Noonsong recently saw a famous Chinese YouTuber add the hashtag 'Chinese cuisine' to a video of making Kimchi, claiming Kimchi which is a traditional Korean food was Chinese in origin. She also noticed that China is laying claim to Korean traditional clothing. That is, China has announced that Hanbok was actually Ming Dynasty attire. Moreover, there have been other attempts to call Korean people such as Poet Yoon Dongju and Yoon Bonggil, an independent activist, as being of Chinese heritage on the Chinese encyclopedia site Baidu. Expressing her anger at the tyranny of China, Noonsong has begun to actively participate in campaigns to preserve Korean culture.
The beginning of the controversy
'Northeast Project' refers to a project founded by the Chinese government to study the history and culture of the Northeast area of the nation in order to incorporate all the history within the Chinese border. The project was carried out in earnest from February 2002 with official approval from the Chinese government after discussion and preparation for the study from 2001. Through the project, China aimed to unite its minority groups and create a single-race nation, thereby achieving political stability in the nation. However, there is one big problem with the study. The study includes Korean history in the Chinese project. Goguryeo and Balhae are dynasties that once occupied parts of the current Chinese territory. In other words, China attempted to incorporate Goguryeo and Balhae into Chinese history. China also claimed that Goguryeo and Balhae were Chinese dynasties in order to secure the legitimacy of their historical integration. In 2006, the South Korean government responded by launching the 'Northeast Asian History Foundation' sponsored by the Ministry of Education to correct distorted history. Nonetheless, China is insisting on its claim. In the end, the project expanded beyond historical conflict between South Korea and China up to the level of diplomatic issues. Although the situation slowed for a while after China ended the study in 2007, China has yet to recognize the history of South Korea's two dynasties, describing Goguryeo and Balhae as Chinese dynasties in their history textbooks.
In addition to distorting history, China is now pushing forward the 'Culture Research Project' that claims Korean culture is actually Chinese culture. The 'Culture Research Project' was started as an attempt to subjugate Korean culture into Chinese culture. The project began in 2016 when Wang Wei, chair of the archaeology board of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, "I want the 'Chinese Civilization Propagation Project' to become a global scale initiative."1) Since then, distortion of Korean culture began in earnest as the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China officially announced its 'Transmission Development Project.' The Chinese Civilization Propagation Project is expected to start by 2025, and China actively promotes it using dramas, cartoons, and TV shows. A research team from Oxford University released a report on China's propaganda activities in an interview with JTBC. The research team said the Communist Party of China is conducting a propagation project using official news agencies, diplomatic missions, influential SNS users, and commentary units.
Distortion of Korean culture in the media
China hopes to stimulate public opinion among its younger generation through various media such as SNS and YouTube and make sure Korean culture is subjugated into Chinese culture. An example of this propaganda activity is the controversy raised by famous Chinese YouTuber 'Liziqi.' In January, Liziqi posted a kimchi-making video on her YouTube channel with descriptions of kimchi and made comments on that video that kimchi is Chinese food. Like this example, there is systematic cooperation between the Chinese government and individuals or organizations to manipulate public opinion around the world by spreading false information quickly on social media.2) Because China's 'Culture Research Project' is performed through the media, which can be accessed around the world, distorted information spreads quickly. Most other nations know little about Korean culture, and as such are likely to accept this information as being true.
China's activities have been causing a huge stir in Korean society since late 2020, especially with the 'Culture Research Project' announcing on the Internet the release of Hanbok items on a gaming platform. In October of last year, the Chinese game company 'PaperGames' officially launched a styling mobile game called 'Shining Nikki' in Korea. To commemorate its launch on the Korean server, Hanbok clothing items were added to the game with the explanation that they are traditional Korean costumes. However, Chinese users protested strongly. They claimed that Chinese traditional clothes were being described as Korean clothing. Controversy ensued, so PaperGames deleted the Hanbok items from the Korean server and offered an apology. A week after launching the game in Korea, the company announced it would terminate the service on its official fan café, 'Shining Nikki.' Along with the announcement the company said, "Some Korean users are continuing to racially insult China. Their actions pushed us to the limit of patience."3) In response, Korean service users expressed more perplexity about the termination of the game service and the unreasonable claims made by the game company. Even after the controversy, China is claiming that Korean cultural items such as Kimchi, Taekwondo, and Samgyetang are all Chinese in origin on various media and through other methods. During the heightened anti-Chinese sentiment among Koreans, the SBS drama <Joseon Exorcist> once again came to the forefront of controversy along with the 'Culture Research Project' in March. <Joseon Exorcist> was a historical drama set in the Joseon Dynasty, but after airing the first episode on March 22, people pointed out that Chinese food was being served at the banquet table where Joseon's Prince Chungnyeong welcomed an exorcist from the Western China border. Moreover, the Joseon female exorcist was dressed in Chinese apparel. Other problems with the drama included the stretching of the truth regarding the descriptions of real historical figures. Viewers demanded the drama halt production and kept criticizing the drama. In response to viewers' uproar, the production company of <Joseon Exorcist> apologized for their fault and removed problematic parts, but a national petition was posted on the CheongWaDae board on March 24 calling for its complete cancellation. It said, "We demand the immediate suspension of the drama <Joseon Exorcist>." Within just two days after it was uploaded, it gathered roughly 200,000 people. In the end, SBS stopped airing. However, even after its cancellation, controversy continued as many people said that the drama provided an excuse to spread the Chinese project.
Each nation's stance and action
In the midst of all the controversy, China has remained defiant, and this attitude has angered Koreans even more. For example, The Central Political and Legal Affair Commission of the Communist Party of China said, "The controversy over Kimchi is mere paranoia among Koreans who lack cultural confidence. Kimchi is a piece of China's five-thousand-year history." Xing Haiming, the Chinese Ambassador to South Korea, has also said, "China is made up of 56 ethnic groups including ethnic Koreans living in China. Rather than discussing Kimchi, it is better to consider Kimchi an element of the bond between the two countries." Xing's comment is implying that Korean culture is part of Chinese culture. Because the Chinese government agencies have actively pursued these falsehoods and proceeded with the Culture Research Project, Chinese citizens have become radicalized, and their belief grew strong. This has driven many Koreans to seek ways to counter China's false claims. VANK, a cyber-diplomatic mission, has sent letters of protest to Google, demanding the error of labelling the origin of Kimchi as being from China be rectified to show it is Korean. Also, VANK is campaigning to promote the use of Korean proper nouns such as Taekwondo and Ondol overseas. In addition, the national fashion brand LAKAI KOREA shared a post on April 1, highlighting Malatang as a unique Korean dish in order to show the illogicalness of China's distortion of history.4) Besides the actions of these groups, other individuals have voiced the abolishment of a Chinatown construction in Gangwon Province. Kolon Global Crop., the project contractor, intends to build a Korea-China Culture Town in the province in order to attract more tourists to the area. On March 29, a petition against the project was uploaded onto the CheongWaDae board, and it has so far gotten 670,000 signatures. Overall, people in Korea are growing more and more concerned and voicing anger at the Northeast Project, and many people want the project stopped to protect our own culture. Due to unrest in society, the project has been stopped and is under review. And the case shows how people's actions can influence change.
While there are some notable moves to protect our culture, critics pointed out that the Korean government's response is insufficient. A national stand is needed to take on China's Northeast Project, but the Korean government has only taken a passive attitude, and the attitude is criticized as being even more indifferent than in the past. In 2006 and 2007, the government launched the Northeast Asian History Foundation in preparation for China's Northeast Project and made demands that incorrectness be amended. In 2007, China officially declared an end to the Northeast Project in response to the Korean government's actions. However, as the recent cases show, the Northeast Project is continuing in a more subtle and extensive way. The Korean government needs to develop a long-term and systematic response strategy. Park Kitae, CEO of VANK, claims the government is not actively responding to the current situation. He said, "Unlike the issue right now with Japan, the government seems complacent about the current situation with China. Koreans are suffering, so the government must be alert to the damages and show the will of the nation." Park's argument underlines the seriousness of the current situation and the need for governmental countermeasures. Seo Kyoungduk, a professor of Sungshin Women's University, has also criticized the government for not initiating any countermeasures to China's Northeast Project by saying, "The Korean government should clearly pin down the wrong claims and face them head on."5) These comments show that the Korean government must directly intervene in the situation and effectively deliver its nation's position on China's Northeast Project.
Call to action
Culture is formed over a long period of time in a society and is used as a means of representing a nation's lifestyle. In other words, culture represents a society's identity, so it is important to protect that unique culture. However, China continues to invade Korean culture and its territory, and that seriousness is growing day by day. In order to protect Korean culture, society should not merely get upset at China's behavior, but everyone in society needs to actively work as a single unit.
1) Kang Shinwho, "China's Kimchi and Hanbok Provocation…There Is a Propagation Project", JTBC News, February 7, 2020
2) Same as 1
3) Oh Kyeongmuk, ""Hanbok Is Chinese Clothes," Shining Nikki, a Chinese Game, Closes Korean Version", Chosun Ilbo, November 6, 2020
4) Lee Sunmyung, "LAKAI KOREA Said "Malatang Is Korean Traditional Food"", The Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 1, 2021
5) Shin Dahyun, ""Is Paocai the Same Thing As Kimchi?"…Our Movement Against China's Northeast Project", Yonhapnews, February 20, 2021
Choi Song Bojeong / Culture Section Editor
Park Sung Iyoung / Cub Reporter