Beyond the Crisis of Korean Political Culture
By Bernard Rowan
These days I see various forms in which the traditional arts of a culture find new practice and new adaptation. In the United States and England, some successful businessmen, weary of corporate norms and contexts, set off for the countryside. They want a simpler, more bucolic existence. There are videos and TV series about their trials and difficulties in learning to live on a farm or to live as people did in 18th century England. Some do well and find in this adopted way of life more peace, satisfaction and happiness. The practice has not “caught on”.
My wife and I love to watch the YouTube video series of a Chinese personality known as Liziqi. She practices “traditional arts and crafts,” living on a farm in rural Pingwu County, Mianyang, in north-central Sichuan Province, southwest China. She is a skilled farmer, cook, clothing designer, tailor and builder. Beautiful, energetic and talented person, Liziqi is now an international celebrity. I admire that she cares about her grandmother, who raised her, while working harder than a team of men. She has a production team and the videos take various exaggerations. It too, as I understand it, and unfortunately as well as it is typical of today’s China, has caught the attention of the Chinese Communist Inquisitors, determined to eradicate corruption. She is not Zsa Gabor on “Green Acres”, and she is powerless to change China’s backward approach to its rural poor.
Recently, I read an article about Korean political culture and the way forward. Andrew Kim and Daniel Connolly wrote “Nation Building: The Success and Crisis of Korean Civil Religion” (MDPI / Religions, January 20, 2021).
Kim and Connolly trace the practice of five fundamental doctrines for South Korean political identity or what earlier philosophies called “civil religion.” Among them are the values of Confucianism, democracy and national development. The authors note that the evolution of South Korea’s political culture has followed its national development. They fear that the Korean civil religion is now in crisis due to the impacts of events such as the IMF crisis and “Hell Chosun” or “Hell Korea”. They also discuss associated demographic conflicts (elite, elderly, youth), Park Chung-hee’s status, and South Korea’s relationship with America versus North Korea.
I would like to focus on South Korea’s potential in this century to use Korean folk culture as the basis for wider and more inclusive regional development. It doesn’t have to be a new “saemaul undong”. It does not mean “to go back in time”. However, Korean customs and methods do not just deserve a national museum, as wonderful as the National Folk Museum in Gwangbokeung is.
South Korea has relegated the pursuit of its traditions to the fringes in my opinion. They form the subjects or wrappers of great historical rituals at official events on public holidays or in a commemorative sense. They are expanding tourism as an industry, localized and siled in their living impacts on the economy. The Korean wave has more potential than K-pop and historical dramas.
The development of Korean regional and local cultures needs an impetus extending the practices and values of Korean political culture into the 21st century and beyond. It should catalyze support to alleviate the “crisis” identified by Kim and Connolly. Today’s and tomorrow’s versions of Korean cultural arts and practices are expected to be another part of the Korean wave, both for the pursuit of national development and for the benefit of learning from other advanced countries and in development.
Much like with Liziqi, the creation and development of Korean traditional arts in new forms perpetuates the Confucian notion of imparting means of common self-development to present and future generations. Korean products, music, works of art, and agricultural and local production are not just for the “peasants”. They should not remain the prerogative of cultural curators or those who deal with tourists. I hope that the next presidential competition will consider the further evolution of Korean political culture and technologies as the basis of their economic promises and plans. I also hope that the stock of Korean universities and educators, among the best in the world, will apply themselves to dealing with the crisis in Korean political culture.
Bernard Rowan ([email protected]) is vice-president for contract administration and professor of political science at Chicago State University. He is a former member of the Korea Foundation and a former visiting professor at Hanyang University.