|Danielle, a Korean-Australian member of K-pop girl group NewJeans / Courtesy of ADOR|
'Culture has no nationality'
By Dong Sun-hwa
On Jan. 21, Danielle, a Korean-Australian member of K-pop girl group NewJeans, apologized soon after sending a message to her fans that read: "What r u bunnies (the name of the quintet's global fandom) doing for Chinese new year?"
What raised the eyebrows of numerous Korean fans was her use of the phrase, "Chinese New Year." They insisted the 17-year-old's word choice was inappropriate, as the Lunar New Year is a major holiday celebrated in many countries other than China, including Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia. Thus, the K-pop star had to issue an apology, promising she would be more careful with her words and actions in the future.
Just one day later, the British Museum ― which shared a Twitter post introducing its special performances celebrating "Korean Lunar New Year" on Jan. 12 ― deleted it and uploaded a new post with the hashtag, "#ChineseNewYear." The first national public museum of the world is believed to have made the modification in the face of severe criticism from Chinese internet users, who accused it of "cultural appropriation."
|The British Museum's Twitter post with the hashtag, "#ChineseNewYear" / Captured from Twitter|
These incidents have brought up a question: What is the best way of referring to this annual holiday? According to experts, "Lunar New Year" is the least-controversial term.
"An attempt to give nationality to shared culture is not a fashion of the 21st century," Jieun Kiaer, a professor of Korean Language and Linguistics at the University of Oxford, told The Korea Times. "Such an attempt was frequently made in the preceding century, when some countries strived to show off their cultural dominance by adding their names to different cultural assets. But today, doing so can trigger political spats."
The professor added that the majority of English-speaking countries, such as the U.K., often used the phrase, "Chinese New Year" in the past due to an old habit.
"In bygone days, many English-speaking countries thought that being 'Chinese' means being 'pan-Asian,' as China was the first Asian country they encountered and actively interacted with," she said. "Since they were not exposed to other Asian cultures, they simply described Asian stuff as 'Chinese-something,' as evidenced by the cases of 'Chinese cabbage' and 'Chinese pancake.' But the term 'Chinese' is quite complex and political in reality."
However, the trend is changing thanks to social media platforms, which have provided people with a range of information about Asia, prompting them to explore its diverse aspects and hidden gems.
"Asian awareness has significantly improved and people in the West are now replacing the 'Chinese New Year' with the term the 'Lunar New Year,'" Kiaer said.
Lim Dae-geun, a professor of Chinese Cinema Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS), also underscored that culture has no nationality.
"It is not completely wrong to add 'Korean' or 'Chinese' to the Lunar New Year since both countries celebrate it, but culture does not hold any nationality in essence," he said. "The concept of nationality was formed after modernization. The Lunar New Year was created before the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948 and the People's Republic of China in 1949. But today, people tend to confine culture within a specific nation, instead of relishing it together."
|"Tteokguk" (sliced rice cake soup), eaten by many Koreans on New Year's Day / gettyimagesbank|
"If Beijing continues to claim ownership of shared culture that originated in China, it will lose the chance to further disseminate its culture, with other countries trying to break away from Chinese influence and develop their unique customs and rituals."
Although the Lunar New Year is believed to have started in China's Shang Dynasty in the 14th century B.C., experts believe other countries can still claim it as their own, because they celebrate it in their distinctive styles and manners.
"In the case of Korea, the way people celebrate the Lunar New Year is different from that of Chinese, except for eating dumplings," Kiaer explained, adding that Korea has its own word "Seollal" that specifically refers to this holiday.
Korean people also eat "tteokguk" (sliced rice cake soup), perform "sebae" by bowing to elders on their knees, and play traditional games such as "yutnori." In China, people eat fish and moon-shaped rice cakes, light firecrackers and put on red outfits, which are believed to bring luck and prosperity.
|Young children perform "sebae" to elders at a senior center in Seoul, Jan. 17. Korea Times file|
Korea, China in cultural feud
This is not the first time that internet users in Korea and China have faced cultural clashes. They have quarreled over the roots of specific items like "kimchi" (fermented cabbage) and "hanbok" (traditional Korean dress) in recent years amid souring Korea-China ties. Most recently, Beijing has lifted its ban on short-term visas for Japanese travelers, but not for those from Korea. The suspension was imposed earlier this month, when Seoul and Tokyo tightened COVID-19 quarantine measures on the arrivals from China that lately saw a spike in the number of patients.
China, which shares traditional culture with many other Asian countries like Japan and Vietnam, has been particularly at odds with Korea, with people from these two countries exchanging harsh and hurtful words against each other.
|K-pop boy band BTS / Courtesy of Big Hit Music|
It seems Chinese online users are trying to "contain" Korea's growing cultural clout, Lim says.
"Among different Asian countries, Korea's cultural power fueled by the success of K-pop, K-dramas and K-films is most visible these days," Lim explained. "I believe this has made some Chinese nervous. On top of that, China is emphasizing nationalism and patriotism in the present day, and the so-called 'internet nationalism' led by online users has gained moment over the last five to six years."
The Chinese government strengthened patriotic education within schools to promote loyalty toward the party for Chinese students who were born after 1990, collectively known as "jiulinghou."
"Koreans need to remain resolute, but raise their voices when they need to make their claims," Lim noted.