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Hanbok stealing?

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A performer dressed in the traditional Korean attire of hanbok waves during the opening ceremony for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics at the National Stadium in Beijing, Feb. 4. Yonhap
A performer dressed in the traditional Korean attire of hanbok waves during the opening ceremony for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics at the National Stadium in Beijing, Feb. 4. Yonhap

By Scott Shepherd

Nearly everyone in Korea is furious, it seems, because a Chinese national woman in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony wore the traditional Korean dress, hanbok. Numerous editorials and opinions have been published in condemnation, calling it another item in the long list of aggressive Chinese actions toward Korea. Last year it was kimchi, the argument goes; this year it's hanbok. Get your hands off our culture!

Usually I'm pretty much as outraged as anyone else in these situations. This time, however, I find myself unable really to get riled up. I just don't think the criticism is actually justified: I've been reading as much as I can find on the issue, but none of the complaints really seem to stick.

To start with, the day after the ceremony took place, Korean Culture Minister Hwang Hee said that the depiction of Koreans as a minority within China could lead to misunderstanding. He rather strangely added that when "you refer to people as a minority, it often means they haven't evolved into a sovereign country." This claim is absurd in any context, but especially in China's case. Among the 56 ethnic groups (the majority Han Chinese plus 55 minorities) officially recognized by the China government, we find not just Koreans but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols, Russians, Uzbeks and Vietnamese ― groups who all have their own countries. As far as I can see, no one else has complained because they think China is suggesting they don't really have independent states.

Hwang said that he did not think it was necessary to lodge an official complaint with the Chinese government ― and this remark itself, as The Korea Times reported, led to a group "filing a complaint with the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office against Hwang, claiming that the minister was neglecting his duties." What a demonstration of the sense of anger in Korea right now.

To be sure, Hwang's statement was a weird one, seeming to show defiance to China but not really getting at the reason everyone is so mad. Presumably he was cautious of offending a government which has shown time and again that it is willing to take disproportionate measures against its critics.

But others, who have less to fear and more to gain from reproaching China, were more ready to attack. The main accusation, and the one taken up with the greatest gusto, is that China is committing the crime of cultural appropriation.

News sites across the world reported on it, from The Indian Express and Britain's Guardian to China's own Global Times. At the time of writing, I've found at least eight articles on the issue in The Korea Times alone, including an editorial from Feb. 7 arguing that the inclusion of the hanbok-clad woman "was inappropriate as it might give the impression to global audiences that the hanbok is part of China's unique culture despite Korea's own sovereignty." Again, this argument just makes no sense in the light of the 54
minorities represented in the ceremony.

The day following The Korea Times editorial, the highest-ranked diplomat in the American embassy in Seoul, Chris Del Corso, implicitly weighed in on the matter in a tweet in Korean and English asking the question, "What comes to mind when you think of Korea?" and then answering it, "Kimchi, K-Pop, K-dramas…and of course Hanbok," signing off with the hashtag #OriginalHanbokFromKorea.

His tweet was accompanied by a photo of him wearing hanbok. Ironically, in the West, when Westerners wear outfits from different cultures, there are usually outcries over cultural appropriation, but this is rarely the case with Westerners wearing Korea's national dress. To the contrary, the South Korean government actively encourages visitors to wear hanbok, offering free entry to its palaces for anyone sporting the traditional garb. Indeed, I've donned hanbok myself on a number of occasions, most notably during part of my wedding. When foreign nationals wear hanbok, it's generally seen in Korea as great ― but these acts are always, quite rightly, with the understanding that those wearing them acknowledge that the clothes are part of Korean culture and heritage.

So the diplomat's move was smart. It generated positive reactions here while further driving in the wedge between China and Korea ― a perfect political move: he was acknowledging the Koreanness of the hanbok both visually and textually, but also implying that Koreanness equates to South Koreanness. In fact, considerations of Koreanness in the English language are always muddied, because the English word "Korean" does not only mean the culture and language of Korean people, it is also often used to signify something specifically from South Korea.

So when Del Corso tweeted that hanbok is Korean, he referred to K-pop and K-drama ― two things from the South ― in the same breath as kimchi and hanbok, which are shared by all Koreans. He thus conflates the two issues and implies that all four things are uniquely South Korean, which is obviously not the case.

Obviously, it's a logical impossibility for a Korean to "culturally appropriate" something from Korean culture. After all, the Chinese embassy has stated that the woman in the ceremony was a Joseonjok, or Korean of Chinese nationality. To suggest that the Koreans living in China have no claim to kimchi or to the hanbok is obviously wrong, which is why no one does so directly. Something's really going wrong when South Koreans are criticizing an ethnic Korean for wearing hanbok.

Of course, it would be easy to ask whether the Chinese government has the right to co-opt its minorities into the opening ceremony for its own political purposes (of showing an imaginary perfect unity among China's ethnic groups), and it would be even easier to call it propaganda, but all of this is disingenuous. Every Olympics is an opportunity for the host country to show an idealized image of itself to the world. This reality is just as true now as it was four years ago in PyeongChang. And the celebration of diversity we saw in Beijing is the kind of cheesy photo-op that every organizer for this kind of event loves.

The hanbok is truly a thing of beauty. It is something to be proud of, something to admire, and it is Korean. No one can take that away. But while it's vital to acknowledge China's past actions encroaching on Korea's culture and independence, it's equally important to accept that South Korea is not the only place where Koreans live. There are something like 2.5 million ethnic Koreans living in China: it's actually one of the largest minorities in the country, albeit with a small number compared to the overall population. Imagine the righteous fury if Koreans had potentially been left out of the ceremony. Fundamentally, China was celebrating the Korean culture of some of its citizens, not appropriating it.

Both of the main presidential candidates have been trying their best to monopolize on the anti-China sentiment that the Olympics is stirring up, just as the American diplomat did. There will always be politicians willing to pander to nationalism and xenophobia for their own gains. Indeed, when I said this to my wife, she remarked sardonically that that's their job. But it's up to the rest of us to accept that the mob mentality isn't always right, up to us to stand up for truth no matter how inconvenient, and up to us not to grab our pitchforks at the slightest provocation.

That's not to say there's nothing wrong with the Chinese government's actions. They have in the past made implicit claims to Korean culture and I fully condemn those, but I don't see this performance as one of those claims. The Chinese government and Communist Party are doing enough terrifying things right now without looking for new causes for offence. Even this week we saw the Orwellian interview with tennis star Peng Shuai apparently backtracking on her claims against a senior Chinese politician. If we're going to criticize China, let's do it for the many real atrocities there and not because they celebrated the Koreans living in their country.

Dr. Scott Shepherd is a British-American academic. He has taught in universities in the U.K. and Korea, and is currently an assistant professor of English at Chongshin University in Seoul. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.


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