Posted : 2013-09-04 16:57
Updated : 2013-09-04 16:57

Finding national identity in past

Korean national values can be found in the "seonbi" spirit in a new book titled "A Different Republic of Korea: About Which Only Koreans Are Ignorant" by Emanuel Yi Pastreich, an associate professor at the College of International Studies at Kyung Hee University. / Korea Times file

'Seonbi' spirit can be Korea's cultural icon

Emanuel Yi Pastreich, an associate professor at the College
of International Studies at Kyung Hee University
By Chung Ah-young

In the United States and other countries, some people who use Samsung smartphones, watch LG televisions and drive Hyundai cars don't realize such products are made by Korean companies.

Although "hallyu" or the Korean wave is in motion around the world, Korean brands are still not instantly associated with national identity as Sweden's IKEA reminds users of that nation's creative, convenient and unique styles or Germany's electronics bring to mind high quality and solidity.

Korean brands might lack such associations but are more likely to be popular because of the affordable prices they are sold for as well as the relatively decent quality. But a more plausible reason for Korea's comparatively weak national identity is the nation's disconnection with thousands of years of its own traditions.

Emanuel Yi Pastreich, an associate professor at the College of International Studies at Kyung Hee University, said that Koreans should find their national identity in the past and take more responsibility as an advanced nation in international society.

"Korea was an advanced nation in many respects through the 18th century. In fact the standards for education were higher here than they were in Japan through the 19th century. If you came to Korea in the 15th century, it probably had more advanced technology, higher literacy, cleaner cities and better health than England or France at that time. But it was completely Confucian. Confucianism is in fact the main driving factor behind modern democracy in the West," Pastreich said in an email interview with The Korea Times.

Singer Psy performs his hit "Gangnam Style" during a morning television appearance in central Sydney in this 2012 file photo. / Korea Times file

The U.S.-born professor who is teaching Korean students here after marrying a Korean wife in 1997 recently published a book "A Different Republic of Korea: About Which Only Koreans Are Ignorant" (Book 21; 276 pp., 15,000 won).

In his publication, he writes that although Korea is a developed nation which many countries try to emulate, its people don't take pride in themselves because of a deep-rooted historical complex between neighboring powers. He says that Koreans should overcome the complex by rediscovering traditional values in the past which can inspire modern cultural and social areas in fields such as geography, architecture, design and governing system to become a truly "global cultural leader."

Pastreich finds Korean national values in the "seonbi" spirit, equivalent to the samurai spirit of Japan which is globally recognized, and represents Japan in a positive way. Seonbi is an intellectual who loves learning, has a deep sense of responsibility to society and expresses him or herself through art and literature during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). "The seonbi is exactly the sort of intellectual our age needs. But the yangban ruling class of the Joseon period are not all seonbi, only some were," he said. The professor argues that the seonbi spirit will help Korea become a leading model, keeping a sense of high morality in respecting others in international society.

Traditional values are found in literary classics too. Koreans are obsessed with Nobel Prizes but without an understanding of the literary classics, modern literature lacks the depth expected by intellectuals around the world.

"The Nobel Prize for Literature, or for Peace, does not mean much these days. I think it would be better for Koreans just to start their own literature prize that is more balanced and not so Euro-centric," he said.

Due to the limited efforts to translate modern literature to win prizes, traditional literature has been ignored. They are not translated into English despite their timeless and universal values. "How can you win a Nobel Prize for Literature? First intellectuals in France or Germany or Italy should grow up reading translations into perfect French, German and Italian of Korean classic writing and literature, and feel that Korea has a deep tradition (as they feel about Chinese and Japanese literature which has been translated carefully). Then they can turn to modern literature and feel it has real depth to it."

The professor points out that the biggest problem in Korea is that Koreans think their culture is just for their own enjoyment. They act as if it is strange or even funny if non-Koreans try to follow Korean traditional practices, which is short-sighted and deeply damaging to Korea, he said.

The book also highlights that Korea should take more responsibility toward other developing countries. "Nations around the world are benchmarking Korea. What Korea does profoundly influences other nations. For Korea to be a leader means it should set a model for others. So when foreigners come to visit, or to study, they find inspiration here," he said.

For example, if Koreans care about the environment, are not wasteful and show an interest in culture and spiritual issues, people from other countries will follow the model Korean set up.

"What Koreans do today is not just about Korea, it is about the world. This new importance of Korea is not something to be proud of, it is a deep responsibility to the world," he said.

Concerning hallyu, the professor said that it creates part of global culture but suffers from commercial exploitation.

"Korea's hallyu seems freer, lighter, more creative and more accessible for many people around the world. But it has been ruthlessly commercialized and made into a vehicle for mindless consumption. ‘Gangnam Style' is perhaps the best example of this trend. The song was a global hit, and that was good, but it cheapened hallyu overall. The answer is for hallyu to adapt an altruistic and pure goal," he said.

For making a better world, not about consumption, Koreans should completely change direction at this point. "I also think that if Koreans think in terms of hallyu as a national brand, they are crippling it from the beginning. Hallyu can only go global if it can be something everyone can participate in, not just something that is Korean."

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