I’ve updated and fixed a cache of old Korean posts on this site, dating back to 2002-2004, which used to be hosted on their own sub-blog. If that doesn’t interest you, skip this post! Continue reading
Update (17 Nov. 2014): You, too, can enjoy this wonderful die… if you use an Android device and can read Korean, anyway, or if you visit Insadong (and can read hanja). See the update at the end of the post for more details.
Original Post: As promised the other day: the Korean d14 from the Shilla Dynasty, used for drinking games.
(Yeah, given the popularity even now of group drinking games in South Korea, that’s hardly a surprise.)
But the d14 is unusual: it’s a rather bizarre polyhedral die called the 주령구 (Juryeonggu), which I first ran across during a visit to the Anapji palace in Kyeongju. Here’s the crappy photo I took then, in the dark of night:
… and here’s what I wrote back when I posted the photo to Flickr (where it still is, click above and you’ll see):
The die on this image was used at parties. Each side had a command inscribed in Chinese characters, with possibilities like, “call upon anyone of your choice to recite a poem,” or “song a song,” or “guzzle down some liquor” (big surprise, I know).
I’m pretty sure it’s a d14, by the way
, but I’m not 100% sure. This was on display at one of the palace sites in Gyeongju, Anapji.
You can read more about these dice, called 주령구, on this website. That is, if you can read Korean. (The autotranslations still come out wacky, but less so on
this page(dead link) where someone is explaining the misunderstandings of the various results on each face of the die.)
One of the original pages I linked is gone, obviously, but there’s a much better set of photos (along with some information) over on this blog over at tistory anyway; the only problem is that it’s all in Korean. So here I am, disseminating a bit, for the edification of those whose korean is even worse than mine!
Here are a couple of pics and a rough stab at translating the meaning of each face of the die:
Most of the post over at tistory (where the picture directly above, and most of the pictures below, are from) is about the discovery and preservation of the die during excavations in the 1970s.
There is also an index of facets and what they meant. However, the translations of the dice faces are pretty horrible, apparently. This blog post claims to be more accurate, and certainly some of the interpretations there make more sense, so my wife and I have based the following on its translations instead (though, note, some of the meanings are simply unclear, since the rules were never written down and scholars have had to guess from the vague instructions on the dice):
1. 금성작무(禁聲作舞, square face) : Dance to no music or singing.
2. 중인타비(衆人打鼻, square face) : Your nose will get smacked by a bunch of people.
3. 음진대소(飮盡大笑, square face) : Drink all the booze and and laugh! (Meaning uncertain, but probably means drink the rest of the liquor on the table. Or maybe finish your glass. Not sure.)
4. 삼잔일거(三盞一去, square face) : Chug three shots of liquor at a time. (Literally, drink three glasses of liquor holding them all together the same time.)
5. 유범공과(有犯空過, square face) : Stay still no matter what! (ie. Flinch test: others will tease or move to strike you)
6. 자창자음(自唱自飮, square face) : Drink and sing “straight.” (I think, in contrast to #13.)
“Triangular” (actually 6-Edged) Faces:
7. 곡비즉진(曲臂則盡, 6-edged face) : Put one glass on the palm of your hand, and hold another glass with your other hand. Then move your hand holding the glass under your other arm and drink it. (?!?!?)
8. 농면공과(弄面孔過, 6-edged face) : Stay perfectly still and don’t blink while someone tickles your face!
9. 임의청가(任意請歌, 6-edged face) : Sing a song that the others request you to sing.
10. 월경일곡(月鏡一曲, 6-edged face) : Sing a weolgyeong song. (Which seems to be a song about the moon, though here “moon” might be a metaphor for a women, or a woman in the group.)
11. 공영시과(空詠詩過, 6-edged face) : Translate a poem aloud.
12. 양잔즉방(兩盞則放, 6-edged face) : Drink two shots.
13. 추물막방(醜物莫放, 6-edged face) : Don’t let it go when it’s not clean. (Unclear meaning, but probably you’re on cleanup duty.)
14. 자창괴래만(自唱怪來晩, 6-edged face) : Sing a song while playing drunk. (ie. Pretend to be really drunk while you sing a song.)
This following image looks like another museum piece, probably a recreation since the original dice were in rough shape when they were found:
The geometry of the die is actually kind of interesting, as it’s a hybrid of two more-familiar polyhedral dice known to gamers today:
Yep, it’s a hybrid of a d6 and a d8: six sides have four edges, and eight sides have 6 edges (though, note, this is to make the geometry work: a regular d8’s sides have only three edges). I’m sure the more mathematically inclined would be able to work out the effect of this on the probability of the different-sized faces coming up in any given role, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that each square face, being smaller, was slightly less likely to show up, although perhaps not a lot less likely.
This die is not readily available (in mass commercial manufacture) as far as I can tell, which is funny since I suspect–aside form the fact it’s all in difficult-to-read hanja–that a modernized version would be popular at drinking sessions, especially with college kids and middle-aged men. However, there are two forms in which you can buy it. There’s an apparently wooden version that costs almost fifty bucks (!):
… or a massive build-your-own paper version, at a size of approximately 10 cubic centimeters, that’s closer to fifteen bucks:
The cutesy animal number die version isn’t a big surprise, by the way. Over the years, getting gaming dice has gotten easier, but the price of standard six-sided dice in Korea seems to be higher than it is in the West, as I learned when trying to buy a large set of d6s for a game a few years ago. lots of the dice sets commercially available online in Korea are conceived as pedagogical tools, either for math or for language (here are some used in English teaching). One example is the alphabet dice I was using with students a while back, and which are pictured in this post.
Still, no affordable plastic 주령구 for grownups… for now, anyway!
Update: Courtesy of Stephen Robertson, in a Facebook discussion of the post, there seems to be a app on Google Play, for those who use Android! (I don’t, so I can’t try it out, but I’d love to hear how people find it.)
Also, according to other comments on Facebook, there are physical dice available in Insadong, a tourist
trap district in Seoul. I’ll have to go have a look for them when I’m next in Korea, as I’d love to have one. (Hint, hint.)
Taehoon Lee is doing a useful service on Korea Observer that Robert Koehler used to perform over on The Marmot’s Hole, back when he started out: translating and posting Korean news items that don’t make it into the English-language news in Korea. But man, sometimes the reactions his postings get are just stupid and wrong-headed, and it’s almost always self-righteous expats who are eager to:
- critique the hell out of everything in Korea, and
- spew outraged critique all over Facebook
Here’s an example, a poster for a dance recital at Chonbuk National University that went viral online. Lee posted about it here. Here’s the poster:
My comment on Facebook? As follows:
The reaction (among expats) has been oddly self-righteous and prudish, not to mention hypocritical. The human body being featured in art–nude–is a massive part of cultural history–and not just female bodies, though yes, a lot of it was women’s bodies (issues, yeah, but…). I mean prudish not as in scared of sex, but prudish in that this being unconnected to sex, there must be something morally wrong with nudity at all.
Which, note, I find a very American middle-class sort of response. All uptight and morally outraged because someone showed skin but it’s not intended as masturbation grist.
So yes, I get all the arguments about the commodification of female bodies, but that’s not really what you’re grousing about. Folks, this is why the Victorians made women cover their ankles and necks: enforcing moral codes on the representation of female bodies that insist on pansexualizing them is just as problematic… especially because of this next point:
These people are dancers–they make their art with their bodies. And they know that they live in a society where art is not appreciated even 1% as much as hard liquor, video games, and paid-handjobs. So they engage with the dominant culture in their advertising, hoping maybe to draw a a slightly bigger audience, or who knows, maybe even implcitly comment on this fact. And, as someone with a lot of experience performing music live, it’s a very clever comment on how “naked” you feel on the stage.
Cue hypocritical Western freakout. Cue administrators missing the metaphor and saying, “Geez, if they’re not dancing naked, why make this poster?”
Ah, subtle metaphor on the experience of artistic performance… lost on bureaucrats? Is that possible?
Cue viral explosion of stupidity.
Forgive me if I detect a note of “You aren’t allowed to do anything with your body that hasn’t been approved by us men!” I guarantee all the men criticizing this have no serious philosophical issues with pornography, or strip clubs, or nudity in movies. But a little mild nudity (backs! basically what you’d see on a beach!) on a dance recital poster has them in a tizzy about the commodification of female bodies and misogyny and all that, because WE MUST CRITIQUE KOREA BECAUSE FACEBOOK IS FOR OUTRAGE!!!
And I say this knowing full well I’ve joined the mob in the past, too. This is not hypocrisy, in other words. I’ve been there. Commenters on my post on FB have rightly notes that (a) the poster is tasteful, and (b) outrage is addictive. And it’s the latter that concerns me here: outrage is addictive, and something about the internet generally, and Facebook specifically, fuels that.
Oh, and that guy in the poster? Yeah, I doubt the photo shoot was that fun for him. I’m guessing he politely covered his eyes till they got their shirts on, but even if they didn’t ask him to… they’re dancers. Dancers do wardrobe changes in a hurry backstage all the time. Again, there’s the disconnect between people who have only ever sat in an audience (if even that) and people who actually perform.
Something I find fascinating is how people talk and talk and talk about diversity as if it only means different races, and not different cultures–that different cultures and the frame of reference in which they operate ought to be transparent to anyone without the slightest bit of effort or context.
For example, the above image has apparently started doing the rounds on Facebook… at least, I assume so. I’m not tracking the trends, but a friend shared it.
Is it racism captured in a nutshell? I don’t think so… but I’m guessing a lot of Westerners would.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying that racism towards black people (and many others) exists in South Korea. It surely, surely does. I mean, a while back the Minister of Defense caught himself midway through the Korean racist epithet for black people in a press conference: zero repercussions. Korean public television stations regularly air blackface minstrel show crap. By “regularly,” I mean at least once every year or two, sometimes more often than that. There’s a long history of Korean blackface minstrelsy, too: it’s well explained by Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling. And if you check out Matt’s post, you’ll also see that until recently, it was routine to caricature Africans (and African-Americans) by putting them in animal skins and a bone in their nose:
… though I’ll add that racialized caricature is more common and accepted in Korea generally… including when caricaturing Koreans, sometimes. I mean: it has a literal Chinaman, in Qing Dynasty Era clothing. It has a white woman with dark circles under her eyes and a massively phallic nose. I Still, only Africans get the bone-in-the-nose (and “Duh, what?”) treatment.
And, well, then there’s advertising…
So, er, yeah. Issues.
Still, when I see this image:
… it doesn’t scream Can You Feel the Racism?!?!?? to me.
The reason is because of context.
- The rest of the world is not America. (Canada, the UK, Australia, Kiwiland, etc.) You can’t expect it to be parseable by your cultural rules and frame of reference. That doesn’t excuse everything–some cultural norms are shit and we shouldn’t have to respect them–but you can’t just read everything by your own cultural codes unless you want to be ignorant and waste a lot of time leveling stupid accusations at undeserving people. The worst part is, that this laziness is also part of the Social Justice movement. Back in the old says, it was white people insisting everyone speak white. These days, it feels more like North American people (white and nonwhite alike) insisting everyone speak American. That’s lazy. Diversity is harder work than that.
- South Koreans dramatically overreact a lot, for all kinds of things. Poodles, for example. Cats. Korean children in Spiderman costumes. A surprise chocolate cake. I’ve had older Koreans react that way just because I greeted them in Korean. I say, “안녕하십니까?” They shriek and jump back like they’ve just looked into the face of Cthulhu. It’s a cultural thing: they overreact very dramatically because that’s how you emote surprise, and it leavens interactions in a society where anyway people to be more reserved about emoting in other ways. And the old lady, when you look at her face carefully, right at the end of the clip? That looks like a smile to me. I’d wager she’d have jumped almost as high if it were a white, or an Arabic, or any other sort of (non-Northeast-Asian) person behind the mask. Or even, you know… a poodle, or a chocolate cake, or her brother that she hasn’t seen in three days.
- The older woman probably has never seen an actual black person up close, or ever at all, before. It’s even possible she’s never interacted up close with any sort of non-Korean person. I’ve met a number of people in Korea (and a couple of Koreans in Vietnam) who told me that I was the first white person they’d ever talked to. It happens less and less often, but it still happens even today. And there are way more white people than black people in Korea.
- Korean society has been brainwashed into believing it’s homogenous. (It can be useful in a fascistic regime struggling to create a narrative of national identity, as Korean dictators did after the end of Japanese occupation.) To a point, the race-homogeneity story is sort of true, though the pure-blood ideology is bullshit: there have been foreign peoples of various kinds–Japanese wanderers, Arab traders, foreign missionaries, and so on–on the Korean peninsula for centuries. Still, when you spend a lifetime bombarded by messages that outsiders are practically aliens, well… it shapes your reactions. On top of that:
- Korean media and education has conditioned a lot of older people to see non-Koreans as Radically Other. In other words, it’s not just culture: it’s extensive and conscious brainwashing that was part of education and all media. Such brainwashing also exists–about various things–in all societies. It’s hard to blame your average person for taking certain things for granted, when they have so little access to other ideas–which is what dictatorships like those that existed in Korea until 1987 always bring about. Blackface minstrel shows shape how people react. Education about other races and about history shape how people react. Which is to say, media and schooling has hypertrophied the Us and Them thing, and hypertrophied the degree of surprise people experience, and most older Koreans haven’t had any experience that prompts them to sit down and rethink those ideas. But…
- In most societies where an outsider hasn’t been seen before, or is only rarely seen, people often react this way. Londoners went through it for a few centuries, putting non-English (and especially non-white) people on display, sometimes in cages, for the general public’s viewing pleasure. I mean, Josephine Baker’s whole early career in France was built on the same curious-but-anxious transracial gaze. My (white, French-Canadian) mom got the same stares and pokes and wide-eyed looks (and weird harassment from occasional locals) during her days in Malawi, even when she spoke to them in chiTumbuka. The natural human reaction to one’s first encounter with visible difference is baffled curiosity, and societies only learn to soft-pedal that on a timescale of decades or centuries, not years. In other words, Westerners who are outraged at this are a bit like the people who were born on a space station, laughing as the new orbital emigrants take some time to get their bearings in zero-g.
- When this lady was a kid, practically the only black people in Korea were GIs. Need I add that some of those GIs were legitimately scary, and kids were warned to stay away from them? Need I add that there was an extensive (and open-secret) sex trade in servicing GIs, which gave them a bad reputation? Need I add that the media was careful to publish as many stories as possible about GI crimes, in order to keep Koreans from mixing with them?
- The situation is contrived… and manipulated. I mean, they’re in front of a camera. The younger guy obviously seems to know what’s about to happen. He even reacts with a scary look (anticipating the shock he must pretend) and then adjusts his reaction to curiosity when he catches himself. He jumps offscreen, and seems to shout, too… which I’m willing to wager prompted a more extreme reaction from the older woman than she’d otherwise have had.
- The older woman doesn’t flip out on the black guy. Yes, this is a point directed at outraged Americans. At least she doesn’t pull a George Zimmerman on this fella in the Iron Man mask. (On top of which: she probably doesn’t know what the hell Iron Man is, so she’s probably already at WTF? before the guy even lifts up the mask.)
- We don’t see what happens next! I’m willing to bet they just all laughed, and the black guy talked to them a little in Korean, and then they laughed some more, and went about their business. She maybe playfully smacked him in the arm and said, “You shouldn’t scare people!” and he maybe said, “Ha, it’s funny, right?” And then she said, “Oh, your Korean is really good!” I mean, I don’t know what happened. But that sounds most likely to me.
(Update: There’s one more thing. From Jennifer Flinn in the Facebook discussion:
Can somebody also please mention that the guy in the mask is an extremely well-known presence on a bunch of TV shows? It’s not random black man, it’s Sam Okyere. He’s been on SNL Korea, Masterchef, Running Man, Island Village Teacher, and the incredibly popular but obnoxious Abnormal Summit.
So there’s that. I doubt it’s necessarily relevant: I don’t think the older woman in the video is likelier to be up to date on all the crapola TV shows mentioned, but… you never know.)
Now, I don’t know about you, outraged while expats in Korea, but I can say that the few black people I’ve known in Korea, when they talked about experiencing racism in the country, didn’t talk about little momentary encounters like this. They talked about being assaulted. They talked about people spewing racist language at them. They talked about racist (No Blacks!) job advertisements. They talked about having to avoid the subway because of all the hateful encounters. They talked about bars banning all black people or all Nigerians (ie. all black people) because they were associated with drugs, or crime, or, most recently, Ebola.
If you want to get mad about that, go for it.
But there’s a point where people are going to say dumb shit, and do dumb shit, without malice, and be embarrassed about their momentary reaction. They may apologize, and they may not. They may not realize the shit was dumb, or they may realize it and be too embarrassed to own it and admit it. We can wish they would, but shrieking, “Raciste-toi!” every time you see something that makes you go “Huh?”, well… you lose perspective. You forget that there’s context. You forget that not every place in the world speaks in culturally American (or Canadian, or whatever).
There was this one time I was having lunch with a couple of colleagues: one was half-black and half-Korean, and theother was Korean. The Korean guy was telling us about this scene in V that stuck out vividly in his memory:
… and yeah, he said “When I saw that the baby was half-bla… er, half-alien,” my eyes went wide, but I didn’t say anything. Okay, issues. He’d been weird about the mixed-race thing before. He’d asked all kinds of questions–in the job interview, no less–about which parent was Korean, and which one was black, and so on. I can’t say where the line between clueless-rude and clueless-malicious sits. And you know, my colleague wasn’t troubled by it. Water off a duck’s back.
But I can say when it’s been crossed, like, six months later, when the mixed-race colleague inexplicably missed a few days of work, and the first thing I got asked was, “Do you think it’s drugs?” Because, you know, black people and drugs, right? (Sigh.) Turned out it was actually a stroke. That time, my colleague crossed the line from clueless to nasty.
That’s what diversity looks like: it’s a lot harder work than just singing kumbaya around a campfire while someone strums guitar. It has all kinds of rough edges, and all kinds of lines drawn in all kinds of baffling places–and you’re going to cross someone else’s line unwittingly, as surely as they will cross yours unwittingly. It’s full of has weirdly blurry boundaries that don’t match what you expect, and sometimes it bangs against you and you have to say, “Wait, huh?” instead of going straight to denunciations. It’s like what my wife describes about surfing: you need to keep your wits about you all the time, and you have to relax too. If you can’t do both at once, you’ll end up swimming more than surfing, and you’ll never get anywhere.
Which is to say: if you decide to be outraged about everything, you’ll end up being outraged about nothing… and you’ll learn nothing.
It’s also to say: like I’ve said before: Facebook feels like an outrage boosting machine. That’s how I see it these days, anwyay. Don’t think: Like! Share! Snark! Do anything but actually think.
First, the clueless book reviewer:
I’ve submitted my own review already–it’s apparently somewhere along the process toward becoming forthcoming, over at The Kyoto Journal–and I can say found the book disappointing, but not for the same reasons as Bradley Winterton:
I am sorry to have to say it, but The Korean Popular Culture Reader is close to the most disappointing book I have ever had to review.
Not long ago I found myself engrossed in a Korean TV mini-series called Hot Blood. It concerned the unlikely subject of an ambitious car salesman, but the production standards, acting and plot, together, I have to admit, with the extremely photogenic character of many of the performers, made me an instant addict.
That second paragraph is an immediate disclosure that this particular clueless reviewer actually wanted a totally different (and rather stupider) sort of book:
So a book that claims to be a reader relating to these phenomena was surely going to be of interest. What about the cosmetic surgery that’s said to have produced all these flawless faces? What about the near slave conditions in which these teenage groups have allegedly been trained from a very early age? And what about the exceptional screen-writers responsible for these highly watchable Korean dramas? How about the relation of these distinctive art forms to fashion, to Korean politics, to exports of other Korean products, not to mention the fan-hysteria (unmatched, some say, since the days of the Beatles), and the companies such as S M Entertainment behind these pop groups? A book that threw light on such things would surely make compelling reading.
This is pretty clueless when it comes to any kind of book: why didn’t the author write what I wish she’d written?
But it’s also incorporates a special kind of cluelessness regarding academic texts. Academics aren’t supposed to celebrate pop culture; that’s what fans do. Academics, being, you know, educated and stuff, may not even share the clueless fan’s enthusiasm for whatever “awesome” and “highly watchable” media Winterton likes. (I personally find most South Korean TV series completely unwatchable.) But if even if they did like this or that bit of media, academics wouldn’t write this kind of book in the first place, because that’s not the kind of thing academics write: even (or especially) the stuff they like, they dissect and analyze in ways that complicate and problematize the text. Maybe even moreso, because they know that liking something can easily blind them to its flaws and deeper complexities.
In other words, Bradley Winterton went to a fashion show and complained that he didn’t get a single lap dance.
Not that his objection regarding the choice of “popular culture” surveyed is completely invalid: the editors start out by claiming they put the book together to serve those professors teaching Korean Pop Culture courses, since it’s Kpop and Korean movies and TV that are actually drawing most new students to Korean Studies departments. But precious little of the book actually addresses that media doing the attracting, which is sad. After all, the book could have served up essays more focused on that material that were still critical, thoughtful, and useful in helping students learn more about Korean society, history, politics, and so on. But that better book still wouldn’t be the Kpop flog that Winterton longs for.
The real problem is, I think, is the essays collected in the book neatly avoid that kind of deep, critical dissection of the most mainstream, most recognized Korean pop culture materials… and I think the avoidance isn’t necessarily an accident, though it’s probably not completely conscious, either.
What is that reason?
I think what we have is a case of deep complicity with an ideology I’ll call Hallyu Nationalism; that is, a form of nationalist ideology focused on “The Korean Wave,” which reframes the success of Korean pop culture abroad as important (or even crucial) to Korea’s domestic narrative of national success. (And yes, I mean nationalism: A certain proportion of Koreans actually see foreign people consuming Korean media as a form of national validation or national victory; the quixotic longing for Americans to embrace Kpop girl groups is actually quite profound in South Korean society, though obviously it’s not universal.)
This is unsurprising for any number of reasons, most especially the way Korean media talked about the “The Korean Wave” for a long time. It’s penetrated into Korean identity, and Korea’s national identity, to the point where people talk about a century-old “traditional” art form in the past tense (“Before Kpop there was Pansori”: as if pansori is a dead, no-longer practiced tradition):
… while tying themselves in knots to try find a way to explain who Koreans singing what is essentially slightly modified Western pop music, and performing a modernized Can-Can dance in essentially Western clothing, is somehow deeply and truly emblematic about something specifically Korean:
(Yes, that’s dated. I’m also not current on whoever is the latest Britney Spears analogue back in North America. For good reason.)
It’s fascinating that this naturalization is new. Back when the Kim sisters were performing, they actually played out the novelty of Korean women singing Western-style songs in Western clothing, as a kind of musical schtick that (discomfitingly) smacks of a kind of cultural version of recapitulation theory, one that privileges Western pop over traditional music in the same way, but more anxiously:
By the way, I’m not arguing that Koreans shouldn’t make or consume pop music. There will always be a market for musical junk food, even if I personally find pansori much more interesting. It’s just that when you start trying to argue that American cheez-whiz or Japanese instant ramen is somehow suddenly “uniquely Korean” because you stirred in a little kimchi-flavoring, you’re going to look stupid. When you start crowing at the “success” of Korean culture abroad and point to your slightly-modified cheez-whiz or instant ramen concoction, you’re going to look even stupider.
Anyway, in the review I made some extended observations on this idea of Hallyu Nationalism that didn’t make it into the final piece, for reasons of length. I figured I’d share them here. I’ll indent those pieces of text, because I want to interject some commentary:
Something radical has happened in South Korean society alongside the rise of popularity in South Korean pop culture abroad, which deserves to be called Hallyu-nationalism. That nationalism, and that pop culture, are actually deeply connected with many other issues in Korean society–the increasing jettisoning of traditional culture and defunding of the fine arts generally, the anti-feminist backlash after 1997, the chaebolization of South Korea’s economy and society. All of these issues are, ironically, in fact boldly on display throughout contemporary popular culture, including the same music, film, and TV programs that Kim admits attract most students to Korean studies classes today. When the validation-seeking ideology of Hallyu-nationalism–whether its roots lie in South Korea’s postwar inferiority complex, in exaggerated media reports, Korea’s nationalist discourse, or elsewhere–has hypertrophied to the point where kiddie pop groups have eclipsed Korea’s traditional culture and arts as a point of national pride: something very odd is going on here, but what’s infinitely more odd is that almost nobody in this book seems to think that’s worth talking about.
Secondly, by “hallyu nationalism” I mean that South Korean popular culture is explicitly understood by many South Koreans as a kind of soft-power currency abroad: the (real, exaggerated, or imagined) embrace of Korean TV dramas and music overseas (in Asia, and especially in the West), when it is discussed, is nearly always (and certainly, throughout this book) talked about in terms of how South Koreans feel about it. Almost no attention is ever paid to why the embrace occurs in the first place (in those cases where it does occur). Here are some interesting questions that are scarcely even considered, let alone thoughtfully addressed:
- Why did Japanese TV viewers seize upon Korean soap dramas in the late 1990s and early 2000s? Why and how have Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, and Indonesian audiences chosen to follow this trend? (ie. Viewing the media consumption choices of overseas audiences with some sense of those audiences’ volition and choice.) What role is played by distribution contracts connected to the acqusition of cinemas overseas (like for example the acquisition in Vietnam of major local cinemas by Lotte and CGV)?
- What reactions have occurred abroad in the past to Korean popular culture exports? The subject of the reception of Korean pop culture in Japan has been studied carefully and thoughtfully… but not by a Korean studies specialist, so that view has been excluded in favor of a Korea-centric approach.
For example, it’s not like Westerners haven’t consumed TV performances of groups of Korean female musical performers before:
How did Americans react? Did the Kim Sisters sell well? To what degree was their access facilitated by the Korean War, and to what degree did that aspect color how people perceived or received their performances? How did Koreans feel about the Kim Sisters’ performances in America back in those days? All of this seems like it’d be appropriate material for a a chapter in English language book on Korean Popular Culture, for people who probably think Korean pop culture has never been noticed in the West, now, doesn’t it?
- How has the popularization of South Korean media in Southeast Asia affected those societies’ perceptions of Koreans? How have people abroad reacted to South Korean pop-cultural infiltration into their own media spheres, for example in urban China or in Singapore?
For example, consider Joyce Chu’s song “Malaysia Chabor” for more about how pop culture exports have informed both positive and negative attitudes towards South Korea in one Southeast Asian society. (Apparently she’s from southern Malaysia, though I’d swear I’d read someplace else that she was currently living in Singapore.)
Here’s the video, complete with plenty of interesting hints and suggestions on how Koreans, and especially Korean women, are perceived thanks to Korean media:
I ran across it after trying to search out an odd reference to a “kimchi girl” in a random (and frankly kind of terrible) Malaysian comedy movie. (Presumably, there enough young Malaysian women are styling themselves after what they see in South Korean media for that term to be immediately transparent to the audience?)
The more you look, the more these kinds of references are all over the place. Funnily enough, though, Korean studies people aren’t looking: they see happier imagining foreign audiences passively cherishing Korean pop culture because of its inherent awesomeness, cleverness, or whatever, and like many non-academics, tend to assume the embrace of Korean pop culture abroad can only boost Korea’s image on the international stage.
Back to the text left on the cutting room floor:
Such questions—the issue of voluntary adoption of Korean media as “foreign entertainment” and the reception of (and response to) hallyu overseas—are so often ignored in academic discussions of Korean popular culture that one feels almost compelled to ask just how distinct such academic work really is from the self-congratulatory propaganda that dominates South Korea’s mainstream media accounts of hallyu.
Either that, or it’s the typical old “frog in a well” inability to proceed from, “This is how it looks from inside the well,” to “I wonder how it looks from outside the well.” Except, well… academics at least are supposed to do better than that.
Then, finally, there is the issue of cross-pollination. It is wholly uncontroversial to say that global pop culture is very obviously and inextricably hybrid and transnational. In South Korea specifically, virtually all pop cultural forms are the result of South Koreans adopting and slightly reformulating or adapting Japanese and American pop cultural forms: the live hip-hop performance, the webtoon, the girl group video, the blockbuster movie, the television drama, and the instant coffee advertisement are each the product of a hybridized, homogenized global pop culture that is not uniquely or completely Korean.
Yet this profound hybridity is discussed explicitly only occasionally in the text (specifically two on music—which directly discuss American and Japanese influences on Korean song—and one on fashion under the dictatorships, which explicitly fought such cultural cross-pollination). Elsewhere, the issue of transcultural hybridity, or the internalization of (mainly, originally, Western) global pop culture forms, is so studiously avoided that one cannot help but wonder whether this is because the ostensible “Koreanness” of Korean pop culture is so fundamental to the rubric of hallyu-nationalism.
In other words, South Korea now has evolved its own bizarre form of inept pop-culture-nationalist, predicated on:
- the triumph of South Korean pop culture abroad, as proof of South Korea’s greatness, when the pop culture materials themselves both participate in, and explicitly depict, most of the serious problems in Korean society: rampant misogyny and anti-feminist backlash; a rapidly growing wealth gap and deepening class impermeability; the defunding of the fine arts and traditional culture; the increasing oligarchic nature of Korean society to the detriment of Korean workers (not to mention xenophobia, corruption, terrifyingly prevalent child abuse, and more),
- that triumph being because of some inherent quality of South Korean pop culture, rather than complexly interacting with the wants, needs, and frustrations of audiences overseas,
- the idea that overseas audiences who engage with Korean media do so in a way Koreans would like them to do, and
- the idea that South Korea pop culture is ultimately, on a fundamental level, profoundly Korean, rather than the product of a complex interaction with foreign pop culture forms.
None of which matters much in the grand scheme of things, I suppose. But the power with which this idea has taken hold is so profound that even academics seem to have internalized it, and occasionally mumble the words to that crazy tune.
And it’s at the point, I suspect, where doing otherwise would probably provoke outrage. Witness how Winterton’s review above even manages to take offense at someone describing Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video “silly.” If that video’s not silly, what in the hell is?