Bear necessities of Korean identity

The myth of Korea's origin is assuming more importance as it resists its neighbours' imperialism, writes Keith Howard

Try this one: the Korean language is related to Finnish. The first modern Korean grammar was compiled in the Thirties by a Finn, called Rammstadt, who was intrigued by apparent connections. Both languages have origins in the Altaic family spoken in a vast region of central Asia. Both have relations to Ural languages further west (such as Turkish and Hungarian). The Koreans may descend from the Tungus, who came from far north of modern Korea.

This century, their origin has been important to Koreans. It has allowed them to argue that they are from a different racial stock to the Chinese and Japanese. The origin myth - based around a sacred mountain on the northern border - has become central to Korean identity, a key element in the fight for independence from the yoke of Japanese imperialism (Korea was a colony from 1910-1945).

The myth tells how Hwanung, the son of the heavenly king, came down to earth on the mountain. He was petitioned by a bear and a tiger who longed to become human. He instructed them to eat mugwort and 20 cloves of garlic, and to stay in a cave for 100 days. The tiger failed, when he became too restless and ventured out into the sunlight. The bear, alone, managed to obey Hwanung's instructions, and was transformed into a beautiful woman. She married Hwanung and gave birth to Tangun, who, according to tradition, founded Korea and ruled it from 2333 to 1122 BC. In 1994, the North claimed to have discovered Tan'gun's grave and skeleton near Pyongyang, the northern capital, a ruse by the regime to bolster its legitimacy.

Koreans claim a 5,000-year history as a distinct and independent race. Documented records account for less than the last 2,000 years, but archaeological finds do suggest a series of migrations into the peninsula from Manchuria and further northwards. As "northern barbarians", they ousted the Chinese in AD 313, subsequently keeping China's military might at bay through maintaining a strong relationship, entering into strategic alliances and sending regular envoys laden with gifts.

Korea had little chance of surviving as an independent state, but the people held their independence dearly. Korea had been unified under Shilla in 668. Shilla had ushered in an early and successful example of a Confucian-style court, which encouraged scholarly and artistic production oriented towards peace more than military prowess. It was overthrown in 918 by the Koryo dynasty. The capital was moved to Kaesong, now just inside North Korea. This was sufficiently close to the Chinese border to maintain security. Koryo was in turn overthrown by Yi Songgye in 1392, who formed the longest-lasting of any Asian dynasty, Choson. He took the advice of geomancers and moved his capital to a more auspicious site, today's Seoul. These dynasties are remembered in the three most widely encountered family names, all connected to royalty: Pak, Kim, and LeeYi.

Strong links with China meant that Korea absorbed its values and ideas. There is evidence of common agricultural and manufacturing skills from ancient times. Korea took its high culture - notably the Confucian court, political and scholarly systems - from China. It was mostly selective borrowing, coupling the best from China with local practices to create a synthesis of high and folk culture. Hence, for example, the mix of Chinese and Korean words used in newspapers and daily conversations.

When independence was shattered by Japan in 1910, Koreans found themselves staring into an abyss. The court was disbanded and Japan tried to impose what to Koreans was an alien culture. At one point Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and to speak Japanese. Westernisation was later imposed, from a modern banking system to industrial production. Koreans began to reassert their identity. The language and the myth of Tangun were tied to folk culture and the folk religion of shamanism, all considered vital elements of Korean distinctiveness. All these elements were considered indigenous and local, even though their roots, several centuries old, were to be traced further north.

This same emphasis continued after 1945, when Korea was liberated and then divided. The North continued to find the folk heritage more appropriate to the populist demands of socialism than remnants of elitist court culture. The South popularised and tried to maintain the folk heritage to counter increasing Westernisation, while in folk arts students found a vehicle to express democratic ambitions.

The successes of South Korean development have built on both parts of this cultural legacy. But, as elsewhere, society is constantly changing. The Confucian ethic remains strong, stressing frugality, hard work for the common good and a tremendous respect for education.

Confucianism emphasised hierarchy in the family, and between the family, the village, and the state. Today, Korea is a predominantly urban society, and hierarchical structures are now based on school alumni, military groups, churches and business offices. For example, the 25 per cent of Koreans who have converted to Christianity belong to an astonishing range of churches, including some 75 Presbyterian groups. In industry or business, corporate exercise meetings and group targets are commonplace, while open-plan offices are arranged in ranked desks - in hierarchical order.

Folk culture is now preserved, with the best dances, dramas, music genres, crafts and martial arts nominated as "intangible cultural assets". Individual "holders" receiving stipends to perform, teach, and preserve each "asset".

Change and modernisation means that little folk culture remains an active part of rural life, hence within the preservation system individual arts and crafts are held up as symbolic icons which emphasise how Koreans are different from other peoples.

Coupled to all this is the older generation's memory of war, impoverishment and deprivation, which has made Koreans more determined to build a prosperous, independent nation. They have transformed themselves, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of war and colonisation, into a modern state that, while part of the world polity, retains a unique and distinct culture.

*Keith Howard is editor of Korea: People, Country andCulture, a pack for schools' use, published by the School of Oreintal and African Studies, London

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you