[Essay]From K-Contents to K-Lifestyle: Embracing K-Culture Worldwide?

The article emphasizes the importance of understanding K-content consumption within the context of cultural interplay and individual aesthetic standards. Rather than being dictated solely by the producers, the identity of K-fashion is shaped by


Author : KIM Jiyoon (Institute of Humanities and Sciences, Hansung University)

Since the 2000s, K content, which has been widely consumed globally through Internet media, is now emerging in the receptive society not as the unique culture of a specific subgroup, but as a significant cultural element that defines individuals' identities and lifestyles. In contemporary society, lifestyles are perceived as actively constructed by individuals and closely linked to personal identity. The construction of such lifestyles is heavily dependent on consumer culture, with various cultural contents being mobilized through the personal needs and desires of consumers. In this sense, K content should find its place as a cultural reference that does not rigidly define a singular cultural characteristic, but relies heavily on the interpretations of consumers, respecting their ethical values and aesthetic preferences.

Flow of K-Contents as Cultural Crossings

People fascinated by Hong Kong movies in the 1980s, fans of Japanese animation in the 1990s, and those who enjoy the music of BTS in the 2000s-what kind of lifestyles do they have? Defining a lifestyle involves determining whether it is based on an individual's cultural preferences or mode of labor, or whether it is demographic, based on factors such as gender or age. In contemporary society, personal identity and lifestyle are significantly shaped by the cultural capital that individuals actively explore and accumulate (Bourdieu, 1984). According to Bourdieu, cultural capital is largely reproduced through habitus, but the emergence of new Internet media has become a new axis for the formation of cultural capital.

In this context, the consumption of K content, which has been actively consumed across national boundaries through various media since the 2000s, seems to have become an important indicator of cultural preferences significant enough to define someone's lifestyle. Citizens encountered during the Hallyu-related research conducted in Singapore and Hong Kong between 2018 and 2020 regularly consumed Korean entertainment programs, dramas, and webtoons. For them, the consumption of K-content naturally led to hobbies for differentiation, means of self-improvement, and even learning the Korean language, which progressed to repeated trips to Korea. However, the composition of this cultural capital that reached K contents did not happen suddenly. It was influenced by previous cultural consumption, such as Taiwanese variety shows and dramas, Hong Kong films, and Japan's "Cool Japan" policy, which actively introduced anime, J-pop, and Japanese tourism.

The cultural aspect of globalization does not end with the consumption of the mediascape but manifests through cultural imagination constructed via media, inspiring people to dream of alternative ways of life and encouraging them to put these dreams into practice (Appadurai, 1997). Following the consumption of K-contents, there has been an increased interest in the Korean language and culture, leading to experiences like long-term residence or travel for further education and employment in Korea. We have witnessed numerous global audiences who, after consuming K-contents, developed an interest in Korean language and culture, leading to actions such as long-term residence for studying or working, or short-term visits for travel.

Hallyu, initially detected in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was initially understood as a subculture shared by specific members with 'unique' tastes in the recipient society. Subcultures often serve as expressions of dissatisfaction and resistance to the lifestyle and culture of mainstream society, becoming temporary fads that easily disappear over time as they gain recognition and acceptance from the mainstream. In this cultural landscape, the growth of K-contents gradually transformed it from a subculture into a mainstream cultural phenomenon. The producers, industry stakeholders, researchers analyzing it, and Korean consumers, all envision the 'after' of K-contents, moving beyond the reproduction of capital and anticipating a transculturation (Pratt, 2007) that could reverse the unequal relationship of cultural acculturation where one side was culturally dependent and induce mutual cultural changes.

The flow of K-contents across borders has created cultural crossings, inspiring people to adopt aspects of Korean culture into their lives, such as fashion trends or language learning.

K-Contents as a Lifestyle

Our daily lives in the modern era of the 20th century are largely constructed as a repetitive cycle between labor and leisure. Labor involves participation in 'productive' industrial activities, where individuals use surplus income and available leisure time for activities such as media consumption and travel to reproduce labor. Questions about the forms of labor and leisure in personal lives, asked in national social surveys conducted annually or biennially, serve as crucial data to understand individual social strata and detect changes in society as a whole. However, since the 1990s, the dichotomy between labor and leisure has gradually been dismantled in the postmodern era. Considering that leisure presupposes the reproduction of labor, rather than having 'pure' labor and 'pure' leisure hours separated from each other, our lifestyles are defined within the complementary relationship between the two.

Lifestyle encompasses the way people live, making it a collective term for practices and attitudes that allow individuals to distinguish each other. It is constructed through a series of actions and attitudes based on specific social and cultural contexts in which individuals find meaning (Chaney, 1996). Given that lifestyle is actively shaped by individuals, it is closely associated with personal identity. However, lifestyle construction is significantly dependent on consumer culture. Preferences such as favorite movies and dramas, preferred fashion brands, support for sports teams, sponsorship of NGOs, and decisions on summer vacation destinations collectively reveal an individual's tastes and values, thus shaping their lifestyle. As lifestyle reflects personal ethical values and aesthetic preferences, it becomes a way for individuals to express themselves (Chaney, 1996). For instance, someone living in the Anthropocene as a modern human, reflecting on the privilege and superiority associated with being 'human,' may engage in ethically conscious consumption, advocating for issues like climate change and animal rights, reflecting their values in politically correct consumption.

When lifestyle is widely spread to the extent that it is commonly found among specific age groups, it may be named after a generation, like the Millennial-Z (MZ) generation. If it is more specialized and restricted to a specific group, it might be referred to as a 'tribe,' such as 'DINK (Dual Income, No Kids)' or 'KaGong Tribe.' Sociologist Maffesoli (1996) argued that individuals in modern society tend to belong to communities of taste, resembling tribes, rather than being immersed in individualism. The early global audience actively consuming K-contents might have formed such a community of taste, both identifying with those who consumed the same content and being culturally distinct from those unfamiliar with K-contents.

Lifestyle, by allowing the differentiation of social groups, is actively utilized socially. The anticipated effect of this is often driven by corporations, reflecting the desire of companies to name and categorize consumers based on their consumption of products or contents. Although such labels may be used within companies and later disappear, they can gain societal recognition. For example, the specific age group that consistently consumed Volkswagen's Golf throughout their life cycle was referred to as the 'Golf Generation.' Similarly, individuals who actively consumed specific K-contents for an extended period might be classified as a new generation. It is essential to note that the emergence of lifestyle as a defining cultural element does not necessarily imply a superior cultural position or cultural superiority. Instead, it operates as a symbolic sign that comes to represent shared cultural meanings, entering the mainstream when the meanings surrounding it are widely understood without the need for explanation by a specific group. Therefore, there is no need for K-contents to have a single meaning. Various cultural contents, including dramas, movies, webtoons, popular music, classical music, fashion, among others, are actively selected and interpreted to reflect the ethical values and aesthetic preferences of the consumer or audience.

K-Fashion as a Lifestyle for Chinese Consumers

Fashion, intricately linked to an individual's body, is a primary means through which personal aesthetic preferences are expressed in daily life. Through research on Chinese consumers who actively embrace what is considered Korean fashion or K-fashion, this study explores how K-fashion is utilized in defining the lifestyles of Chinese consumers (Kim Jiyoon, 2021). Rather than having a unique identity defined by producers, K-fashion in China is selectively adopted by consumers who actively encode its meaning into their lives.

The Hallyu (Korean Wave) phenomenon, which began in the mid-2000s alongside the international popularity of Korean dramas and music, led to an interest in K-fashion among Chinese consumers. The popularity of Hallyu in China can be divided into three stages (Huang Bei, 2013). The first stage, between 1997 and 2001, started with the popularity of Korean dramas. These dramas, depicting conflicts within families and emotional aspects of romantic relationships in an "Asian" context, appealed to the Chinese middle class and youth, offering cultural values more acceptable than Western dramas. The second stage, from 2002 to 2006, diversified to include Korean pop music and movies. The third stage, post-2007, known as 'New Hallyu,' coexists with opposing sentiments towards Hallyu, which are attributed to rising nationalist concerns within China due to the increasing influence of Hallyu (Huang Bei, 2013).

Anthropologist Kim Hyun-mi (2002) suggests that the spread of Hallyu in Asian countries resonated with individuals who had experienced common conflicting elements between genders or generations during rapid industrialization and capitalist economic development. Rather than referencing a culturally more distant 'Western gaze,' K-contents, which supply a context of simultaneity, were particularly appealing to Asian consumers. For example, Chinese viewers found it easier to connect with Korean dramas depicting family conflicts in a modern city setting and interpreted the narrative in a way that suited their own values. As they became more familiar with the lifestyle portrayed in the dramas and the associated consumer culture, the desire to consume K-fashion emerged naturally, leading to practical consumption through tourism and shopping in Korea. The fashion styles of Korean actors in dramas became active targets for consumption as K-fashion within this context.

When interviewing individuals involved in the design and sale of K-fashion to Chinese consumers, responses revealed that many perceived differences in overall garment shapes, colors, and materials between Chinese and Korean fashion. Notably, even though a significant portion of products in the Dongdaemun fashion market were produced in countries like China, Vietnam, or Sri Lanka, the garments were still recognized as K-fashion in the eyes of Chinese consumers. Interestingly, despite being aware of the production and distribution systems, Chinese consumers, including tourists, considered the consumption experience in Korean markets, such as Dongdaemun or Apgujeong Rodeo Street, to guarantee the authenticity of K-fashion.

On the other hand, wholesale retailers selling Korean fashion styles in China emphasized that the selection criteria for imported Korean fashion depended entirely on the tastes and preferences of Chinese consumers consuming Hallyu. Consequently, there is no universal standard or characteristic for K-fashion, and the styles that become popular are often influenced by the latest Korean dramas. A study on shops selling Korean clothing in Shanghai found that products directly imported without modification often faced challenges, while those adjusted to reflect the tastes of Chinese consumers were highly successful (Shin Yong-nam, 2011). Thus, the identity of K-fashion is not shaped unilaterally through the one-way reception of Hallyu content. Instead, it evolves through a continuous negotiation process between the interpretations of consumers, their aesthetic standards, and the cultural symbols associated with Hallyu.

In conclusion, the identity of K-fashion is not dictated solely by the one-sided adoption of Hallyu but rather by the interpretations of consumers and an ongoing negotiation with their aesthetic standards and cultural symbols. Consumers of Hallyu content in China actively consume a variety of cultural content, not only from their own country but also from Western and other Asian sources. Their consumption choices are driven by the desire to construct a desired identity and convey specific messages in their daily lives. Therefore, the relationship between identity and products is not always one-to-one, as consumers explore various cultural contents and actively seek related consumer items.

This cultural exchange is not one-sided but involves a negotiation between producers and consumers, leading to the reinterpretation and adoption of K-fashion and other cultural elements.

K-Content as a Reference for Cultural Interplay

The meaning of K-fashion is interpreted and negotiated in the context of individual aesthetic standards and subsequently leads to consumption. K-fashion is defined not by absolute elements but through a process of inter-referencing. Cultural inter-referencing refers to a concept aimed at decentering the unilateral implications of globalization discourse, signifying the process of referencing, comparing, drawing inspiration, or competing with the characteristics of other cultures. For example, instead of idealizing and replicating global cities such as New York, London, or Paris, there is a growing trend of multi-directional inter-referencing among nearby Asian cities, showcasing more spatial and temporal similarities.

Countries like China and India actively reference Singapore's state-driven housing policies for large-scale housing development, which dominate market value compared to the market-driven strategies of the United States or Europe. The combination of production processes, retail markets, and department store-style shops, similar to South Korea's Dongdaemun Fashion Market, is easily referenced in China. The acceptance and interpretation of cultural products also involve the reinterpreting of multinational cultural contents within an individual's subjective meaning system. Before the rise of the Korean Wave (Hallyu), cultural products from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan were consumed through global media scapes, reflecting the national characteristics of each country. However, these differences do not exist as cultural hierarchies but are rather significant messages conveyed and emphasized by specific consumers' regional contexts and cultural interpretations at a given time.

The preference for K-content as a defining element of lifestyle seems to have penetrated societies with varying degrees of inequality based on the context of the adopting country. In well-established structures of cultural translation and distribution in East Asian societies like Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore, K-content appears to have taken a significant position as one of the important axes defining lifestyle. However, in societies with a nationalistic backlash like China or more diversified and segmented consumer cultures like in the United States or Western Europe, the consumption of K-content might manifest in more fragmented ways.

If we focus on the aspect of lifestyle as a defining element of personal identity and daily life, K-content now goes beyond competing with other cultural contents and calls for reflection on elements that may violate these values. Also, in the context of cultural interplay, it becomes essential to consider how actively K-content engages in referencing other cultures. For instance, the racial discriminatory depictions of Southeast Asian migrant workers or immigrant women in Korean movies or dramas may simultaneously be offensive to those consuming them and violating their identities. Beyond the stage of excitement and enthusiasm where diverse global consumers actively incorporate K-content into their lives and construct meaning, there is a need for cultural sensitivity and active cultural referencing regarding content that could potentially violate their varied ethical values and aesthetic preferences. [END]

This article was published in [Hallyu Now No.51] December 2022: "Beyond Hallyu, 'K', What is 'K'?", the 4th installment of KOFICE(Korea Foundation Intenational Cultrual Exchange).