[Essay] The 'Chinese New Year' Debate and Its Cultural Implications

Nevertheless, China is our neighbor. Although it may be a somewhat exaggerated expression, diplomatic rhetoric such as "an alliance as close as teeth and lips" (่„ฃไบก้ฝ’ๅฏ’) is often used to describe our close relationship. South Korea and China have a long history of close ties.

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Author: SHIM Dooboo, Sungshin Women's University

Date : Feb. 2023

What is an apology? It is the acknowledgment of an offense or wrongdoing that has caused harm or offense to someone, expressing genuine remorse, and seeking forgiveness. Although they can be voluntary and reflective, apologies frequently come about as a result of actions taken in response to criticism from others. In January 2023, just before the Lunar New Year, Danielle of the girl group NewJeans asked her fans on the fan communication platform Phoning, "What are you bunnies [official fandom name for NewJeans] doing for Chinese New Year?" and apologized two days later. Around the same time, Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh, who won the Golden Globe Award and Oscar for Best Actress for her role in <Everything Everywhere All at Once>, faced criticism for not using the term โ€œChinese New Year.โ€

Culture is Hybrid

There was also the following incident: On January 13, 2023, the British Museum promoted an event on Twitter called "Celebrating Seollal," which featured traditional Korean music and dance for the Lunar New Year. To explain the unfamiliar term "Seollal" to British audiences, the museum used the phrase "Korean Lunar New Year," noting that Seollal means Lunar New Year in Korean. However, after someone reposted the tweet on Weibo, a flood of harsh comments from outraged Chinese netizens accused the British Museum of helping Korea steal Chinese culture and demanded an apology. The British Museum deleted its tweet in response to the harsh criticism, and instead shared a new post with a painting of a Qing Dynasty woman holding a rabbit and the hashtag "Chinese New Year".

Chinese netizens, often referred to as 'Little Pink' (ๅฐ็ฒ‰็บข), engage in wolf warrior (ๆˆฐ็‹ผ) diplomacy in the online space when they feel that Chinese culture is being appropriated overseas. From a Korean perspective, there are many claims that go beyond reason. Some argue that Hanbok is traditional Chinese Ming Dynasty attire and Kimchi is a traditional Chinese dish. When the popularity of the Netflix drama <Kingdom> sparked the 'Gat' craze, they insisted that China was the originator of the 'Gat.'

photo: Korea.net

In fact, conflicts and clashes over history and culture are common between neighboring countries. For example, Peru and Chile, which share a similar language and history, argue over the authenticity of the distilled spirit pisco and the raw fish salad ceviche. Singapore and Malaysia debate the origin of the raw fish salad yusheng, while Malaysia and Indonesia argue over the roots of the traditional dance representing Bali, Indonesia.

Similarly, Cambodian and Thai traditional dances are similar, and Thailand reacted strongly in 2008 when Cambodia inscribed an element shared by both countriesโ€”the graceful curvature of the fingersโ€”on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Nationalistic rivalries over the inscription of World Heritage sites, which are intended to honor the common cultural heritage of humanity, are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Worldwide, nationalism is experiencing a resurgence. While traveling in Japan last spring, I observed the "Kojiki" (ๅคไบ‹่จ˜), the text of a Japanese myth emphasizing the legitimacy of the emperor, placed on the desk of the hotel room in place of a Bible or Buddhist scripture. Since Xi Jinping took office in 2012, China has witnessed a rise in exclusive patriotism. The ongoing war in Ukraine has multiple factors, but Russian expansionism based on Slavic nationalism has played a significant role. Right-wing nationalist forces have come to power in several countries, including Israel, Turkey, Italy, and Hungary. Even in the United States, there are signs of a decline in inclusive democracy and a rise in right-wing populism. These groups base their arguments on culture, saying that their own culture is unique and must be preserved in its original form, and that the cultures of other countries must not be allowed to enter or damage it. Nationalist perspectives even permeate the Korean Wave.

In September 2022, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London hosted the exhibition 'Hallyu! The Korean Wave" for nine months. With its esteemed history of over 170 years, the museum's Korean Wave exhibition attracted considerable attention in the country. Taking advantage of my participation in the accompanying academic seminar on the Korean Wave, I visited the exhibition. The exhibition strategically arranged artists and content that played a crucial role in the journey of the Korean Wave in chronological and thematic categories. It also provided British visitors with thoughtful explanations of major events in modern Korean history. However, one Korean media outlet published an angry article about the exhibition, saying, "What is created by others is never the Korean Wave. It was an article that came from a nationalistic perspective that failed to understand the essence of the Korean Wave. Just as Hwasa, a member of the girl group Mamamoo, aptly defined K-pop as "a beautiful hybrid created together with many people," the Korean Wave is not only Korean, but also a collective embrace of human culture. Without the inclusivity of Korean content, the phenomenon of the Korean Wave that we are witnessing around the world today would not be possible.

The theory of hybridity of the postcolonial school of thought does not recognize the idea of pure tradition or a distinct national culture. This is because culture is constantly influenced and exchanged with other cultures, resulting in constant evolution. For example, the traditional dress of the indigenous people sold as a tourist product at the archaeological sites of the Mayan civilization in Mexico has actually been transformed under the cultural influences of various external forces, such as Spain. Essential elements of Italian cuisine, such as tomatoes, were not introduced until the 15th century. The spicy taste of kimchi, commonly perceived abroad as a symbol of Korean identity, became possible only after the introduction of chili peppers during the Japanese invasions of Korea. Jjajangmyeon, the soul food of Koreans, lies on the border between Korean and Chinese cuisine. In other words, hybridity theory emphasizes how people use and practice culture rather than its origin. It emphasizes the importance of the practical aspect of culture.

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion

The identity of any country or ethnic group tends to be formed on the basis of culture. However, the nature and form of a particular culture is transient from the perspective of the long duration of history. Let's take a moment to examine the concept of culture. The term "culture," which comes from the Latin word "colere," meaning "to cultivate," has evolved into the concepts of education, art, and national culture. In other words, nature never gives or ensures culture. It is formed and improved by the history of a particular region, which is characterized by constant change. Culture is still changing and will continue to change in the future. Cultural studies is the most influential theoretical framework and academic movement in the analysis of contemporary popular culture. Cultural studies also views culture not as a fixed concept, but through a pluralistic approach. Cultural studies emphasizes the agency of individuals (and subcultures) who, through creativity, can change inherited or given structures and produce new meanings. Let's return to the issue of the term 'Chinese New Year'.

After a period of Jewish, Italian, and Greek immigration to New York City, Koreans pioneered the area in the 1970s, and Chinese immigrants did the same in the 1980s. In the 1980s, during the Lunar New Year, Koreans in Flushing shared and enjoyed Tteokguk and played Yut Nori together, while the Chinese performed lion dances and parades. It was a simultaneous showcase of different cultural practices during the Lunar New Year. In the 1990s, American, Korean, and Chinese immigrants in Flushing agreed to unify the name as 'Lunar New Year,' and they have been jointly celebrating the 'Lunar New Year Festival' since 1999. They also campaigned to make the Lunar New Year a U.S. national holiday, which they eventually achieved in 2015. It is a symbolic event demonstrating the unity of immigrant groups, who may be considered vulnerable, within American society.

In fact, Chinese immigrants have established Chinatowns in many parts of the world, including Asia, Europe, the Americas, Oceania, and Africa. The term โ€˜Chinese New Year' itself is not originally from China; it was coined by mainstream societies in various countries to distinguish the customs of Chinese people, who were perceived as 'others'. Later, the term spread and became widely used in overseas Chinese communities. Singaporean cultural studies scholar Liew Kai Khiun wrote the following on social media regarding this debate:

โ€œThis is primarily an issue with the English language. โ€˜Chinese New Yearโ€™ is an English term used only in ethnic communities outside China. I have never heard of the term โ€˜ไธญ่ฏๆ–ฐๅนดโ€™ (Chinese New Year in Chinese characters). Even now, I greet my Chinese friends and Singaporean colleagues with โ€˜Happy CNYโ€™ in English via text messages. However, discussions about tradition and culture should evolve with the times, embracing the spirit of inclusivity and diversity. Insisting on a singular definition only reveals one's narrow-mindedness and perpetuates racial discrimination. 'Lunar New Year' is preferable in English because this term can encompass various New Year celebrations across different Asian regions. In fact, different countries use different names for the New Year festival. For example, in China, it is called Chun Jie; in Vietnam, it is Tet; in Korea, it is Seollal, and in Tibet, it is Losar."

Until the 1980s, the cultural studies mentioned above were called "British Cultural Studies. This was due to a group of scholars, mainly from the University of Birmingham in the U.K., who from the 1960s to the 1990s focused on analyzing the cultural reality of their own country with theories and problems tailored to the U.K. However, it is no longer referred to as "British Cultural Studies" because the theories and awareness of problems have now spread globally and are used to analyze cultures in different regions and to contemplate better cultural environments and practices. For example, "The Associated Press Stylebook," the standard style guide for the U.S. media, recommends using the term "Lunar New Year" instead of "Chinese New Year," reflecting a decision made in consideration of cultural diversity and inclusivity.

China is likely to remain unwilling to accept such a recommendation. With a strong sense of victimization over the last 100 years of its history at the hands of Western imperialism, China has a strong sense of restoring the Great Chinese Order and building a โ€œChinese standardโ€ rather than a โ€œglobal standardโ€ set by the West. Against this backdrop, there is a strong obsession with being the originator of culture, leading to claims that even pizza, hamburgers, soccer, skiing, and golf all originated in China. This perspective is vastly different from the rest of the world outside of China.

No โ€˜Korean Waveโ€™ Without Mutual Respect

Nevertheless, China is our neighbor. Although it may be a somewhat exaggerated expression, diplomatic rhetoric such as "an alliance as close as teeth and lips" (่„ฃไบก้ฝ’ๅฏ’) is often used to describe our close relationship. South Korea and China have a long history of close ties. Although various Chinese dynasties have launched numerous invasions, they have also made significant contributions to cultural development and the formation of civilization.

In the late 20th century, South Korea served as a model of economic development for China. Korea's advanced technology and management methods, combined with China's abundant labor resources and huge market, contributed greatly not only to bilateral economic cooperation, but also to the development of friendly relations between the two countries. The Korean wave that has developed since the late 1990s could not have grown without the people and networks in Greater China. As cultural exchanges continue to grow, the wisdom of reading and understanding the context behind cultural phenomena, as well as mutual cultural respect, will become increasingly important.(End)

Author SHIM Doobo, has been working at the Department of Broadcasting and Communications, School of Culture and Communications, Sungshin Women's University