[Weekender] Bound by history, cultural, social ties evolve

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Aug 1, 2014 - 21:34
  • Updated : Aug 1, 2014 - 21:56
Stretching back two millennia, the two countries’ deeply interwoven cultural and social relations have evolved from a geohistorical, Confucianism-based bond into a mutually beneficial partnership.

Though China remains a leading player in Asia’s cultural industry, region, Korea’s soft power has grown sharply in recent years thanks to the high popularity of its pop music and dramas.

The influence of the world’s second-largest economy in Korea’s industry and society has prompted soaring numbers of students to fly across the sea to learn China’s language, study its customs and expand their job opportunities.

But historical feuds linger as a perennial source of tension. Many Koreans harbor ill feelings against Sinocentrism, which is still prevalent among the Chinese, and public sentiment has soured with Beijing claiming past sovereignty over ancient Korean kingdoms. 

Korean culture boom

With a boom in Korean pop culture overseas, China has in recent years emerged as a prime export destination for singers, actors and other entertainers.

Broadcasters and showbiz agencies have been crafting new strategies and stepping up localization efforts to better cater to hallyu fans in China.

SM Entertainment, the company behind bands like Super Junior and Girls’ Generation, in May clinched a deal with Baidu Inc., China’s top search engine operator, to curb online piracy and promote legal downloads of songs and videos by its artists and jointly run a K-pop music channel.

YG Entertainment, another Seoul-based record label, created an official channel last year on Youku Tudou, China’s largest online video streaming website, exclusively providing the content of such singers as Psy, Big Bang and 2NE1.

Some of the hottest K-pop stars have Chinese members, including EXO of SM Entertainment and Miss A of JYP Entertainment. After four years of training in Seoul, Cube Entertainment plans to debut an entirely Chinese boy band, M2M, together with China’s XingTian Entertainment.
Members of K-pop group EXO speak to the press during their world tour stop in Shanghai on July 18. (Yonhap)

MBC, a major television network, recently launched a show aimed exclusively at Chinese-speaking audiences.

Korea’s exports of cultural content to China surged 214 percent from 2009 to 2012 to reach $1.3 billion, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency.

Early last month, Seoul’s Culture Ministry sealed an agreement with Beijing’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television to expand cooperation in film production.

The pact could spur the advance of Korean movies into the world’s second-largest film industry, officials say, which attracts some 600 million audience members each year despite its strict annual quota of 34 foreign films.

The two countries are also discussing plans to set up a 200 billion won ($193.7 million) fund next year to support joint projects involving movies, TV shows and other programs.

One successful coproduction was the film “A Wedding Invitation,” which premiered in both countries last year. Produced by Korea’s CJ E&M and distributed by China Film Group, the movie fetched 36 billion won, more than six times its production cost. The Seoul-based company is now working on “Once Again, 20s,” a Chinese version of the popular local film “Miss Granny,” in partnership with Beijing Century Media Co., Ltd.

“What makes Korean dramas appeal easily to the Chinese is the Confucianism in daily lives captured in Korean dramas, such as looking up to adults, particularly special bonds of friendship, the emphasis on family values, and nurturing filial and philanthropic children,” said Hong Seok-pyo, head of the Chinese culture research center at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“I think that many Chinese love K-pop partly in the context of the modernization of Chinese traditions.”

Social influence

The moves come as the two countries ramp up efforts to boost cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

During their summit last month, presidents Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping agreed to bolster a joint humanities committee, relax visa requirements and devise more youth programs, aiming to reach a combined 10 million visitors annually by 2016.

Their foreign ministries also plan to operate 19 exchange programs embracing further academic, youth and traditional art activities.

In line with China’s growing economic and social clout in Korea, the popularity of the Chinese language and related studies has skyrocketed. A long list of corporations employ and nurture China specialists.

“Many of those who study in China tend to come back initially to get a job at a Korean firm, and then move back to China to work at the company’s office there,” said a consultant at Pagoda Academy, a major language institute in Seoul.

“If not, students try to earn high scores on the HSK (the official Chinese proficiency test) or gain experience in China to get an advantage in applying for jobs because businesses would want to hire them as China experts.”

In 2005, Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul launched the country’s first China master of business administration course, forging a partnership two years later with Peking University and Fudan University in China.

Sungkyunkwan itself was Korea’s first institute of higher education, founded in 1398 at the dawn of the Joseon era to teach students the lessons and writings of Confucius, Mencius and other scholars.

“China is on the path to becoming the world’s largest market, and this trend will likely endure for years to come,” said Lee Hee-ok, director of the China MBA school.

“The Chinese market can mean opportunities as a hub of global competition but this depends on how we prepare for and pioneer it. You will not be able to survive without new innovation, endless challenges and creative research. We’re cultivating specialists with this kind of critical mind.” 

Historical rows

Historical disputes, however, remain a thorn in the two countries’ relations. Concerns have risen over the past few years as China increasingly asserts cultural hegemony, or Sinocentrism, commensurate with its political and economic ascent.

The fault line was revealed in June when actor Kim Soo-hyun and actress Jun Ji-hyun, who starred in “My Love from the Star,” the massive hit Korean TV soap opera by the broadcaster SBS, signed an advertising deal with Hengda Binquan, a Chinese maker of bottled water.

Controversy erupted after the company was found to have listed the water source as Jang bai shan instead of using the Korean name Mount Baekdusan. Critics called for a revocation of the contract, saying the two top stars should not be the faces of Chinese political propaganda.

Stretching out along the northeast border between the Korean Peninsula and China, the mountain rekindled tension in 2006 after Beijing sought UNESCO World Heritage status as part of the so-called Northeast Project.

The Joseon and Qing dynasties set the Yalu and Tumen Rivers as their border in 1913. Following independence in 1945, the newly established North Korea and China both claimed the peak of the highest mountain on the peninsula. China ultimately conceded more than half of the land.

Another source of contention is the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (B.C. 37- A.D. 668), located across what is now the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and southern Manchuria.

Through the Northeast Project, Beijing has argued the region was under its rule as a vassal state, a view dismissed by Seoul officials and academics as political justification for a claim to its old territory.

The Goguryeo Kingdom is a golden era in Korean history. Its military powerhouse vastly expanded Korea’s territory. Rich in culture, it churned out a raft of distinguished scholars and Buddhist saints. Korea’s modern name was also derived from it.

“We need to look at historical disputes and cultural exchanges as two different domains,” Hong of Ewha Womans University said.

“As a matter of history, the Northeast Project should be examined academically based on facts. But history may not be 100 percent objective, so there needs to be a venue to bring about agreement and promote mutual understanding.” 

By Sohn Ji-young, Kim Da-sol and Ha Ji-won