February 15, 2017
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Art and culture in Korea tends to be a product for consumption, and increasingly a commodity. To have art on the wall is a way of showing others that one has more money, that one is more sophisticated, demonstrating that one is from a higher class. And sadly that culture, that art has been overwhelmingly Western because the West is assumed to be superior.
The problem is rather how does one establish a strong identity for Koreans? The solution is not a simple question of elementary school teachers telling students how great King Sejong was, or stressing how much feeling (정) Koreans have. The primary issue is rather for Koreans to see their culture, their art, as being something more than a commodity. Culture should not be something static, something that one “possesses” like bars of gold. Korean culture is not merely a collection of habits, ideas and patterns collected over 5000 years of history. That sort of culture is more the storage vault of an art museum.
The full range of that culture must be presented constantly for the present day, constantly reinterpreted for citizens of contemporary Korea. But making it modern does not mean making it into a commodity, something that can be sold to anyone. That sort of vivid reinterpretation of Korea’s past to meet the needs of the present is what is most sadly missing around us.
There are several ways to make Korean identity more vital. Let me provide one. If Koreans see that their lives are a model for what others do in other countries, that if Koreans care for the environment, are not wasteful and are not corrupt, that people in Vietnam, and Mongolia and Uzbekistan will see that model and emulate it (or vice versa will copy Korea’s worst habits). Then culture becomes something ethical, something bigger than just consuming for pleasure.
Korean cultural identity is what is produced in the process of applying the full range of Korea’s past to address the new challenges of the present day.
Being a Korean is the process of doing one’s best to find in the full complexity of culture and history parts that will make a better future. The sense of history, of mission, and of purpose can transform Korea and its identity. But it cannot be done by building big monuments to dead people. That past must be interpreted for the present, and above all for young people.
February 15, 2017
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Koreans must take control of their own historical and geographical narrative and create our own history by reading the past against the present, projecting the truths hidden in previous experience onto the challenges of the current day so as to help us to understand the complexity of past culture. But we must avoid falling back, out of laziness, on a simple form of cultural determination, or a racist or ethnic purity argument.
We live in an extremely uncertain time when economic disruptions are going to make people’s lives more stressful and more painful. There will be a profound need to belong to something, to find something simple that connects us all now that we have drifted so far apart. Without any doubt, arguments about how we are all one people, with one blood, will be immensely popular for many and there are already signs of an anti-foreigner mood in some places in Korea. Those trends are dangerous, if they are perhaps inevitable. But Korea is not in a position to accept such arguments, no matter how pleasing they may sound. Korea has an extremely low birth rate and will need the help of its increasing multi-ethnic citizenship.
There is simply no way for Korea to turn to such an isolationist xenophobic culture. What we need, rather, to expand Korean culture to include people from other nations, to make the traditions of Korea universal 보편적 and accessible. Korean identity must evolve and expand to include those newcomers and in that process of changing will Korean identity be produced.
February 15, 2017
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The scandal involving President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil and Chung Yoo-ra suggests the terrible consequences of a hidden bias towards women even in an age where women play a critical role in Korean society.In the case of Park Geunhye, if we can believe the reports, she spent an enormous amount of time on her appearances, trying to conform to demands that she be attractive. She could not formulate policy for herself, although obviously intelligent and well educated, and was reduced to a tool of older men who used her and then threw her away. I think that it is entirely appropriate to perceive Park Geun-hye at an irresponsible person who engaged in illegal actions for her narrow benefit but also, at the same time, as a women victimized by a culture that made her value conforming to a certain image of femininity more important than doing her job.
But the more disturbing part of the story is the fairy tale aspect of the denouement . The story told in the media, liberal and conservative, is one of three women, Park Geunhye, Choi Soon-sil and Jung Yoo-ra who engage in terrible corruption that puts the nation at risk. They three of them, and their actions, are described in far greater detail than anyone else. But this story line sounds like it came out of a Confucian history book. The standard approach from ancient times was to try to blame the corruption of men on women. Yang Guifei of China’s Tang Dynasty is the best example, the woman who was blamed for the corruption of the Yang family which led to a popular uprising—even though she herself did not have much to do with the corruption. And yet the most progressive people buy into this story. And this story keeps us from investigating more deeply into who actually got the money and how it was distributed. It also keeps us from thinking more deeply about what it is in the system and its organization that encourages such corruption.