Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nobody Owns Arirang

So China is ruffling some feathers by claiming "Arirang" as part of Chinese cultural heritage.

Arirang mass games.

And while it's true that some people in China sing Arirang (after all, there are TONS of ethnic Koreans in Northeast China), others suggest this is part of China's "northeast project" of co-opting Korean culture and history as their own, probably in order to legitimize land claims in the region.

A few things just to throw into the discussion:

Jang Sa-ik's Arirang. (which of these is the 'correct' use of Arirang? Who gets to say?)

1. Retroactively assigning Korean-ness to things that happened in the past is always problematic, as is  a group of people associated with a nation-state self-appointing themselves as the final arbiters of what is and isn't Korean, according to the current priorities, values and practices of their nation state.  Too often, such claims are made for fishy motivations relating more to current national politics than honest historical reckoning.

2. The idea of the nation state only came about in its modern form less than 200 years ago. Retroactively claiming that certain practices, foods, songs, dramatic forms, or whatever, belong to one, but not another group of (long-dead) people, according to border lines that were drawn LONG after the origins of those practices, foods, etc., doesn't make much sense.

Guy gets his grandparents to sing arirang.

3. As I argued in that seventy-five piece series that took me a year to complete: Nobody Owns A Culture. Culture is something people do, or practice, not own. UNESCO might be more useful at recording and preserving world heritage if it began finding different, more flexible ways of identifying origins of cultural elements, so that all this crap about "national cultures" don't have to get mixed up in cultural heritages that predate said nations. It annoys me when something like UNESCO, which is trying to do a good thing, becomes a battleground for national historical claims.

If Pumashock sings SNSD songs, she doesn't BECOME Korean, nor does SNSD cease to be Korean because an American sang it. 

This is also Arirang. There are tons of different Arirang melodies and versions.

4. China is a huge, amazingly diverse nation, and that diversity includes cultural elements that are not shared with the entire nation. Saying that "This is a song/set of folk songs popular with Korean Chinese in Manchuria" doesn't automatically mean that your average Han Chinese in Bejing, or Joe Chinese in Kunming will thenceforward stand up when he hears that melody, and say "That's MY culture," any more than Oregonians would say "This music defines me" about Dixieland jazz.

Jeongseon Arirang

5. Arirang has been sung in so many different ways, in so many different eras, by so many different groups, with different themes, that it's more of a form than a song. One could almost say it's more of a genre than anything else. (one of the first things I learned in trying to find out the history of Arirang, is that it was one of the most popular songs in Japan during the first half of last century... though that might have been for similar reasons to why Gilbert and Sullivan set their musicals in the far east - as an aspect of the colonizing gaze.)

Haeju Arirang... you get the point.

All this stuff about essentializing culture, and retroactively assigning it to nation-state regions that hadn't been defined as such at the time of origin, and then getting up in arms when others also say that they used it, in that region, is just a little specious.

can we at least be honest enough to acknowledge that this isn't about whether or not Manchurian Koreans sing or sang Arirang, but about anxiety over the "Northeast Project" and China's attempts to co-opt Korean culture into China's matrix, and then talk openly about that, instead of making fusses about non-issues like this?


Oh shit! The New York Philharmonic played Arirang on instruments invented by Europeans. It's American culture now. Damn you Americans! First you stole the Stanley Cup from Canada, and now this! Curse you all! (bit of sarcasm there)

There's a video of a Korean baby singing a British song that was a hit worldwide, popular on an American website. So, Hey Jude is now a Korean cultural heritage. China can have Arirang if they want.


Anonymous said...

The song/word is so old, and so much of Goguryeo's land is now in China, I don't see what the fuss is.

From an objective historical viewpoint, it is part of China's cultural heritage.

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Anonymous said...
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Celebith said...

I understand the concern, though, especially in light of 1)the leaking of China's plan to "administer" most of nK north of Pyongyang and 2) their expansionist activities in SE Asia. China has no intentions of letting the two Koreas reunify and I don't blame South Koreans for seeing this as an attempt by China to erode ROK claims for reunification after collapse. If China 'owns' the version of Arirang that Koreans in east China sing, and Koreans in nK sing the same version, than doesn't it logically follow that China should permanently administer that region after the collapse? More importantly, is anyone at the UN going to argue with China when they make the claim?

Sidney said...

acutally, i would like to make it known that because i once heard yiruma play arirang at a concert, that arirang acutally belongs to me.

Roboseyo said...


There we go. if THAT'S the real issue, and I think it is, then that has to be said, out loud, and directly, and between high-level Chinese and South Korean strategy-makers, rather than this dumb land-claim by proxy bullshit that's tarnishing the legitimacy of UNESCO while making SK and China look like bickering high-schoolers.

And if UNESCO is being used as a tool to validate/invalidate land-claims, or to further expansionist intentions by ANY country, then UNESCO needs to do some serious introspection about how that organization is being abused and manipulated by nationalists who clearly miss the point of heritage preservation.

UNESCO I think, is partly to blame for this stupidity, and ought to come out very strongly and publicly that China, Korea, and anybody who is trying to use UNESCO to legitimize political maneuvering is missing the entire point of heritage preservation, and that UNESCO will not be a party to it.

Of course... UNESCO probably won't do that if there's any kind of lobbying funding at stake, and clearly UNESCO has much to gain in terms of visibility, from being at the center of a hissy-fit like this, as it's being treated as the final arbiter of legitimate national culture, by both countries.

Ah, but Sidney, was it a concert, or a 콘서트?

A Deal Or No Deal said...

This is another case of supposed nationalists in South Korea shooting fish in a barrel by taking an inconsequential issue, whipping themselves into a rage, and then defending their country from foreign expropriation.

According to some people, this is how the process supposedly works:

1) Register Arirang as cultural heritage
2) ???
3) South Korea becomes the Nanchaoxian Autonomous Region of the PRC

If only North Korea had tried this instead of spending all that money on soldiers.

In the meantime, while proud citizens defend Airang, Dokdo, Iedo, wrestling and whatever other piece of rock someone else might claim, real-live Koreans with real Korean blood are starved and tortured to death.

Gomushin Girl said...

I should let you know that we Oregonians are united in coopting Dixieland Jazz as a way of taking over the southern US. First we'll take the music, and then we'll have their delicious shrimp and grits, MWAHAHAHAHA!

Anonymous said...

Award for speaking most sense goes to Gomunshin Girl. It's well-known that the bulk of the problems facing the African-American population in the US derive from the fact that Elvis Presley stole their music. Tupac Shakur would still be alive today if we had never been subjected to a white man with a cleft chin talking about life "In the Ghetto."

There is probably historical precedent for a nation, or part of a nation being usurped because of a claim of ownership of a song, but I don't know about it. (Okay, there are some things I still haven't learned yet, but I think I would have picked up on this somewhere along the line.)

Oh, and Rob, word in your ear: move over to wordpress and you can delete as many comments as you like as often as you want and none of us will ever see your footprints.

Just trying to help. I'm sure those guys deserved it.

Ji-eun Jeong said...

it makes me hate China

Roboseyo said...


1. awesome commment. the idea of ownership of a culture gets problematic as soon as you ask more than two follow-up questions.

2. Blogger lets me erase comments without a footprint if I want to, but I chose not to this time, because this way my cute little pet troll gets at least a little validation (*kiss*), while the rest of my readers know it's important to me that I keep my house tidy. Kind of similar to the way Carribean port towns used to leave the bodies of captured and executed pirates hanging near their piers.

kushibo said...

Arirang "belongs" to China about as much as Polynesian culture "belongs" to the United States.

Roboseyo said...

It belongs to whoever uses it to build their concept of who they are. And that includes a few chinese in Manchuria, but mostly Koreans, wherever they may be. And maybe also to a few nont-ethnic Koreans who have other kinds of deep ties to Korea, and use Korean folk music as a vehicle for their self-identification.

jstele said...

And "O Canada" does not belong to that country. Give me a break. You are just showing your ignorance of history on this one.

Roboseyo said...

Did you read the post, Jstele? If you call me ignorant, I expect you to fill me in, in a way that demonstrates that you've read my post and thought about my points.

Otherwise, you've given me no reason to care what you call me, or what you think, by coming by and insulting me with no context.

TG said...

Great post. I knew it will attract trolls, but at least it sparked an interesting discussion with the Korean. However, I disagree with him and agree with you. I think insecurity over China's influence is the real reason for the anger, not the fact what they did. China doesn't have any allies in the region and everything they do is met with suspicion. I just wonder, how North Koreans really feel about their big neighbor. Is it really a "friend" or "ally" or will they lean to the their southern brethren, if they will need to make a choice? We'll see.

jstele said...

You can take it as an insult, which it was not. Anyhow, you WERE showing ignorance on this one. What is the point of registering "Arirang" as Chinese culture if not to claim ownership of it? Why do you think countries register their properties as cultural heritages?

Freddy said...

Chinese and Korean history and cross-cultures go back a long way and are so intertwined that some Koreans have become Han Chinese (mostly from China's Northeast) while some Han Chinese (with surnames like Lee, Chang, Kwan & etc.) have become Koreans with no knowledge of their Chinese origins (My Korean friends told me so). In fact, the trigram symbol in South Korean Flag is a modified version of the Chinese Taoism Trigram symbol (invented by Chinese more than 1000BC ago). So let's accept the fact that Chinese and Koreans may share the same culture.

Eugene said...

I am very late to the game here, but all I will say is this. China has every right to register whatever was made within its current territory as UNESCO heritage. To deny China this right would mean that the United States and Canada have no right to designate any Native American cultural or heritage.

Also, anyone who does any amount of casual research will know that Arirang is Korean, so what are we really worried about? Oh no! Morons who don't know anything about East Asia will check out UNESCO status and think that Korea is subservient to China because China has registered Arirang as a UNESCO heritage. Yeah right. These people are already ignorant, so they probably don't know what Arirang even is.

That said, I can understand why it would piss people off that China is doing these kinds of things, but really, is China going to use a UNESCO site to lay claim over North Korea? Is that how it works? How are all the ancient map evidences working out for deciding someone's claim to Dokdo? It's really a waste of time. Furthermore UNESCO itself will probably write in their description that it is a variation of a Korean folk song sung by ethnic Koreans in China. Nobody is going to simply declare that Arirang is Chinese.

Cleo said...

Pretty harsh if this is a response to the South Korean appropriation of original Chinese culture to make money including David Chang's "fusion" menu at Momofuku, the fad with "Korean style" buffalo wings and ja jang noodles nevermind claiming Shandong Confucius as a Korean.

Cleo said...

Console yourself with this: China will never claim nonChinese origin Japanese heritage as Chinese. That means Korea once again has an advantage over Japan simply by not Turning Japanese and Staying Korean.

Roboseyo said...

Your example of Native American culture is pathetic. These people were massacred and ethnically cleansed by "vicious and blood thirsty" "white colonial culture" - Only reason they let US government to represent them on world stage is because their ethnicity has been virtually wiped out and they are left without anyone to represent them properly.

It makes me sick to see fat Americans celebrating Native American culture when their school textbooks does not show enough harsh self-judgement and remorse on the "genocide" committed by their "savage-like", "religious-fanatic" ancestors.

In case of Arirang - Korean people have very prosperous and strong nation built and maintained on their own - so, why on Earth should China do their job for them?

They are doing this to make entire Korean race in the world a part of Chinese race.

By registering Arirang part of China even with the description of it being "ethnic Korean" - can be manipulated to exert sinister agenda.

The world "Ethnic Koreans" suggests that Koreans are minor race - [yeah, right "minor race" of more than 80 Million people... This is insanity :)] thus need to be protected by bigger race group - Chinese. 

Furthermore, people of North Korea are proud to say they are the descendants of "Gojoseon" and "Kingdom of Goguryeo" -which Chinese "North Eastern project" claims to be part of Chinese history but widely rejected by world historians societies.

So if China want to avoid "unnecessary" conspiracies and controversies they can just leave the matter to Korean government.

Plus, Ethnic Koreans in China represent only  a few types of Arirang if not just one.

But in Korean peninsula, hundres of Arirang songs have been developed - basically every town and villages had their own "version" of Arirang.

So China should show "basic" respect for Korea and let Korean government register Arirang.

Roboseyo said...

Your Korean friend is an idiot - the surnames are related only in name.

Korean aristocracy in Joseon dynasty used to claim they are from China because there used to be a "fad" of adopting Chinese last names, lineages tracing back to China in order to solidify their right to rule.

And large number of people -the peasant class never had any surnames to begin with and later started to adopt their "masters" "Sino-styled" surnames.

Only Korean surnames to survive was the ones used by "free-common" class - the middle class of the time.

So ethnically, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese are very very different and this has been proven by studying DNA distribution of East Asia. 

Roboseyo said...

I'm closing this thread now, because it's been long enough that nobody leaving comments has anything productive to say other than "You're an idiot roboseyo" - an opinion to which they're entitled, but which doesn't add anything new to this conversation.