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A hidden thorn in the China-South Korea relationship
Why do netizens of the two countries seem to hate each other?
In the complicated world of NE Asia geopolitics, China-South Korea ties can be counted as among the more stable ones in recent years. Or so it seems, at least.
Despite temporary tensions incited by the installation of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system in 2016, Beijing and Seoul have so far managed to resolve disputes, navigate their relations out of whirling vortexes and keep them at, as described by some Chinese citizens, a “not-bad” level.
Steering clear of drama and bad blood has been lucrative for both sides. Official data shows that China is now South Korea’s largest trading partner, largest export market, and largest source of imports. And the two countries also share common interests and similar positions on the Korean peninsula nuclear issue.
But under the smooth surface lies a more ominous undercurrent. Netizens from both countries are demonstrating unveiled hostility toward each other in online forums, a rather perplexing phenomenon for China watchers, who should remember that it was only until fairly recently when the Chinese public happily gobbled up S. Korean pop culture, from its idols, TV dramas to entertainment shows.
So what is exactly going on here and how should the feuds be understood? This newsletter takes a look.
Beijing and Seoul have enjoyed an amicable relationship in recent years, with leaders of both countries exchanging pleasant phone called on many occasions.
But the air of friendliness has largely failed to transcend into social media, where fiery spats frequently erupt. The subjects often fall under a common theme, namely which country should be regarded as the real origin of a certain cultural heritage. The disputed subjects can be food, clothing, or a holiday. For two cultures as intertwined as the Chinese and Korean, both sides seem to be able to raise evidence that supports their position.
Last month, Chinese food vlogger Li Ziqi released a video on YouTube of herself making 泡菜 (Paocai)，or pickled vegetables, reigniting a prolonged cultural quarrel between Chinese and South Korean netizens over the origin of pickled vegetables, which the Koreans call Kimchi.
Some South Koreans commented on the video by saying that Kimchi is an indigenous South Korean dish and blaming the Chinese for "stealing" the culture and tradition. Not surprisingly, Chinese netizens responded with criticism and mockery, saying pickle-making is a tradition dating back to about 3,000 years ago in China, much longer than the history of Korean Kimchi.
Below is a summary of some of the other recent battles.
·In October 2020, Korean pop group BTS angered Chinese netizens when it commented that it will always “remember the loss South Korea and the United States sustained during the Korean War”. China and the DPRK fought South Korea and the U.S-led UN coalition to a stalemate in the Korean War, which China officially calls the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea”. Memory of the war still incites strong emotions among Chinese, and BTS’ comments resulted in many of BTS’s Chinese fans turning against the group.
·In November 2020, Chinese actor Xu Kai posted a photo on Weibo showing him wearing a traditional costume that resembles Korean Hanbok, Criticism soon flooded in from some Korean internet users, saying that the costume design was stolen from Korean culture.
In response, Yu Zheng, a famous Chinese scriptwriter, reposted the photo and said: “This is definitely Hanfu （汉服）of the Ming Dynasty, and it cannot be described as Hanbok” just because it was adopted in ancient Korea, which shared a close relationship with the Ming Dynasty.
·Also in November, Chinese comic book artist Old Xian (@Old先) posted on Weibo a drawing of four characters dressed in traditional clothing. Many South Korean netizens commented beneath the post, saying that some of the clothing in the painting was from ancient Korea and asked the painter to give a clear indication of their origin.
·In December, a China-led application to the International Organization for Standardization for Paocai, the Chinese name for pickled vegetables, also started a feud. South Korean netizens accused China of attempting to "steal the culture" from South Korea.
·In January, Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun posted on Twitter two photos of him holding large platters of “Kimchi”, a popular dish in NE China, which also drew a multitude of South Korean netizens’ complaints and criticism.
Authorities of the two countries appear to be more than willing to downplay those cultural discords, but the online bickering has been drawing greater attention, especially after being amplified by academia and media.
In January, Seo Kyoung-duk, a professor at Sungshin University in Seoul placed an advertisement for Kimchi in The New York Times, promoting it as a purely Korean culinary offering, which, as The South China Morning Post commented, “took the row over which country invented Kimchi to a new level.”
“Chinese online influencers, state-controlled news media, government officials ... are going all-out in their efforts to commandeer Kimchi as something Chinese,” Seo said in an interview.
While in China, officials and experts responded to the controversies among netizens in a more rational tone. The Kimchi clash reflects that the two countries have cultural and culinary ties for thousands of years, an expert was quoted as saying by China’s Global Times, who also pointed out that cultural traditions are often geographically linked and can be older than countries or nation states.
Other subjects fought over included the Dragon boat festival. After South Korea successfully campaigned for its Gangneung Danoje（江陵端午祭）to become part of South Korea's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005, the Chinese public was outraged as it was thought that South Korea had claimed China’s dragon boat festival (端午节) as its own tradition, due to the two traditions sharing the characters 端午 in their names. Chinese media later clarified that the Korean Gangneung Danoje was in fact different from the Chines festival though the two may have come from similar roots.
Though the fight over the Dragon Boat Festival has ended, the anguish stayed alive in the Chinese public memory, and the suspicion against South Korea lingered on.
Over the years, the cultural wars have accumulated great disdain for each other in internet forums of the two countries. For the sake of not stirring anything up, your host will not include any of the traded insults in this newsletter, let’s just say it is not a pretty scene.
【2】Why did it happen & what did it mean for the two countries?
Historically, China and ancient Korea are bound together by a shared history, an overlap in cuisine, religion, a common language script, and legal systems. The kinship ties reach back thousands of years, especially during China’s Song and Ming Dynasties when ancient Korea would send envoys to ancient China and vice versa.
Entering the modern era, both countries also share the painful memory of Japanese aggression, which have devastated and fostered strong nationalism sentiment in both countries.
The shared history and culture means that both sides inherited some highly similar traditions and culture, particularly between the Koreans and China’s Northeastern region. In light of this, any efforts in trying to peel off the other side from a shared tradition are bound to be met with a strong rebuke.
From a purely Chinese perspective, South Korea is to be blamed for the disputes. Li Yangfan, an associate professor at Peking University, said
South Korea would choose its narrative, scrub foreign elements to highlight the dominance of the Korean nation.
But in your host’s opinion, there are other factors at play.
First, the wound left by the deployment of THAAD is still bleeding. The deployment of the weapon, and China’s subsequent punishment of South Korea, have left people of the two countries embittered. For the Chinese side, Seoul’s decision amounted to an invitation of U.S. influence expansion in NE Asia that gives access to monitor China up close. For South Koreans, many felt that a move for the purpose of self-protection did not deserve such harsh retribution from Beijing.
Second, while South Korea has always been known to have high nationalism sentiments, China has seen a rise in nationalism in recent years. This has intensified online clashes. Adding to the fire is the two countries’ frequent interactions throughout history. For SOME Chinese, they view South Korea as a vassal state to the Chinese empire, recalling the time when Ming Dynasty rushed to Korea’s aid during Japanese aggression. While for SOME Koreans, they hold the view that Confucius culture was better preserved in Korea, due to the turmoils China went through after Ming Dynasty. This dynamic provided both sides with a sense of legitimacy in claiming to be the true heir-for lack of a better word-of certain traditions that were shared by both sides.
Whatever the reasons, the poisonous atmosphere may complicate the bilateral relationship despite official efforts to keep such barbs out of the spotlight.
Animosity between the two countries can be costly. After the THAAD saga, anti-South-Korea sentiment was so strong in China that many South Korean brands, including Samsung and Lotte, have been boycotted. Now, Samsung cellphones have all but disappeared from the Chinese market, with anti-Korean sentiment undoubtedly playing a role, if not a deciding one.
If unchecked, the current trend may materialize into something ugly once again. In a post your host recently viewed on Douban, a popular Chinese social media platform, a blogger claimed to have scolded a shop owner for advertising a hotpot as “suitable for Korean-style hotpot.”
The blogger accused the shop owner of forfeiting the cuisine to South Korea and called on other netizens to persuade shop owners to take off “Korean-style“ labeling on their advertisements. The blogger was not along in expressing this opinion.
That said, Chinese social media’s opinion on South Korea is not entirely negative. After several sex offense cases triggered large pro-women’s right protests in South Korea, Chinese web users showed strong support for the cause.
In fact, the reason that there’s strong opinion against each other is testament to the vibrant ties in trade and entertainment sectors between the two countries, and shared memories during segments of history.
This newsletter is penned by Zhao Wencai, a contributor to Beijing Channel, and edited by Yang Liu