culture" or that they are "more cultured", but rather that they are more much more acutely aware of these connections. The average North American, like I said previously, doesn't have a sentimental and cultural connection to the hamburger the same way the average Korean has to kimchi.

  23. (Continued from last post)

    Here's the catch: Koreans draw from their culture - and their collective history - sentimental value and national pride. They look back upon their culture and their history to gain a sense of not only who they are as individuals, but what their country is and what it stands for, to the same degree that Americans might relate themselves with America's national ideals and mores (liberty, freedom, equality, etc.) and in turn, the symbols of those ideals (the Statue of Liberty, the troops in the Middle East). South Koreans do not know what it means to have these symbols, and do not have as active a connection with their own symbols as North Americans do. They are not as readily familiar with the ideals of liberty and freedom, and their own symbols of these ideals (Seodaemun Prison? Dongnimmun?). Think, for a second, if the French were to claim the Statue of Liberty as a product of French culture - this move would be made even worse if France were rising in its status as a world power, was making similarly political moves around its region, and were a hundred times as big in land, power, and size, and were right next to America.

  24. This would just be an annoyance if it were not for the Northeast project. I read a detailed report by an SNU professor a couple years ago about China's design for North Korea, and it was disturbing to say the least. It was written in English. I'll try to find it and link it at a later point.

    What is unnerving about the Northeast project is the relative ease with which China can take over North Korea. They've already taken the first significant steps to do so which include building roads and refurbishing bridges for a quick entry. And who's going to stop them? The U.S. and Japan won't. Neither will the U.N., beyond some token lip service.

    North Koreans? They'll be too happy with the food and other aid that the Chinese will be bringing with them to protest.

    South Korea? According to some, it may be possible if South Korea threatens all out war with China. South Korea has a powerful enough army to possibly win this game of chicken, but given the plunging numbers of those who want reunification, it's highly doubtful this will happen. The South Korean government will follow diplomatic channels and file protests that will end up nowhere.

    China knows this as well, so more than likely, North Korea will go the way of Tibet.

    I'm by no means an expert in this. Just the opinions I've formed following this issue for the past several years, but if I had to choose odds, I would say there's a 75% likelihood that the above happens if there is a regime collapse in North Korea. There's too much to gain for China by subsuming North Korea, and too much to lose if they don't. God, I hope I'm wrong.

  25. Ted: your best point was at the very end of a long setup, so I'll bump it by putting it here, to make sure everyone reads this analogy:

    Think, for a second, if the French were to claim the Statue of Liberty as a product of French culture - this move would be made even worse if France were rising in its status as a world power, was making similarly political moves around its region, and were a hundred times as big in land, power, and size, and were right next to America.

    1. Rob: As a blogger, I think that you are, 1) a good writer 2) insightful 3) funny and for me, 4) easy to relate with. That said, I can't agree with you here and now.

      An apt parallel would be to compare a certain territorial debate alongside this cultural one. China's action worries me for the same reason that Japan teaching an alternate history about Dokdo. In this generation it seems like a harmless claim--ridiculous, and even a little bit funny; what's the harm, right? The problem is two or three generations down the road when the vast majority of Japanese have grown up learning in school that islands are rightfully their possession. Practically, the Japanese are attempting to rewrite history. (I know the Dokdo spat has been spinning out of control, but this student personally believes that the Korean government should subsidize the construction of Lotte department store on the islands big enough to see from the Japanese mainland.)

      In the exact same vein, the immediate effects of China claiming Arirang are laughable. But while a title in the UNESCO record books doesn't mean anything to us, it's our we want our grandchildren's grandchildren too have Arirang the same way that our great great grandparents wanted for us.

  26. Thank you. I was trying to explain why this is a Big Deal to someone, and couldn't quite come up with the words. (Both he and I are North American, and neither of us happens to have a sense of continuity with the past beyond our great-grandparents, and it's pretty fuzzy by the time we get back that far.)

    I think China is getting cleverer in their moves on NK, and it makes me nervous. I think the best outcome for NK is reuniting with SK, as difficult and painful as that will be. The best one can hope for with an administration from China is something similar to Taiwan, but I fear we'll see Tibet or worse.

  27. And China wonders why they get no respect from the neighbors.

  28. Gravel & JacL

    I pretty much take it for granted that China will try to take over NK (most likely through a puppet govt, not directly, or use Chinese Koreans) IF NK collapses.

    Yeah China would have too much to lose, aka bigger/stronger Korea (will take time and pain but will happen if Korea is united) with US military installations on Korean peninsula.

    But I wonder, is it really worth it for China? It's not like US will invade China via Korean peninsula.

  29. I suspect that part of the confusion (other than the somewhat separate argument about north american culture) is how we are defining cultural and national groups.

    In American English, to an educated and thoughtful person, the terms national identity and cultural identity are distinct. So the term, "Korean" is at best, ambiguous. Some suggest it to mean, a citizen of the ROK or it's northern brother. Others (and I believe it's the predominant view of ethnic Koreans) view it as a racial/ethnic category that often coincides with political affiliation.

    Of course Arirang belongs to ethnic Koreans. But I think Rob's point was that China being a large and surprisingly diverse nation holds people of different ethnic backgrounds, some of whom (who many would identify as Korean) can lay claim to Arirang. This doesn't give China the nation the right to co-opt it but neither can South Korea take it from North Korea. It's not really up for political ownership (although governments will always try with "good" reasons to impose such ownership).

    Part of the problem lies in translation of what Korea even is.

  30. America doesn't have a culture? Even if our "culture" isn't traced back for a couple thousand years it's still there. It apparently likes to travel east, and work it's way into other societies.

    I don't agree with China(or anyone) trying to rewrite history. It is disrespectful and very selfish.

  31. I have been following this blog and has never written anything, but this topic intrigues me.

    The truth is, most Chinese people don't know what 'Arirang' is and don't really care. China has too many minority groups to keep track of.

    To imply that this issue is implicating intentions by the Chinese government to incorporate North Korea into China after the country falls is a bit too much of a stretch, basically a conspiracy theory really.

    In a way, you are implying the Chinese government consists of idiots. Even if the Chinese government is going to swallow North Korea, no reasonable person would think that insisting that the Arirang or even North Korean culture is part of Chinese culture is going to change international opinion.

    In fact, in China, public opinion is much more important than international opinion. Chinese people consider Koreans living in China as 'Korean' and not 'Chinese'. Even registering North Korean culture as being Chinese is hardly going to change that.

    If you want to rage, by all means. But honestly, North Koreans have way more reason to be outraged than South Koreans and what I would consider 'pseudoKoreans'.

    PS: No, I'm not trying to be nice either, so rage away at my comment.

  32. @dbagoo

    But I wonder, is it really worth it for China? It's not like US will invade China via Korean peninsula.

    There is reason to believe that it will be worth it to China to take over or at least control North Korea:

    1) North Korea can be used as a buffer zone in case of military conflict.

    2) In case of regime collapse in North Korea, China can better prevent the flow of refugees into its country (some estimates range in the millions) by controlling the territory.

    3) Take a look at this article published today:

    North Korea has one of the riches deposits of mineral resources in Asia (according to the article, 6.6 trillion dollars worth). I've read other estimates that place the value much higher. This alone will make it a very attractive place for a country that is as resource hungry as China.

    4) According to the above article I linked, "The potential unification would marry South Korean capital and technology with cheap North Korean labor and rich natural resources, a prospect that could make the unified Korea an economic powerhouse, the institute said."

    Also, in a different report, Goldman Sachs stated that a unified Korea will most likely surpass the GDP of France, Germany, and perhaps even Japan in the next 30-40 years.

    China is beginning to compete with South Korea in many technological sectors, pumping massive amounts of money into their various R&D programs. It is most likely advantageous to China to have South Korea on weaker economic foundations for as long as possible.

    5) North Koreans are starving, but they are relatively well educated and willing to work for pennies a day. Workers like these might seem very attractive to many Chinese businesses which, more and more, have to deal with rising salaries in their own country.

    There are other reasons which I'm sure I am overlooking, but clearly, there are significant longterm advantages to China which may lead them to overlook the shortterm disadvantages of taking over North Korea.

  33. @Randomdude

    Have you heard of the Northeast Project?

    But honestly, North Koreans have way more reason to be outraged than South Koreans and what I would consider 'pseudoKoreans'.

    Why do you say this? And what are 'pseudoKoreans'? (I'm genuinely curious, not trying to be snide here)

  34. @Ted
    I just read up the project on wiki and baidu, the two came up with different versions of what the project is about and its implications.
    I still stand beside my original point, since even baidu said no one cared about the project or the country the project was researching about in the concluding comments.
    Since north korea is the one that you guys are suggesting is going to be taken over, wouldn't it be more relevant to find out what they think about the issue? Besides, north koreans are supposed to put more emphasis on tradition and culture than south koreans, who go gaga over kpop idols.
    To me, south koreans means south koreans living in south korea and those not living in korea who have some background with south korea. 'Pseudokoreans' are essentially people who are not korean in any way but demand to be involved on the side of south koreans.

  35. "'Under the Zhonghua Minzu ideology, it is assumed that there was a greater Chinese state in the ancient past.[2] Accordingly, any pre-modern people or states that occupied any part of what is now the People's Republic of China are defined as having been part of that greater Chinese state.[2] Similar projects have been conducted on Tibet and Xinjiang, which have been named Southwest Project and Northwest Project, respectively.[3]"

    COnsidering that these comments came from:
    ^ *Byington, Mark. “The Creation of an Ancient Minority Nationality: Koguryo in Chinese Historiography.” In Embracing the Other: The Interaction of Korean and Foreign Cultures: Proceedings of the 1st World Congress of Korean Studies, III. Songnam, Republic of Korea: The Academy of Korean Studies, 2002.
    ^ a b Byington, Mark. “The Creation of an Ancient Minority Nationality: Koguryo in Chinese Historiography.” In Embracing the Other: The Interaction of Korean and Foreign Cultures: Proceedings of the 1st World Congress of Korean Studies, III. Songnam, Republic of Korea: The Academy of Korean Studies, 2002.
    ^ "중국 동북공정에 앞서 `서남공정`은 어떻게" (in Korean). Joongang Daily. 2006-09-14. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
    Seriously? If you say baidu is BS, fine, since baidu doesn't need references. But the sources the wiki article is based on are all either korean or some western newspapers or missing, has anyone who wrote the wiki article actually read the original publication? Even the "项目介绍 (Topic Overview)", which is essentially a content page or short abstract, cannot be assessed. Is 'Centre of China's Borderland History and Geography Research, CASS.'a journal or what???
    All the information about this project is kind of dodgy anyway.

  36. Arirang certainly belongs to Korea, I'm Chinese and I've never heard about it until you mentioned it. But, didn't South Korea do the same thing to China? Trying to register traditional Chinese medicine as "traditional Korean medicine" with UNESCO, Duanwu Festival as some indigenous Korean festival, etc. I've even heard that some Koreans claimed Confucius was Korean..? China was wrong, but I don't think it's a one-way road.

  37. No offense, but Korea is the size of a Chinese county, much of its culture came from China, assuming your claim is true, you're neglecting to mention that the Koreans have successfully laid claim to a Chinese holiday (Which is ironic considering the site commemorated actually lies in China), and claimed that Chinese medicine is actually "Korean Medicine." It's Korea that has the sinister motives here, it is hoping that after sometime, centuries, perhaps even a millennia, people would somehow believe that the eastern asian culture in fact originated in Korea and not China. Fact is, Eastern Asian Culture originated near the yellow river and spread out, but as the Koreans would have you believe, it first went into China from Korea, then diffused throughout the world...

  38. As for the Canadian and American comparison, there is no Comparison, Canadians and Americans both came from Europe fairly recently, and they shared much of the same customs, it was something wide spread in Europe. Using burger as an example is like using a specific song as an example, sure, there may be a song that is exclusively Korean, but there's no doubt that the style originated in China; for example, there are Hip Hop in Asia as well, but there's no doubt that Hip Hop did not originate in Asia, despite the fact that there are many hip hop songs in native asian languages, it would be ridiculous to claim that Hip Hop is Asian.


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