Thursday, June 20, 2024

China’s Soft Strategy of Encroachment Through Cultural Appropriation

The Chinese government has widely used cultural appropriation to gain more control and exert cultural influence in recent decades. China has been striving hard to capture the hearts and minds of the international community by pursuing a broader strategy that emphasizes culture and increased people-to-people engagement through public diplomacy, education, the media, and economic support.

Cultural appropriation has roots in colonialism when colonialists looted and stole cultural artifacts. It happens when someone from one culture adopts other cultures’ fashion, iconography, ideas, or styles. Everything from cosmetics and haircuts to tattoos, clothes, and even diet and wellness practices has been labeled “cultural appropriation.”

However, Chinese approaches have been markedly different due to their expansionist ambitions in South and Southeast Asia. While it primarily relies on tactics such as economic aid and assistance, education, and high-level visits in South Asia, China attempts to impose a different agenda in the Southeast region by establishing its Confucius Institutes (CIs), expanding its soft borders’ without using military force. This strategy is increasingly visible in China’s interactions with South Korea and its efforts to gain more influence through cultural wars. This approach has sparked lots of debates.

Most recently, when a Chinese girl was seen wearing what seemed to be a Korean hanbok dress, the controversy over the issue of cultural appropriation resurfaced. On February 4, 2022, she was among those who represented China’s 56 ethnic groups at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. In South Korea, this occurrence has sparked a heated debate.

As a result, China and South Korea have been embroiled in a cultural appropriation controversy since then, with many accusing Beijing of “cultural appropriation” and “stealing” their country’s culture.

For its part, China stated that the hanbok display was not intended to be a declaration of its cultural roots. It was supposed to represent ethnic Koreans, one of the parade’s hundreds of ethnic minority groups. Furthermore, the Chinese Embassy in South Korea declared that “China respects the history, culture, and customs of South Korea and wishes that the emotions of all ethnic groups in China including the Korean ethnicity, be respected.”

Some South Koreans share a similar viewpoint, arguing that the hanbok should also belong to the Korean diaspora, including the approximately 2 million ethnic Koreans residing in China. According to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, almost two million people of Korean origin live in the country, making them a recognized minority group whose language and the Chinese government protects.

The majority of South Koreans, on the other hand, had a different reaction. Their retaliation stems partly from China’s long-standing efforts to claim Korea’s ancient kingdoms as part of its own history. The Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo and Balhae share territory with modern-day China. “This is not the first time China has incorporated Korean culture as if it were its own,” said Lee So-young, a lawmaker for South Korea’s ruling party. He also stated that if the Korean people’s anti-China feelings get exacerbated to a dangerous level due to the current situation, it will be a significant impediment to future negotiations with China.

Furthermore, two rival presidential contenders in Korea slammed China. Leading candidate Lee Jae Myung chastised Beijing for “cultural appropriation,” while his principal opponent, conservative Yoon Suk Yeol, termed China “disrespectful.”

This is not the first time that these two countries have faced off. Both the countries frequently disagree on matters of cultural heritage. There have also been nationalist outbursts in response to Chinese official media claims that kimchi, the popular Korean fermented cabbage dish, originated in China. Kimchi is essentially a side dish and is often depicted as both a superfood and the pride and joy of Korean culture and is known in Chinese as “pao cai.” Although Chinese pao cai is similar to kimchi, it differs in ingredients and cooking techniques.

This lack of understanding has resulted in online debates between Chinese and Korean citizens, with both claiming kimchi is part of their cultural history. To clear up the mistake, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism announced a new Chinese term for kimchi, deciding that kimchi’s Chinese name would be xinqi.

Another point of contention between the countries is traditional ginseng chicken soup/ samgyetang. Some Chinese netizens claimed that samgyetang or traditional Korean ginseng chicken soup originated in China. On Baidu in March 2021, samgyetang was described as a chicken soup dish from China’s Guangdong area that was later introduced to Korea. It goes on to say that the meal eventually became one of the most famous dishes favored by members of Korea’s royal family. However, the Rural Development Administration of South Korea stated that Koreans have been cooking chicken soup since at least the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), wealthy Koreans relished the chicken soup with ginseng powder known as samgyetang. Following the 1960s, it grew more popular among ordinary people.

This cultural war between these two countries is not confined to debates over the origins of foods or clothing but extends to disagreements over the nationality of poets and even the practice of acupuncture. Not only South Korea but other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines are also victims of this strategy of China. In 2019, a film called ‘Abominable‘ was released in China, telling the story of a Chinese adolescent who discovers a Yeti in her family’s house and asks the help of her friends to send the creature back to Mount Everest. Pearl Studio in Shanghai and DreamWorks Animation in Hollywood worked on the film’s production. However, Vietnam quickly banned the movie because a scene included a map that supported China’s claims to the South China Sea, a disputed area shared by Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

Further, the plot of the animated film does not explicitly address the issue of contested territory. The Philippines also decided to boycott the movie. Vietnam has been the most vocal opponent of China’s South China Sea claim in recent years. China has the most extensive claim to the South China Sea, with a U-shaped “nine-dash line” stretching over 2,000 kilometers from mainland China to areas near Indonesia and Malaysia.

Under the guise of cultural appreciation, China often attempts to expand and subjugate others’ territory, people, culture, and nationality by distorting historical facts. Affected countries must take immediate action, as Korea and Vietnam did. It is essential to understand that the borderline between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is razor-thin, not to mention exceedingly contentious. Some argue that appropriation does not occur since no culture is entirely unique and uninfluenced by others. Understanding the culture from which you are taking is essential to practice appreciation rather than appropriation.

Author profile
Pia Sherman

Pia Sherman is a freelance writer. Views expressed are solely of the author.

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