Cultural Identity

Cultural Identity

South Korea's homogeneous population shares a common ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. National self-image is, on one level, unambiguously defined by the convergence of territorial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities. Yet intense feelings of nationalism, so evident in athletic events like the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul, revealed anxiety as well as pride concerning South Korea's place in the world. More than Western peoples and even more than the Japanese, South Korean individuals are inclined to view themselves as a tightly knit national community with a common destiny. In a rapidly changing world, however, it is often difficult for them to define exactly what being a South Korean is. To outsiders, the intense concern with identity is perhaps difficult to understand; it reflects a history of subordinate relations to powerful foreign states and the tragedy of national division after World War II.

Many modernized, urban-dwelling South Koreans embark on a search for the "essence" of their culture, which commonly expresses itself as hostility to foreign influences. For example, the poet Kim Chi-ha, whose opposition to the Park regime in the 1970s was a model for a younger generation of dissidents, attacked the government as much for its neglect of traditional values as for its antidemocratic tendencies.

Seoul has not been slow to employ traditionalism for its own ends. In 1987 the government adopted guidelines for the revision of history textbooks instructing publishers to describe the foundation of the Korean nation by Tan'gun in 2333 B.C. as "a reflection of historical facts" rather than simply a myth. The legendary Tan'gun was, according to the myth, the son of god and a bear-woman. According to a Far Eastern Economic Review commentator, ". . . people ranging from reputable university scholars to chauvinist mystics regard Tan'gun as the personification of ethics and values that emphasize a native Korean identity against the foreign religions and philosophies of Buddhism, neo-Confucianism, Christianity and Marxism that have otherwise dominated Korean history and thought." Tangun's legendary kingdom is older than China's first legendary dynasty, the Xia (2205-1766 B.C.), and its antiquity asserts Korea's cultural autonomy in relation to its largest neighbor. There have been proposals that the government subsidize the rites of the numerically small community of believers in Taejonggyo and other cults that worship Tan'gun.

Problems of cultural identity are closely connected to the tragedy of Korea's division into two hostile states. Many members of the younger generation of South Koreans born after the Korean War fervently embrace the cause of t'ongil, or reunification, and believe that it is the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, who are to blame for Korea's national division. The South Korean government's dependence on the United States has been cited as one of the principal reasons for the lack of improvement in north-south ties. While a majority of South Koreans remains suspicious of the North Koreans, many South Koreans also share the sentiments expressed by Kim Chi-ha: "our name is division, and this soiled name, like an immovable destiny, oppresses all of us." When parts of the wall dividing East Berlin and West Berlin were knocked down in November 1989, Koreans reflected sadly that breaching the DMZ would not be such a simple task.

Korea and Japan

National or ethnic groups often need an "other," a group of outsiders against whom they can define themselves. While Western countries with their individualistic and, from a Confucian perspective, self-centered ways of life provide important images of "otherness" for South Koreans, the principal source of such images for many years has been Japan. Attitudes toward Japan as an "other" are complex. On the most basic level, there is hostility fed by memories of invasion and colonial oppression, present-day economic frictions, and the Japanese government's inability or unwillingness to do anything about discriminatory treatment of the large Korean minority in Japan. The two countries have a long history of hostility. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose armor-plated boats eventually defeated the Japanese navy's damaging attacks in the 1590s, was South Korea's most revered national hero.

The Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture's adoption in the 1980s of revised textbook guidelines, softening the language used to describe Japan's aggression during World War II, inspired outrage in South Korea as well as in other Asian countries. The textbook controversy was a major impetus for a national campaign to build an Independence Hall, located about 100 kilometers south of Seoul, to keep alive memories of Japanese colonial exploitation. Opened on August 15, 1987, the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan, the building houses grim exhibits depicting the atrocities of the Japanese military against Korean nationalists during the colonial period.

During the colonial period, and particularly during World War II, the Japanese initiated assimilation policies designed to turn Koreans into obedient subjects of the Japanese emperor. Under the slogan Nissen ittai (Japan and Korea as One), newspapers and magazines published in the Korean language were closed, the Korean Language Society was disbanded, and Korean writers were forced to publish only in Japanese. Students who spoke Korean in school were punished. There was pressure to speak Japanese at home, adopt Japanese family and given names, and worship at Shinto shrines, the religious basis for which had been transplanted from the home islands. Korean Christians who refused to show reverence to the emperor as a divinity were imprisoned or ostracized. In the words of historian Ki-baik Lee (called Yi Kibeck in Korean), "Japan's aim was to eradicate consciousness of Korean national identity, roots and all, and thus to obliterate the very existence of the Korean people from the face of the earth."

This shared historical experience has provoked not only hostility but also a desire to purge Korean culture of lingering Japanese influences. In the late 1980s, the government continued to prohibit the distribution of Japanese-made movies and popular music within the country in order to prevent unwanted contemporary influences from crossing the Korea Strait.

On a more polite level, depiction of Japan as the "other" involves contrasting the "essences" of the two countries' cultures. This process has spawned a popular literature that compares, among other things, the naturalness and "resonance" of Korean art and music and the alleged imitativeness and constriction of their Japanese counterparts; the "individualism" (of a non-Western sort) of Koreans and the "collectivism" or group consciousness of the Japanese; and the lyric contrast between the rose of Sharon, Korea's national flower, which blooms robustly all summer long, and the Japanese cherry blossom, which has the "beauty of frailty" in springtime.

The search for a cultural "essence" involves serious contradictions. The literature of Korean cultural distinction is strikingly similar to Japanese attempts to prove the "uniqueness" of their own cultural heritage, although "proof" of Japan's uniqueness is usually drawn from examples of Western countries (the significant "other" for modernized Japanese). Ironically, official and unofficial sponsorship of the Tangun myth, although a minor theme, bears an uncanny resemblance to pre World War II Japanese policies promoting historical interpretations of the nation's founding based on Shinto mythology.

Mixed in with feelings of hostility and competition, however, is genuine admiration for Japanese economic, technological, and social achievements. Japan has become an important market for South Korean manufactured products. Both countries have been targets of criticism by Western governments accusing them of unfair trading practices. Friendly interest in South Korea is growing among the Japanese public despite old prejudices, and large numbers of young Japanese and South Koreans visit each others' countries on school and college excursions. Like South Koreans, Japanese liberals have been disturbed by official attempts to revise wartime history.

The Korean Language

Modern Korean language is descended from the language of the Silla Kingdom, which unified the peninsula in the seventh century. As Korean linguist Yi Ki-mun notes, the more remote origins of the Korean language are disputed, although many Korean linguists together with a few western scholars, continue to favor the now widely-contested nineteenth-century theory of an Altaic family of languages supposed to include Korean, Japanese, and Mongolian, among other languages. Although a historical relationship between Korean and Japanese has not been established, modern Korean and Japanese have many similar grammatical features, no doubt in part due to close contacts between the two during the past century. These similarities have given rise to considerable speculation in the popular press. The linguist Kim Chin-wu, for example, has hypothesized that Korea and Japan stood at the end of two routes of large-scale migration in ancient times: a northern route from Inner Asia and southern route from southern China or Southeast Asia. In a variant on the "southern origins" theory of some Japanese scholars, he views the two languages as reflecting disparate "northern" and "southern" influences, with Korean showing more influence from the northern, Inner Asian strain.

Both Korean and Japanese possess what is sometimes called "polite" or "honorific" language, the use of different levels of speech in addressing persons of superior, inferior, or equal rank. These distinctions depend both on the use of different vocabulary and upon basic structural differences in the words employed. For example, in Korean the imperative "go" can be rendered kara when speaking to an inferior or a child, kage when speaking to an adult inferior, kaseyo when speaking to a superior, and kasipsio when speaking to a person of still higher rank. The proper use of polite language, or levels of polite speech, is an extremely complex and subtle matter. The Korean language, like Japanese, is extremely sensitive to the nuances of hierarchical human relationships. Two persons who meet for the first time are expected to use the more distant or formal terms, but they will shift to more informal or "equal" terms if they become friends. Younger people invariably use formal language in addressing elders; the latter will use "inferior" terms in "talking down" to those who are younger.

The Korean language may be written using a mixture of Chinese ideograms (hancha) and a native Korean alphabet known as han'gul, or in han'gul alone, much as in a more limited way Indo-European languages sometimes write numbers using Arabic symbols and at other times spell numbers out in their own alphabets or in some combination of the two forms. Han'gul was invented by scholars at the court of King Sejong (1418-50), not solely to promote literacy among the common people as is sometimes claimed, but also, as Professor Gari K. Ledyard has noted, to assist in studies of Chinese historical phonology. According to a perhaps apocryphal decree of the king, an intelligent man could learn han'gul in a morning's time, while even a fool could master it in ten days. As a result, it was scorned by scholars and relegated to women and merchants. The script, which in its modern form contains forty symbols, is considered by linguists to be one of the most scientific ever devised; it reflects quite consistently the phonemes of the spoken Korean language.

Because of its greater variety of sounds, Korean does not have the problem of the Japanese written language, which some experts have argued needs to retain a sizable inventory of Chinese characters to distinguish a large number of potentially ambiguous homophones. Since 1948 the continued use of Chinese characters in South Korea has been criticized by linguistic nationalists and some educators and defended by cultural conservatives, who fear that the loss of character literacy could cut younger generations off from a major part of their cultural heritage. Since the early 1970s, Seoul's policy governing the teaching and use of Chinese characters has shifted several times, although the trend clearly has been toward writing in han'gul alone. By early 1990, all but academic writing used far fewer Chinese characters than was the case in the 1960s. In 1989 the Korean Language and Education Research Association, citing the need for Chinese character literacy "at a time when the nation is entering into keen competition with Japan and China" and noting that Japanese educators were increasing the number of Chinese characters taught in elementary schools, recommended to the Ministry of Education that instruction in Chinese characters be reintroduced at the primary-school level.

Although the Korean and Chinese languages are not related in terms of grammatical structure, more than 50 percent of all Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese loanwords, a reflection of the cultural dominance of China over 2 millennia. In many cases there are two words--a Chinese loanword and an indigenous Korean word--meaning the same thing. The Chinese-based word in Korean sometimes has a bookish or formal flavor. Koreans select one or the other variant to achieve the proper register in speech or in writing, and to make subtle distinctions of meaning in accordance with established usage.

Large numbers of Chinese character compounds coined in Japan in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries to translate modern Western scientific, technical, and political vocabulary came into use in Korea during the colonial period. Post-1945 United States influence has been reflected in a number of English words that have been absorbed into Korean.

Unlike Chinese, Korean does not encompass dialects that are mutually unintelligible, with the possible exception of the variant spoken on Cheju Island. There are, however, regional variations both in vocabulary and pronunciation, the range being comparable to the differences that might be found between Maine and Alabama in the United States. Despite several decades of universal education, similar variations also have been heard between highly educated and professional speakers and Koreans of working class or rural backgrounds. Standard Korean is derived from the language spoken in and around Seoul. More than forty years of division has meant that there are also some divergences in the development of the Korean language north and south of the DMZ.

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