[Editorial] China should know why Koreans are upset over hanbok at Olympics show

Posted on : 2022-02-07 16:55 KST Modified on : 2022-02-07 16:55 KST
The recent furor is closely related to the burgeoning anti-Chinese sentiment of late
An ethnically Korean Chinese participant dressed in a hanbok waves her hand to the crowd during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, held at the National Stadium on Friday evening. (Yonhap News)
An ethnically Korean Chinese participant dressed in a hanbok waves her hand to the crowd during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, held at the National Stadium on Friday evening. (Yonhap News)

A furor has erupted after a woman appeared dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok outfit at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium on Friday evening.

As participants representing China’s 56 ethnic groups carried along the Chinese flag, one of the women was seen wearing a white jeogori top and pink skirt. She was representing ethnic Koreans living in China, but internet users were up in arms over what they called the “hanbok project” — likening the woman’s appearance to the “Northeast Project” on the frontiers of northeastern China.

The controversy only escalated as politicians joined the fray. Democratic Party presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung called on the Chinese government to “respond to concerns that it is co-opting a time of festivities to use as part of a ‘cultural project.’” People Power Party nominee Yoon Suk-yeol noted the importance of Goguryeo and Balhae as representing the “proud and dazzling history of the Republic of Korea.”

Minor opposition People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo said, “The hanbok is Korean culture. To the authorities in China, I say this: it is ‘hanbok,’ not ‘hanfu’” — a reference to the names of Korean and Chinese traditional garments.

Out of a population of 1.4 billion people, China is home to 55 non-Han Chinese ethnic minorities numbering a combined 120 million.

It could be seen as a proud moment for an ethnically Korean participant to appear in hanbok, like the other participants who took part in the ceremony dressed in clothing representing their own heritage.

Before the ceremony, a video shown on an electronic display featured not only hanbok but also other practices associated with ethnic Koreans, including kimchi-making, the board game yut, and the ganggangsullae circle dance. In that sense, the use of hanbok could be seen as simply meant to share Korean culture, rather than having some underlying political aim.

Also, the fact that hanbok was featured in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics doesn’t change the globally recognized fact that the hanbok is Korean culture. There’s also an element here of politicians playing up the controversy ahead of the election.

At the same time, it’s also apparent that this controversy isn’t something we can just ignore. The hanbok furor is unfolding against a backdrop of suspicion that China, which has already been pushing a historical claim on Goguryeo and Balhae through its Northeast Project, is now attempting to distort history when it comes to culture as well.

Prominent examples of this include assertions on Baidu, China’s biggest portal site, claiming that hanbok came from the Chinese “hanfu” and that kimchi originated from the Chinese pickle dish pao cai.

China should be aware that this kind of high-handed approach is only succeeding in provoking anti-Chinese sentiment in Korea, especially among the younger generations.

When a dance company from Yanbian in China’s Jilin Province, gave a fan and drum dance performance in hanboks at a pre-opening ceremony element for the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, it didn’t spark any controversy. That shows how closely the hanbok furor ties in with the burgeoning anti-Chinese sentiment of late.

Following a meeting Saturday with Li Zhanshu, chairperson of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, South Korean National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug said on Sunday that he had “shared a position on the controversy and concerns currently unfolding in Korea,” to which Li replied that he would “relay [that position] to the relevant departments and instruct them to take Korea’s notice into consideration.” Hopefully, Li’s response was not just lip service.

The same day, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was “continuing to communicate to China the need to promote understanding based on respect for our culture and on cultural diversity,” and that it planned to “continue making such efforts.”

We need to continue developing neighborly relations with China, but we also need to be willing to stand up against attempts to distort history. China should bear in mind that by trying to avoid unpleasantness at the present moment, it could be leaving anti-Chinese sentiments to grow until they eventually become an impediment to bilateral relations.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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