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[Kim Seong-kon] Struggling to identifying Korea’s cultural icons

The other day, Park Min-kwon, the vice minister of culture, sports and tourism, asked me if I could think of cultural icons that could represent Korea. I found his question timely and compelling because, unlike her neighbors that boast a panoply of charming cultural icons, Korea suffers from a dearth of memorable symbolic images. Japan has samurai, ninja, geisha, kabuki and sushi to its name, while China lays claim to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, kung fu and Chinese cuisine. When it comes to Korea, however, few icons come to mind despite its rich cultural heritage. 

As I mulled over the matter, I realized identifying suitable cultural icons for Korea was no easy task. The problem was that many potential candidates were either too similar to or overlapped with Chinese and Japanese icons. They are different in essence but they look alike to outsiders. Can foreigners unfamiliar with East Asia distinguish Korean ssireum from Japanese sumo, or Korean taekwondo from Japanese karate? How many foreigners can tell apart Korean and Chinese temples or Korean and Chinese musical instruments?

I asked my colleagues and friends for suggestions. They kindly sent me a long list of suggestions, yet I found only a few could truly be called cultural icons unique to Korea. The list included Korean cuisines such as bibimbap, galbi and bulgogi. Someone suggested namul, which is also uniquely Korean. Koreans eat a variety of edible plants seasoned with sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic, which makes for fine health food.

Another Korean cultural item radically different from its Chinese or Japanese counterparts is hanbok, the traditional Korean costume. Indeed, hanbok could be a cultural icon that can represent Korea because it exemplifies the core of Korean culture. In his celebrated book, “In This Earth, in That Wind,” Lee O-young, the Inaugural Minister of Culture, points out that the traditional Korean women’s dress is designed after a butterfly’s or a dragonfly’s wings, so it is very comfortable when dancing. The long ribbons are also designed to flutter when the woman dances. Lee quips that the hanbok embodies a Korean woman’s clandestine wish to fly away from her tyrannical husband and mother-in-law, and from her household burdens.   

I decided to discuss this with Lee O-young to benefit from his insight and wisdom. As I expected, Lee came up with some brilliant ideas. With reference to the South African term ubuntu, which means “human kindness” or “humanity toward others,” Lee suggested a Korean word gobong as an equivalent term. Traditionally in Korea, when you buy rice, beans or candy, you expect the store owner to give you a generous amount, well above the standard measure. When a mother serves a bowl of rice for her family at mealtime, she is also supposed to overload the bowl so it looks like a lofty hill. This is what Koreans called gobong. It reflects the well-known Korean sentiment called jeong as well.                    

Lee suggested another potential cultural icon: the honorific “nim.” Unlike other honorific titles, nim can be used for everybody from a king to a housemaid. When my turn comes at a clinic, the receptionist always calls me “Kim Seong-kon nim!” On the mailing address label, I almost always see my name written as Kim Seong-kon nim. Koreans call their teachers seonsaeng nim, parents bumo nim and their friends beot nim. Even social network users address each other as nim.

Lee also suggested “chin-gu ya!” (“Hey, my friend!” or “We are friends!”) as another fine cultural icon that can reflect the Korean sentiment of valuing friendships. He said, “It would be a good idea to name a volunteers group going abroad to help underdeveloped countries ‘chin gu ya!’ Then we can spread the Korean spirit of friendship and humanity all over the world.”

Another promising candidate is hwarangdo, a Korean equivalent of Japanese bushido (way of warriors). The concept of seonbi, or virtuous scholar, can also be put up as a fine counterpart to the Japanese samurai. But while it undeniably represents the social milieu of the Joseon Dynasty that respected scholars and learning, the problem is that antecedents to seonbi can be traced to Confucian philosophy, which again has its origins in China. It is the same with seowon (privately run Confucian schools) and hyanggyo (government-run local Confucian schools) where the seonbi studied. Another problem is that despite its undeniable merits, the seonbi culture had some serious side effects such as chronic factional brawls, stagnant economic development and the negligence of national defense. Some people recommended pansori, madang geuk (traditional open air theater) and talchum (masked dance) as other possible Korean cultural icons.

It is extremely important that we find cultural icons that can captivate and inspire foreigners. We have Samsung, LG and Hyundai, but they are technological, industrial icons, not cultural ones. When we can have unique, outstanding cultural icons, the image of Korea will be greatly enhanced.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. -- Ed.