What is Korean Culture
National culture is one of the most significant aspects in understanding the specifics of the nation. Each nation has its own culture, including the ideas of religion, family, arts, and lifestyle. There are no two identical national cultures. However, sometimes it is not easy to define the culture of a certain country since the international relationships influence significant changes in the cultural patterns. For many countries, who have become independent quite recently and whose culture has been influenced by the cultural patterns of the more powerful states, it is rather difficult to determine the specifics of their cultures. In addition, in the 21st century, this issue has become extremely important because of the globalization processes, which eliminate the national identity and apply the international cultural patterns instead. Korean civilization has its long history and, with no doubt, a rich culture, which defines the specifics of the Korean nature. However, there are two significant difficulties, which are the main obstacles in defining what pure Korean culture is. First, Korea has been under the rule of China for many centuries, and then it has been influenced by Japanese and Western cultures. Second, North Korea and South Korea are two different states with the same cultural heritage. Korean culture, which includes specific religious beliefs, interpersonal relationships, and arts, is highly influenced by Chinese, Japanese, and Western cultures. Also, Korea is divided into two parts, each of which differs from one another.
Defining Significant Aspects of Traditional Korean Culture
Korean civilization has its reach history and many significant cultural aspects. Korea is a region in East Asia, which has emerged as a singular political entity, but during its long history, it has been ruled by different more powerful states, such as China and Japan. Moreover, in 1945, Korea has been divided into two sovereign states, South Korea and North Korea. During its existence, Korea has provided its cultural identity, partially original and partially borrowed from the other nations. Culture is a significant phenomenon linked to the national identity. Speaking about Korean culture, such important aspects as religion, social structure, and art can be defined.
It is rather difficult to define the essence of culture. According to Williams, the term “culture” is one of the most complicated terms in the English language, since it is used in various concepts, and it brings various senses (87). To make sure that the current research is comprehensive and clear, the definition of this term is needed. Culture is the unity of religious, social, and material values of the certain nation. In addition, culture is always linked to the national identity. The issue about national identity and nationalism is still very ambiguous, and some researchers like Anderson even claim that nation is only “an imagined political community” (6). However, the nation is not something imagined, which truly does not exist. Defining the specifics of each nation’s culture, the researchers can identify its crucial values and tendencies, which are always varying. Therefore, it is extremely important to identify the main aspects of Korean culture to understand its development and current influence.
One of the most significant cultural aspects is religion, as it is the essential part of the existence of humankind. Despite the fact that nowadays Korea is highly influenced by such religions as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity, originally Korea has had a different national religion (Min-Ho). Shamanism has been the original religious belief in Korea (Oh 78). The specifics of this religious belief is in its absolute monopolization by Korean women unlike most of the shamanism variations throughout the world (Oh 78). In the 21st century, shamanism still exists in Korea along with the other religious beliefs as a part of the Korean cultural heritage. However, its significance is much lower than it was before, as more powerful religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism (and much later – Christianity) have become more appreciated by the Koreans. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity are the significant religions in Korea, which are not originally Korean. However, the Koreans provide appropriate rituals, build temple and churches, and subordinate their lives to the main principles of these religions. Therefore, the original Korean religion exists only as a part of the Korean history, while the religions, borrowed from other nations, influence Korea in a greater extend.
Another significant part of the culture is the different artworks produced by Koreans. The main tendency in Korean art is naturalism, which means the simplicity and a feeling of harmony with nature (Kim et al.). The Korean artists have always preferred simplicity instead of the complexity of shape or the abundance of the decorative elements. In addition, the significant part of the Korean art is the avoidance of extremes, which means the middle way between straightness and curvilinear (Kim et al.). Therefore, it means that when the Koreans borrowed some art tendencies from their neighbors (China or Japan), they transformed them into the Korean artworks using the principle of simplicity. Foreign religious beliefs have influenced the Korean art significantly, in particular, such areas as sculpture, painting, and architecture. For instance, due to the spread of Buddhism, numerous sculptures of Buddha, as well as temples and pagodas, have appeared. Korean painting styles have been highly influenced by the Chinese tendencies, and the prevailed themes in Korean paintings are the daily life, animals, plants, and landscapes (Kim et al.). Nowadays Korean art is between Eastern and Western styles of painting, which means that it is still influenced by other nations (Kim et al.). Korean traditional music, as a form of art, has been influenced by Chinese music for a long time too. Therefore, Korean art has its specific traits, but at the same time, it has been influenced a lot by other cultures.
The last significant part of culture is the social structure of the state. Interpersonal relationships in Korea have been highly influenced by the principle of Confucianism. It is not surprising since this principle was absorbed by the Korean society centuries ago (Oh 77). According to Confucianism, there is a straight hierarchy of the society, and everyone should take his (her) special place in this world. Moreover, Confucianism provides specific relationships in the Korean community, when the principles of subordination and respecting elder and ancestors are applied. In addition, Confucianism is extremely patriarchal, which means that the Korean culture is also patriarchal (Lie 341). Therefore, the social structure of Korea is highly influence by the Chinese ideology of Confucianism, which defines its specific aspects.
To sum up, to define the specifics of the culture means to define the specifics of its most significant aspects, which contributes towards identifying the specifics of the Korean culture. Religion, arts, and social structure are the main cultural aspects. The Korean cultural heritage has much in common with Chinese and Japanese ones; however, there are some original ideas, which define the cultural identity of the Koreans. Korean original belief is the shamanism, which is monopolized by women, and now it exists as a reminder of the Korean heritage. At the same time, the main religions of Korea are Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity, which represent the influence of other nations. Korean art has its specific traits, such as naturalism, simplicity, and the feeling of harmony with nature. However, it has been influenced by the art of China and Japan, and a little transformed by the Korean artists (sculpture, architecture, and paintings). Nevertheless, nowadays Korean art has become more independent; for example, K-pop as originally Korean music has become popular throughout the world. Korean social structure is highly influenced by Chinese Confucianism, which means the straight hierarchy, subordination principle, and the principle of patriarchate.
Cultural Influence of China, Japan, and Western Culture on Korea
As it has been mentioned before, Korean culture has its specific traits, but it has been mostly influenced by other cultures. The matter is that the Korean peninsula has been under the rule of China and Japan for a long time, and now it is highly influenced by the Western culture. Many significant tendencies and principles have been borrowed by the Koreans from other nations, including even such significant ones as religion, art, and the principles of the interpersonal relationships. With no doubt, the Koreans have transformed the borrowed ideas, so they are not absolutely identical. However, the fact that many significant Korean cultural aspects has not been produced by the Koreans but just borrowed from other countries, makes it difficult to identify the essence of the Korean culture.
The Chinese influence on Korea is the most crucial one. The matter is that during the long period of time Korea has been under the cultural reign of China, and many Chinese cultural tendencies have spread throughout Korea. During the Joseon dynasty from 1392 till 1897, the Chinese influence on Korea was extremely high (Oh 77). For example, two of three most significant Korean religions, Confucianism and Buddhism, have come from China and almost replaced the Korean shamanism, which has been the original religious belief in Korea. As Confucianism has become the crucial religious belief in Korea, it has influenced even the interpersonal relationships within the state, making it similar to the Chinese society. According to Kim et al., China influences Korean art: sculpture, architecture (for example, little transformed pagodas), and paintings (painting styles and themes). Moreover, Korean traditional clothes have much in common with Chinese and Japanese ones. Speaking about the traditional Korean music, among three main genres of the court music, which are aak, dang-аk, and hyang-ak, only the last one is originally Korean, while the others two have been imported from China (Suh). It is hard to have such a powerful political neighbor and do not come under its influence, but as seen, the main Korean cultural tendencies have been originally Chinese.
Japanese influence on Korean culture is less significant than Chinese, but it has been much more dangerous. The matter is that Japan is another Korean neighbor, which makes it obvious that these both nations have influenced each other, especially during the period of The Three Kingdoms (Kim et al.). Many tendencies of the traditional Korean art are similar to the Japanese ones, for example, there are some similar tendencies in painting, sculpture, architecture, and traditional music. However, the most crucial Japanese influence on Korea was between 1910 and 1945, when Korea was annexed by the Japanese Empire (Blakemore). During that time, the Japanese did much to eliminate the Korean culture by excluding it from all the spheres of social and cultural life. For example, the Korean language was forbidden, religion was changed into the Japanese, and all cultural products like films or books were produced in Japan. Moreover, Korean women often became prostitutes in Japan, which provided an unpleasant stereotype (Blakemore). Moreover, under the Japanese reign, most of the Koreans changed their names to the Japanese-like ones to satisfy the Japanese government. Therefore, with the end of the Japanese invasion in 1945, Korea had to restore its cultural identity, which was almost lost.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Western influence on Korea becomes more and more crucial. In the middle of the 20th century, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, but the American influence changed the whole country. South Korea was imported from the West religious beliefs, social structure changing, significant patterns of behavior, economic models, and tendencies in art-making. The Western influence on Korea has made it one of the most developed countries in the world, with the rapid economic growth. For example, during the last century, the influence of Christianity spread over South Korea, and Christianity became one of the most significant religions (Min-Ho). The food and clothing industries were also influenced by the Western culture, since nowadays South Korea is extremely popular in the USA. The rapid economic growth is an evidence of the Western economic models application in the Korean society. The last example is Korean K-pop, which is extremely popular throughout the world (Lie 340). Despite the fact that lyrics and music are absolutely Korean, the K-pop bands remind the American boys-bands, which were extremely popular in the 1990s and 2000s. The communistic ideology of North Korea is also an example of Westernization, since the origins of this ideology belong to the Western countries. Therefore, the Western countries influence both Koreas, but in a different way.
To sum up, Korea is influenced by Chinese, Japanese, and Western cultures. In the past, many significant cultural patterns such as religion, art-making, and social structure have been imported mostly from China and Japan. For a long time the Japanese influence on Korea has been the cultural exchange, but during the period from 1910 to 1945, the Japanese hegemony has almost destroyed the Korean culture. The Koreans were forbidden to have anything Korean, from their art to their names. However, after the Japanese defeat in the World War II, the Western influence on Korean culture has contributed a lot toward making South Korea one of the most popular countries in the world, and North Korea as the communist kingdom.
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North and South – Two Different Koreas
Speaking about Korean culture, most people forget one significant point. Speaking “Korean culture” they always speak about South Korea. However, North Korea is an entirely different Korea. Ruled by Kim Jong-un and transformed into the totalitarian state, North Korea has almost nothing in common with its neighbor – South Korea. While South Korea is an extremely rich and popular country with its substantial culture, North Korea is an isolated totalitarian country.
Modern South Korea is an example of a rapid economic growth and cultural changes. Nowadays, South Korea is well-known for its cinematography and music, which are rather original and unique. They make the country extremely popular throughout the world. The Korean films represent the cultural patterns of the Korean society and become popular for their exoticness for the foreigner. Speaking about the culture of South Korea, it can be said that it is highly influenced by the Western countries (especially by the USA), but it treats its cultural heritage with respect. For example, they provide numerous cultural festivals to demonstrate traditional Korean clothing, foods, music, visuals, and plastic arts (Ramsingh). Therefore, South Korea ancient traditional culture still exists even despite the modernization and globalization processes, which prove the Koreans attitude towards traditions and national identity. Moreover, producing something original and being Korean has made the country extremely popular among foreigners.
At the same time, North Korea is an entirely different world. It is a well-known fact, that North Korea is a totalitarian state with a deep worship of its leaders. However, the emergence of North Korea is the consequence of the influence of the Western ideology, since the theoretical communistic doctrine has been originally created by Carl Marx. In addition, it is the USSR’s influence on North Korea that caused such a strong communistic doctrine creation (Pettit). North Korea stays as an isolated country, and its culture is related to the ruling ideology. For instance, such cultural products as literature and cinematography have the purpose to emphasize the significance of the communism and the leaders of North Korea. It is also a well-known fact that for many North Korea citizens the object of worship is their political leader, which almost eliminates the role of religion. Therefore, North Korea is an entirely different world with its culture based on the communistic ideology, which is, however, the effect of the Western influence.
Therefore, nowadays there are two entirely different worlds of Korea. On the one hand, there is South Korea with its economic growth and cultural influence, and, on the other hand, there is North Korea, a totalitarian state in cultural isolation. South Korea is well-known for its arts – music, and cinema. South Korean TV-shows filled with Korean pattern of behavior and K-pop with original Korean music and lyrics have become extremely popular among the foreigners. In addition, South Korea treats its traditional culture with respect not forgetting it even despite the Western influence. North Korea is the evidence of the Western ideology influence but nowadays the country stays in cultural isolation. People of North Korea worship their leader and all of their cultural products are dedicated to the ruling ideology. Therefore, North Korea and South Korea are the entirely different worlds.
In conclusion, Korean culture is a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Western cultural tendencies transformed and modified with Korean original ideas. Nowadays South Korea is on its way to influence the rest of the world with its cultural products. Traditional Koran culture includes the religious beliefs, art, and specific interpersonal relationships. The original Korean religion is shamanism, which has been later replaced with Confucianism and Buddhism, imported from China. In the 21st century, shamanism exists just as a reminder of Korean cultural heritage and has no influence. Korean traditional visual arts can be characterized as simple and naturalistic, but partially it has been influenced by Chinese and Japanese cultures (sculptures, painting, music, and architecture). The interpersonal relationships are influenced by the principle of Confucianism, which means the patriarchate, hierarchy, subordination, and respect for elder and ancestors. In addition, Korean culture has been influenced by Chinese, Japanese, and Western cultures. China influences Korean music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and religion. Japan and Korea have provided cultural exchange during hundreds of years, but during the period from 1910 to 1945, Japan made as much as possible to eliminate Korean culture by forbidding Korean language, art, and even names. Western influence is partially positive since it has made South Korea a developed and popular country by promoting its economic growth and providing new religion (Christianity) and new art-making patterns. In addition, Western influence on North Korea has caused the popularity of the communistic ideology. Nowadays, speaking about Korean culture, people distinguish between South Korea and North Korea. South Korea becomes more influential and popular due to its cultural products (cinema and music), facing significant changes, and treats traditional culture with respect. North Korea is culturally isolated and all its cultural products support its ideology.