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A Korean Poet Is the Latest Example of China’s ‘Cultural Imperialism’

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A Korean Poet Is the Latest Example of China’s ‘Cultural Imperialism’

Baidu’s introduction of a popular Korean poet as “Chinese” adds more fuel to the theory that China is trying to “steal” Korean cultural icons.

A Korean Poet Is the Latest Example of China’s ‘Cultural Imperialism’
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Baidu, the largest internet portal in China, recently caused controversy among the South Korean public for introducing Yun Dong-ju, a Korean poet and independence activist during the Japanese colonial era, as “Chinese.”

According to Seo Kyoung-duk, a professor at Sungshin Women’s University, despite continuous requests for correction, Baidu maintains its encyclopedia page’s introduction of Yun as ethnically chaoxianzu – referring to Korean ethnic minorities in China – with Chinese nationality.

“Still, the Baidu encyclopedia stipulates Yun as Chinese,” said Seo on his Facebook, “it is important to inform what is wrong and make a move to fix it correctly.”

The controversy partially comes from the difference in the use of the term chaoxianzu. In South Korea, chaoxianzu, or joseonjok in Korean, is often used to differentiate Korean minorities in China from mainland Koreans. In China, by contrast, it refers to ethnic Koreans in general.

However, there remains a dispute over Yun’s nationality, as Baidu’s entry specifically describes him as a “Chinese Korean” (zhongguo chaoxianzu). Although Yun was born and raised in Manchuria, his hometown was part of the Japanese Empire when he was alive. His mother tongue was Korean, and every poem he wrote was in that language. Many South Koreans, therefore, saw Baidu’s description as “cultural theft” for South Koreans. Following Seo’s public demand for the description to be changed, Chinese state-run media Global Times said, “historical figures with transnational backgrounds like Yun should be honored by both China and South Korea.”

A Korean Poet Under Japanese Empire

Yun was born in 1917 to a Korean Christian immigrant family in Mingdong village, which is currently part of Longjing city in China’s Jilin province. Yun was never officially a poet but a university student who was studying literature. He was imprisoned for creating a Korean nationalist student group in 1943 during his studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto. He died in prison after getting a chemical injection in 1945, which is suspected to be a part of a biological experiment.

Although his works were never made public when he was alive, Yun’s poetry collection Sky, Wind, and Stars was published after Korean independence, and he soon became the most popular poet in South Korea. The central theme of his poetry is self-reflection and introspection about life as an ethnic Korean under Japanese colonial rule. For example, Yun wrote his poem “Confession” five days before he had to change his Korean name to Japanese, and it expresses his repentance and distress for following such rules that went against his ethnic identity.

Yun, therefore, is respected as a patriotic poet who resisted Japanese rule among South Korean people. Yun Dong-ju Memorial Hall in Yonsei University, one of the colleges where Yun studied literature, introduces him as a “poet who wrote his poems firmly in the Korean language despite Japan’s harsh colonization.” His poems are taught in Korean literature classes, and Yun’s life was also made into a movie in 2016.

Considering his reputation as a point of national pride in South Korea, it is no surprise that Baidu’s description of Yun aroused criticisms. There are even voices claiming that the South Korean government is not going far enough in handling such issues with China.

“China is distorting and stealing our beloved poet, history, and culture. Why are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassy hesitating to respond against them?” said Yoo Seung-min, a former opposition member of the South Korean parliament.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it is negotiating with Beijing over this issue.

These condemnations are intertwined with larger concerns over China’s “cultural imperialism,” perceived attempts to integrate Korea within the Chinese cultural sphere. These doubts surged from China’s recent claims over Hanbok and Kimchi.

Hanbok and Kimchi: China’s ‘Cultural Imperialism’ Against Korea

Last November, the Chinese mobile game Shining Nikki was heavily criticized by the Chinese public for launching hanbok, a traditional Korean costume, as a new Korean item. Chinese netizens asserted that hanbok is a part of hanfu — the traditional clothes worn by Han Chinese people. Suzhou Diezhi Network Technology, the game developer, offered an apology, and the game went out of service in South Korea.

Since then, hanbok has made more and more appearances in Chinese media as an explicit part of Chinese culture. Xiaomi, a Chinese electronic company, launched a background image with an illustration of characters wearing hanbok with the title “China Culture.” The Chinese historical drama series “Royal Feast” was accused of using clothes similar to hanbok, while Yu Zheng, the producer of the drama, claimed the characters were wearing hanfu typical of the Ming Dynasty.

Kimchi, a well-known Korean dish, also became China’s target after paocai – a Sichuan style pickled vegetable dish similar to kimchi – received certification from International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in November. The Global Times reported the certification as “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China.” Although the ISO stated that the certification does not apply to kimchi, China’s claim escalated disputes between South Korea and China online. For example, South Korean YouTuber Hamji’s video countering Chinese assertions on kimchi was censored on Weibo and other Chinese social media. Her Chinese media agency also terminated her contract for content production, claiming Hamji had “insulted” Chinese culture.

Indeed, China and Korea have historically exchanged cultures, and thus they share many similarities. Nevertheless, since Korean culture has been widely accepted in China since the 1990s, with the increasing popularity of K-pop and Korean dramas, this raises a question: What’s behind the sudden increase in “cultural imperialism” targeting Korea?

What’s Behind China’s Claims to Korean Culture?

China’s claims over hanbok and kimchi, along with Yun’s nationality, can be seen as rooted in three main reasons. First, the strife over the cultural heritage shows the distinctions in how South Korea and China identify their own cultures. South Koreans present themselves as culturally distinctive from China, driving them to view such Chinese behaviors as “stealing” their culture. China, on the other hand, postulates itself as the center of East Asian culture. This Sino-centrism is the legacy of the tributary system during the imperial dynasties, which perceived other Asian states, such as Korea, as historically and culturally part of its periphery. For example, in 2002, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a Chinese governmental think tank, argued that Goguryeo – one of the earliest Korean kingdoms and the origin of the name “Korea” – was historically a Chinese regional government instead of an autonomous Korean political entity. The implication is that Chinese historical narratives view Korean culture as another branch of China.

Second, Beijing aims to assimilate its 55 ethnic minorities into a unitary “Chinese” identity. One of China’s claims over Korean culture thus comes from the 2 million ethnic Korean minorities in Manchuria – the chaoxianzu. These Korean minorities in China are the descendants of Korean immigrants who fled to Manchuria in the late 19th and early 20th century seeking to escape Japanese colonial rule – just like Yun’s family. The logic behind China’s claims over Korean culture is that because Korean minorities exist in China, their traditions are also a part of Chinese culture. Claiming Korean culture as “Chinese” is a bid to incorporate Korean minorities into a greater Chinese identity, legitimizing its rules over their region – Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region – and people. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prioritizes unifying the ethnic minorities in a single identity to prevent any possibilities of conflicts or secessionist movements. – a strategy most dramatically visible in the oppression of Uyghur and Tibetan culture. Hence, for China, Yun, a Korean born in Manchuria, should also be held up as a “Chinese” – even if he never acquired Chinese nationality.

Furthermore, Beijing has been using nationalism to boost its legitimacy in response to several domestic and international crises in the past few years. While the U.S.-China trade war and the COVID-19 pandemic caused economic and social difficulties, using nationalism to foster public antagonism toward foreign states diminishes domestic dissatisfaction. It also reinforces internal unity and fidelity toward the CCP. Beijing, therefore, is using these nationalistic sentiments to provoke cultural disputes with South Korea and turn the public’s attention outside China. This is not only about culture – Chinese President Xi Jinping described the Chinese intervention in the Korean War against the United States and South Korea as “fighting against the imperialist invaders” during his speech on the 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the war in October last year. The Chinese public also condemned K-pop superstars BTS for praising the U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.

“As the strategic competition with the U.S. intensifies, the Xi administration promoted nationalistic education campaigns. As a result, Chinese youths became highly anti-U.S. and patriotic,” said Kim Han-kwon, professor at Korean National Diplomatic Academy, “it is likely that China will maintain its nationalism. The disputes between Korea and China will persist for a while.”

Chinese cultural imperialism, however, is also a source of friction with its neighbors. Its claims over Korean culture raised anti-China sentiments in South Korea. According to Pew Research Center, 74 percent of the South Korean public had unfavorable views of China in 2020. Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, expressed concerns that “China’s Sinicization of Korean history and culture may transfer to its might to conquer Korean territory and people.” These views against China are not a good sign for Beijing in light of its competition with the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. Public opinion may pull South Korea away from China.

Yun Dong-ju: The Poet Without a Home

Yun was an ethnic Korean poet who lived his life at a time when South Korea did not exist as a modern nation-state. Even though Yun’s works explicitly depict his agony of being a Korean under the Japanese Empire, historical forces deprived him of a homeland to match his identity. It would be a complex issue to judge his nationality using contemporary political standards. Creating a dispute over it only complicates the relationship between South Korea and China. China’s cultural imperialism attempts may play well with domestic audiences but undermine its international reputations. Instead unilaterally claiming the ownership of cultural heritage, the two countries should promote mutual communication to resolve misunderstandings.

Choi Seong Hyeon is a freelance journalist and a postgraduate student at the University of Hong Kong.