Bibimbap. (Getty Images Bank)
By Jun Bum-sun, lead singer of the Yangbans
The Korean Wave knows no limits. It has expanded from the pop culture of idol groups and drama series to lifestyle tips, such as Korean makeup and cooking. The most-Googled recipe in 2023 was bibimbap. South Korea is no longer just an economic powerhouse, it’s a cultural tour de force as well. So, what powers the Korean Wave?
The digital revolution was a key variable. South Korea is the most wired country in the world. Before Facebook conquered the world, Koreans were already using their own social network called Cyworld. Before Reddit and 4chan stirred controversy in the US, Korean users were saying politically incorrect things on forums like DC Inside and Ilbe Storehouse. Although Silicon Valley is at the cutting edge of digital innovation, South Korea is the front line of digital culture.
Because Koreans are the most connected, they are the first to experience both the benefits and evils of the digital revolution. Families and other real-life communities are collapsing, giving rise to tribalism in online communities. The Korean Wave is a phenomenon of the digital revolution. Cyber trends that occurred in Korea have simply spread to the outside world.
Industrial revolution innovations like the printing press and the steam engine came from Europe, but it was Americans who utilized those innovations to create a new civilization. The digital revolution is similar. Internet innovations have largely come from California’s Silicon Valley, yet it’s often been people in East Asia who have taken those innovations, such as blockchain technology, to create new cultures. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that South Korea, Taiwan and other East Asian countries were clearly at the forefront when it came to digital governance. “K-quarantine” — the country’s ability to control or contain COVID — and K-pop are proof that South Korea is a digital powerhouse.
The digital revolution is not the fourth industrial revolution. It’s the first digital revolution. The foundation of the Industrial Revolution was Gutenberg’s printing press. The ability to reproduce and distribute text en masse opened the door to the age of reason. The foundation of the digital revolution was Mark Zuckerberg’s iteration of social media. People started communicating using images and video, rather than words. Once virtual reality technology matures, people will only use their senses to communicate. This is the first major transition in communication since the development of the written word.
In a way, it’s a return to ancient times, a throwback to our primitive instincts. Digital nomads rule, just as nomadic civilizations conquered the plains. Tribal cultures based on song and dance are making a comeback. WiFi is telepathy, and Bluetooth is telekinesis. Magic is part of daily life. We have exited the age of reason, and are entering a new age of spirituality.
The origins of the Korean Wave lie in pungnyu, a deep thirst for and appreciation of the arts. Pungnyudo, literally “the way the wind flows,” is an indigenous philosophy that is distinct from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. As its name suggests, the philosophy emphasizes letting things flow naturally, like water and wind. Elite warriors during the Silla period known as Hwarang (literally “flowering knights”) were also known for their poetic and artistic prowess. They followed Pungnyudo thought, also referred to as Hwarangdo, Shinseondo, and Gukseondo. Ninth-century Korean poet and philosopher Choe Chi-won studied in Tang China, where he passed the civil imperial exam and made a name for himself as a poet and writer. After returning to Korea, he wrote, “Our country has an exquisite philosophy known as Pungnyu. It contains the lessons of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, and strives for harmony among all forms of life.”
The term “harmony” utilizes the Chinese character that means, “to come into contact with.” It’s a sensual, even sexual, word. In a sense, it can be tied to love. The word also utilizes a character that means, “the creation of all life on Earth.” It also signifies transformation or evolution. In other words, Choe’s version of “harmony” refers to an evolution toward love. A shared evolution with all living things. Pungnyudo strives to incorporate the lessons of all religions and promote harmony among all living things. The South Korea of today has not only incorporated Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, but also Christianity. It’s complete religious inclusivity. Korea is more Confucian than China, more Buddhist than India, and more Christian than America.
K-pop is essentially an imitation of American pop culture, which is essentially a mainstream, white-American appropriation of black-American culture. The forefathers of K-pop, Shin Joong-hyun and Cho Yong-pil, both got their start by performing for US soldiers. We needed to go through jazz, the blues, and rock ‘n’ roll before arriving at enka and trot. Analysts of US culture often debate as to whether America is a cultural melting pot or a salad bowl. A true melting pot incorporates all elements into a single entity, while in a salad bowl, they remain close but distinct.
Korean culture is bibimbap. What distinguishes bibimbap from a salad is the presence of gochujang, the critical pepper paste that binds everything together while allowing each ingredient to maintain its distinct nature — a new level of harmony. Bibimbap embodies Pungnyudo. It incorporates all ingredients in harmony.
The secret to the Korean Wave lies in bibimbap. K-pop has embraced Thai, Japanese and Chinese performers. It doesn’t matter if you attend church or mass or go to temples. Everyone harmonizes to evolve together. Just as Korea’s traditional pastes mature in clay pots, all the elements of K-pop mature and upgrade as one. Pungnyu represents the roots and the future of the Korean Wave. This is the only hope that will allow us to overcome our demographic decline and evolve into multiculturalism.
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