Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Koreans USE Arirang... but OWN It?: Part Three: It's Not Just Genealogies, and What do you Mean by Korean?

This is a several-part response to The Korean's post about Korea's ownership of Arirang. The Korean's post was a response to my post in June, stating provocatively that Nobody Owns Arirang.
Part one of this series.
Part two of this series.

Who can Identify with Arirang... or any Part of Korean Culture?

The Korean started his post off with an impressive story about seeing his name in the volumes of his family history. That's cool. I had a student who told me how his father ran back into his family's burning house, as the North Korean soldiers approached, in order to rescue his family history.  That's impressive too. I had a nine year old kid tell me he was the 28th generation firstborn son in his family tree. Sweetness. But you know what? My grandfather came to Canada with almost nothing, after the Nazi war machine boot-fucked his country so badly that there was nothing for him there, and the Dutch government, unable to provide a job for him (a former civil servant) in the devastated country, sponsored his emigration. When he got to Canada, he found a community of other immigrants who welcomed him, and helped him set up and provide for his five kids, his kids got free public education, and every one of them made it through university, too, and my grandfather literally worked himself to death to get his family established in Canada. And that's impressive too, even if it doesn't take two shelves of old volumes to tell that story.

Other commenters have taken The Korean to task for what they see as him privileging his type of identification with his origins over the ways other countries/heritages/individuals identify with their origins. They are correct, and pooh-poohing my methods of connecting with my heritage and my community because they don't include 2000-year-old books is just as short-sighted as as pooh-poohing those who turn to genealogies for their sense of connection, because long lists of dead guys don't mean anything to anyone but others whose names are in that book. (see Yujin Is Huge for more on that)

And who can say that the swell of pride some Americans feel when they gaze upon the image above, is stronger, or weaker, than the swell of pride The Korean feels to look upon a bookshelf and think "that's my genealogy"? How the hell do we measure that?

Rather, I'd say we're back in the realm of arbitrarily drawn lines: why should history and ancientness matter more than powerful symbols, homeland geography, or family tribulations? Of course somebody with an old history's going to say that matters the most. And people who mine their identity along another vein would say THAT measure is the most valid.  Duh. "This is who I am" is a handle most people grip tightly, once they find it. Some people grip funny things for their handle, but once they grip it, they hold on tight.

While the artifacts or stories that help us create are identities are not always as old as The Korean's, the connections they make and represent are no less meaningful to us. 


genealogies are no longer the only way to feel a connection with Korean culture and heritage. As Korean culture becomes popular outside Korea, and as more non-Koreans make their home in Korea, non-ethnic Koreans are identifying themselves with Korean culture, both at a deep level of engagement, and in far greater numbers than ever before. One of my friends is a blonde-haired blue-eyed young woman who spoke Korean before she even came here, and now works in a Korean company, and has reached near fluent proficiency. Another person I know doesn't look like a Korean at all, but he has fathered Korean citizens, and lived in Korea longer than many of my students have been alive. A blog connection of mine has never visited Korea, but has taught herself to speak Korean by watching Korean dramas. 

In another direction, Koreans are using more, and more diverse aspects of what can be found in Korea to identify their Koreanness than ever before. When women's issues are urgent and rape culture remains rife in Korea, who dares tell the women who organized SlutWalk Korea that it's not relevant to Korea, that their effort to find a voice is not appropriate for Korea (as a journalist implied by asking me if a Slutwalk is appropriate for Korea)? Look at how differently the Korean political Left and the Korean political Right define their nation (a controversy that spills over into history textbooks). There are people who celebrate their Koreanness at StarCraft tournaments as well as Pansori performances, some who do by thanking US soldiers for their predecessors serving in the Korean War, and others by chanting "Yankee Go Home" until they're hoarse. Some young people would say that eating brunch and buying brand-name accessories are the most Korean thing you could possibly do... and really, no doubt historians could find historical precedents for such trend-following and ostentation in old timey Yangbanland as well.

The Korean makes a good point though - one I really like - that while Koreans do use these things to aid their identification with Korea, connection between bits of culture are also accretive (they grow through gradual addition over time) -- that is, generations of Koreans, in significant numbers, over a very long time, choosing the same things as representative of Korean culture, give them a deeper, stronger link with Korean culture than other aspects that are newer, or chosen as identifying reference points for smaller numbers. If (as I said in the last post) culture is like an ecosystem, then these things would be like the groundwater level, the climate, the tree density, and the terrain of the ecosystem: not absolutely unchangable, but more fundamental, and harder to uproot or change, than less fundamental, fixed things, like "rabbit reproduction rate."

I won't argue that, except to add that even those things that have been chosen by many people, over numerous generations, can still undergo radical changes, in order to continue to suit the changing needs of new generations. Arirang has, at different times, according to my background reading (yep, I looked up some scholarship on the history of Arirang for this), included songs satirizing the corrupt Yangban, songs of resistance against invading and oppressive forces, as well as the ever-present "nostalgic love song" motif. Kimchi and a lot of other foods have gotten a lot spicier recently, and all those battered deep-fried Korean street-foods everybody loves, and identifies as Korean food, didn't come about until after the war, when UN Food Aid came in the form of flour, and Koreans didn't know what to do with flour, so they started battering and deep-frying local vegetables like sweet potatoes and peppers.

Cultures are much less fixed than we think they are, and this is one of the problematic things about nationalism: it tends to take relatively recent developments or definitions, and imagine them as having origins much more ancient than they really are. (one example of a recent idea projected backwards by its followers: Rapture theology) Nationalism also tries to tie cultural practices to national borders, when national borders, as they exist now, are extremely recent developments, and for most of the history of these very old things, they existed in regions, not countries, and spread around freely. It wasn't until the  1900s that humans had the technology or the desire to establish, and guard national borders the way they're guarded now, with stamps in passports and border guards and tariffs and records of what comes in and goes out.

What do you mean by "Korea" anyway?

This seems to be a very common problem in discussions about Korea and Korean culture: many, many who discuss Korean culture etc. fail to distinguish whether they are talking about Korea the political entity (The Republic of Korea) or Korea the culture, or Korea the ethnic group.

As this Youtube Video about the differences between Britain, The UK, The British Isles, The Commonwealth, and The Crown demonstrate, clarity on just what one means, is helpful.


I would absolutely agree that Arirang is connected inextricably with Korean culture. And through that, maybe also with the Korean ethnic group.

But to say Arirang belongs to Korea, we have to ask:

Which meaning of Korean do you mean?

And here 's the sticking point. When The Korean says "Arirang is Korean. Period," (At least in English... I haven't looked into how it shakes out in Korean) here are the people who stand up and shout "Hell, yes!" each with different understandings of what "Korean" means:

  • A South Korean who sings Arirangs that are mostly sad love songs.
  • A North Korean who knows a few versions of Arirang with "Down with USA" themes.
  • A Chinese-Korean.
  • A Japanese-Korean
  • A Kyopo from a Koreatown somewhere in Europe or America (who sings a version that was translated into English, French, German, or Norwegian)
  • A linguist who thinks the word "Korean" refers to the language.
  • An anthropologist who thinks the word "Korean" means "somehow at least vaguely associated with the Korean ethnic group of Northeast China and the Korean Peninsula"
  • A geologist who hasn't looked into it yet, and thinks Arirang is a kind of rock that can only be found on the Korean peninsula. Maybe that special lava rock from Jeju Island...

 And even though it seems pedantic, that's why scholars spend so much time arguing over how one defines words.

Let's go back to the scholar Benedict Anderson, "Imagined Communities" - one of the foundational studies in nationalism and national communities - who describes a nation as "an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."

  • A nation is imagined - it doesn't exist until a group of people agree that the things they have in common make them unique. Admit it: national borders are imaginary lines.
  • A nation is a community - it requires a group of people who have come together, and who agree to conceive of themselves as a new unique thing. They imagine kinship with people they've never met, because they share a nation.
  • A nation is inherently limited - every nation has rules for who IS, and who ISN'T a member, and how to become a member (if it's possible to). Yankee fans can't join Red Sox Nation, USA Nation requires paperwork, the Muslim Nation requires the Shahadah, and you can't be a member of Korean Nation unless you're born into it (for now). Though if you tell enough Koreans you like kimchi, you'll be dubbed a "blue eyed Korean"
  • A nation is sovereign - it has its own rules and wants to be independent of other communities or nations. This is where Anderson's definition moves into politics.

Anderson is describing a political nation, but not all nations are sovereign political bodies. There are nations without their own state (like the Metis of Canada, the Kurds of Iraq, and North America's First Nations peoples) nations that never wanted or asked for sovereignty (Red Sox Nation of Major League Baseball, Justin Bieber's 10 million + twitter fans), political bodies that are home to multiple nations (for example, the politically fractured Belgium, which is unable to break a stalemate between its Dutch and French populations, and most of the countries that have had civil wars in the last generation), there are nations that find their home in more than one political nation-state (the Hmong in Southeast Asia, the Bedouin, and Koreans), and there are even other nations located in a few spots having "quarterback controversies" about which one represents the "real" nation - is Tibet's government in exile the real Tibetan government, or is the government that actually administrates Tibet's traditional land? The Wikipedia article says almost as many (2.5 mill) Jamaicans live abroad as live in Jamaica (2.8 mill).

And this is the biggest problem with all this discussion about Korean culture: South Korea is not the exclusive home of the Korean people. North Koreans have a right to Arirang, South Koreans do, and the Korean-Chinese in Yanbian have a right to it. And none of those groups has the right to say "our version of Koreanness is more valid than yours" any more than The Korean has the right to say his family story is more valid than mine, because mine doesn't have books with lists of names of dead people (it actually does), or mine more than his, because none of his ancestors participated in the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation.

Those Korean-Chinese in Yanbian even have a right to register their heritage with Unesco, or to ask China to do it for them. And they don't have to ask South Korea's cultural minister for permission first.

Bringing nation-states into a discussion of cultural ownership - particularly in a case like Korea, where Korean people are spread across a handful of states and regions, and others are spread all over the world - is extremely problematic.

The Republic of Korea officially became a sovereign state on August 15, 1948 (sez Wikipedia). It's only 63 years old, and Arirang is possibly thousands... the Republic of Korea has no right to assert ownership of something SO MUCH older than it.

The People's Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1 1949 (sez Wikipedia). It has no right to assert ownership of Arirang, either.

And now we're getting to the heart of the problem.


wetcasements said...

"national borders are imaginary lines"

Funny, that wasn't the impression I had when I visited Panmunjom.

In principal I see what you're getting at, but you fiercely refuse to acknowledge practical realities that define and rule our day-to-day lives as embedded participants in multiple cultures.

wordykorean said...

You've crafted an excellent argument concerning the definitions of culture and nations. However, your argument falls apart when you start assuming that the Korean ethnic group is tied to what is today known as Northeast China on the same level that it is anchored to the Korean peninsula. This is apparent when you start comparing Koreans to the Hmongs and Bedouins. These ethnic groups, and other "nations that find their home in more than one political nation-state", have generally never been anchored to a specific and significant piece of land since the beginning of their respective histories; there has never been a "Hmong homeland", or a "Bedouin homeland".

Koreans, however, are almost exclusively tied to the Korean peninsula, and this tie is one that has existed for - depending on who you ask - thousands of years. Only in recent years have Koreans settled in other nations in large numbers (I'm referring, of course, to the diaspora). Yanbian Koreans have only been in Northeast China since the 1860's, and only in significant numbers since the late 19th century/early 20th century, in large part due to the Japanese occupation. Your claim would have a bit more legitimacy if, say, the Yanbian Koreans were in fact descendents of Koguryo or Balhae peoples, or otherwise had lived continuously in Northeast China as long as Koreans have lived on the Korean Peninsula.

To put this in perspective, Chinese have been in the United States since the 1820's, and have been there in significant numbers since 1848 when the Gold Rush started (at one point, apparently, Chinese made up over a tenth of the population of California). This is marginally longer than the time period Yanbian Koreans have been in Northeast China. However, I don't think anyone would say that the U.S. has any legitimate claim to certain products of Chinese culture.

As always, though, thanks for the read!

Rob-o-SE-yo said...


thanks for that information; I hadn't looked it up, and had been on the assumption (dumbassoseyo) that Korean language and culture had ties in that region going back to Goguryeo, as well as through the natural ebbs and flows of humans and ideas over history...

any historians care to weigh in with more info? Do you have a link to more about that, WordyKorean?

@Wetcasements thanks for your comment.

It isn't an imaginary line any more... but after World War II, when US and Russia arbitrarily chose the 38th parallel along which to divide Korea, while doling out the spoils of Japan's defeat, it certainly was an imaginary line.

Birds fly over it, water flows across it, the trees growing north of it are the same species as the trees growing south of it: it's only humans who imagine national borders (other than when borders follow natural landforms like river paths), and then build up machines and structures to protect imaginary lines that separate imagined communities from each other. (now let's sing Kumbayah together)

When you use the plural of "practical reality" -- what other realities am I ignoring? I'm quite curious to know.

chiam said...

Does a country own its national anthem?

wordykorean said...


It's definitely true that actual people have followed the countless interactions between China and Korea throughout history. Individuals and smaller groups of Chinese have come to Korea and settled there at various points in time, as have Koreans to China. In both cases, though, the settlers would successfully and totally assimilate into the adopted society, so there have never been substantial communities of either Chinese-Koreans or Korean-Chinese until the modern era (19th century).

If you're interested, this article ( about the Yanbian Koreans is extremely informative - and interesting. The writer writes that Koreans were "forced to migrate into Northeast China unwillingly in the late 19th and early 20th century", and that these Koreans "had homes and a motherland", referring to the Korean Peninsula. As the article goes on to address, the identity of the Yanbian Koreans is complicated by the fact that Korea was divided after the fact that they had settled from Korea.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

@wordykorean: thanks for the further reading. I appreciate it.

@chiam: not in the sense that Paul Mccartney owns "band On The Run" and bill watterson owns Calvin and Hobbes. ... Own is a clumsy word to describe the way a national anthem is connected to its country. Did you see the list of other words I suggested in part two. Jimi Hendrix didn't have to ask the POTUS for permission to play his version of the star spangled banner, nor would a non-American singer have, but if we torture the definition of the word "own" enough, then a country owns its national anthem in the same way the Koreas own arirang, and the same way the Netherlands owns the color a way that has stretched the word own so far that it ceases to be useful.