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The Korean Wave and New Frontier

2006/01/30 | 103 views | Permalink | Source

Advent of the Age of Intangible Culture

The concept of mankind's cultural heritage is currently changing from tangible to intangible. "Tangible cultural heritage" was defined by the UNESCO's Convention Concerning the Protection of the World's Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972 as being "irreplaceable in nature, limited to specific time and space".

For some time tangible cultural heritage tended to be exclusively promoted by advanced capitalistic countries in the West. On the other hand, the Convention for the Safeguarding
of Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003 has worked toward protecting the cultural heritages of Asia, Africa and Central and Latin America.

These intangible cultural heritages have a direct link to human life, constantly changing and not limited to specific time and space. UNESCO lends support to such changes by way of an institutional device.

We have finally witnessed the arrival of the age of intangible cultural heritage. Such changes have given mankind new cultural awareness and consciousness.

Birth of 'Hallyu'

Korea has given birth to a new type of culture in Asia, called "hallyu", or the "Korean Wave", following the nation's successful political, economic and cultural progress. Changes in the cultural contents are diverse.

Hallyu renders new meaning to the age of intangible cultural heritage in this 21st century, in which software prevails over hardware. Hallyu is unintended results of cultural activities led by private citizens rather than by any government policies, a cultural consensus shaped in the consciousness of mankind and more specifically in Asia, transcending national boundaries and nationalities.

Most "essential" things should be explored in the world of intangible culture, for it propels us to seek tradition which breathes inherently within us. Hallyu finds its source from the strength in cultural veins, which seem to have disappeared but still breathe in our society. As society's memory and consciousness regarding tradition should be cultivated, hallyu should start with the spirit of popular culture and all related fields.

In spreading hallyu, we will be able to borrow the strength from new information technologies. In the 21st century, we must visualize a humanistic world in which mutual understanding and communication prevail over tension and confrontation. The world of cyber-civilization is characterized by the sharing of time and space. It is not a world where commercial value comes from scarcity and ownership, but from utilization by the populace. This is the true sense of commonness among the living.

Korean Culture

Nowadays, we hear the word hallyu used more often and widely. This word has gradually gained strength and is fully alive now. At first, hallyu started from popular culture, but it has branched to mean a comprehensive approach and enthusiasm toward Korean culture. Viewed from the global perspective, hallyu is a fresh scene in Asia.

It has brought excitement to this part of the world where, in the past, the West enjoyed a monopoly on disseminating culture. The sudden rise and popularity of Korean popular culture in Asia was certainly a surprising phenomenon because Western culture, such as Hollywood movies, pop music and TV sitcoms have long dominated this part of the world.

Hallyu is now playing a leading role in creating a new wave, facilitating active exchanges of popular culture among neighboring Asian countries. Of late, Western scholars and the international press have expressed their wonder at how Korean popular culture has become the new cultural resource in Asia.

Popularity of Korean Culture

Hallyu originated from popular music. Now passing through soap operas and films, it has become a phenomenon that embraces Korean culture as a whole. Above everything else, however, TV soap operas are considered to have taken the lead in creating hallyu. Exports of Korean soap operas have seen remarkable growth since 2000.

Analyses show that, in general, the sudden popularity of Korean soap operas in Asia is ascribable to the shows' plots, sophisticated technology and the physical attractiveness of the actors and actresses. The plots of the soap operas are not oldfashioned but very fresh, relying on dynamic changes of ups and downs. The stories also deal with things that are part of every day life. The production technology, camera work and music of the soap operas are outstanding. The graceful beauty and personalities of the stars have drawn much applause worldwide.

Korea's popular culture has also presented an important cultural freedom, in which individuals are allowed to talk about conflicts between generations, nationalism, globalism and gender issues. Take the case of "Winter Sonata", which became wildly popular in Japan in 2003. This soap opera has raised the level of favorable interest toward Korea in Japan that has never been witnessed in any previous efforts, including governmental summits. Middle-aged Japanese women were behind the soap opera craze and the "Yonsama" phenomenon from the explosive popularity of actor Bae Yong-joon. Through the soap opera, Japan and other nations have identified their desire for intimacy in relationships, which has been the driving force in the expanded interest in Korean culture and society.

The soap opera "Dae Jang Geum", or "Jewel in the Palace" also has endless resources with which hallyu can further grow. Although it is a TV mini series, it portrays Korea's true culture, both past and present, very well. If the Yonsama phenomenon is compared to an ocean wave, Daejanggeum is undercurrents containing Korea's 5,000-year history. Instead of choosing between Yonsama and Dae Jang Geum, we should think of them as two wheels of a cart.

From Localism to Globalism

Recently, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper carried a column with the title, "Let's Learn from the Restoration Work of Seoul's Cheonggyecheon". The writer proposed that the Japanese pay attention to hallyu in fields other than the Korean popular culture. It's an important proof of the extension of the meaning of hallyu in Asia. Korea has been relatively successful in democratization and economic progress. It was a Big Bang in political and economic scnes. How to spread this explosive power in the area of culture is the question.

For the first time, Asians have a genuine cultural exchange vehicle through hallyu. Regardless of ethnicity, they share the same sentiments while watching Korean soap operas and films. They indeed feel the quality of the effort that is put into such projects, and now have found answers to their thirst for sophisticated cultural products. This is not a temporary phenomenon, and it should not be underestimated. A single TV soap opera that depicted a true love between a man and a woman helped dissipate deep-rooted prejudice of Japanese against Koreans.

Hallyu carries the spirit of popular culture which seeks and explores human universality. The fact that Asians started cultural exchanges through hallyu has another historical significance. Asians who have long been immersed in the Western popular culture have now found alternatives.

Hallyu also holds the spirit of traditional culture or cultural heritage which also befits modern society and its future promises. Traditional culture manifests its intrinsic meaning as a source of power which enables connection between the past, present and future. Modeling traditional culture as a spiritual body provides a ground in enriching the future creation of culture. There is a future in tradition it is the motivating power
in the creation of new cultures.

There has been much talk about hallyu creating a higher Asian cultural community. It is apparent that through Asian soap operas, Asians who have experienced similar modernization processes have an increased sense of solidarity. Their envious look toward the West has changed. It is significant to understand that hallyu has forged stronger relations between Asian countries. In the long run, the higher objective of building
an Asian cultural bloc should be reached.

Hallyu is responsible for the creation of a new epoch. Understanding this will motivate us to expand hallyu and deepen inner potentials. Therefore, we should not simply conclude with the culture-industrial approach as other advanced powers have done. Rather, we should humbly accept it as an opportunity to make cultural approaches and to realize mutual exchanges and cooperation.

By Kang Chul-keun
Professor at Chung-Ang University, Seoul

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