Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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South Korean – Munhwakwon

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Korean (South), Region

문화권    (文化圈)


Relates to region

There are a few expressions that describe the relations between Korea and China, and most of them include the term munhwakwŏn (문화권 / 文化圈): ‘cultural sphere’, or ‘cultural area’. The term conveys the suggestion that Korea, together with Japan, China and Vietnam belongs to the same munhwakwŏn , and the word is very close to that of “civilization” (in a Huntingtonian sense, even though the word civilisation has a different standard translation in Korean, munmyǒng (문명 (文明)) .

If the phrase “Sinic-civilisation” is used rather than ‘cultural sphere’, this creates problems as it places China at the centre. Such a reference would be damaging to Korean national pride. It therefore makes sense to stress commonalities, which are shared by all countries of the area without overemphasizing China’s central role. What might otherwise be called “Sinic” or “East Asian civilization” is referred to in indirect ways.

One possible term is yukyo munhwakwŏn (유교문화권 / 儒敎文化圈) or “Confucian cultural sphere”. This combination was used by the mainstream Korean media 914 times since 2001-2005 (calculated through the database of the newspaper articles). This phrase implies a unity based on ideological values and cultural heritage in which works of the ancient sages played an important role.

Another phrase used is hancha munhwakwŏn (한자문화권 / 漢子文化圈), or “cultural sphere of the Chinese characters”. This combination was used by the mainstream Korean media 671 times between 2001 and 2005. The term contains reference to China in the name of the writing system, but the name itself has been “de-nationalized” due to long use. What has happened here is comparable to the English language use of Latin script, which seldom evokes the memory of Rome’s imperial glory.

It is remarkable that the seemingly more neutral – and geographic – terms tonga munhwakwŏn (동아문화권 / 東亞文化圈) (East Asian cultural sphere) and asia munhwakwŏn (아시아문화권 / 아시아文化圈) (Asian cultural sphere) – are less common. These expressions have been used by the mainstream Korean media from 2001 to 2005 merely 10 and 3 times respectively. One reason for this lack of usage might be that both these expressions carry an association with the negative memory of the “East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” – a phrase once widely used in Japanese propaganda to justify Japanese expansionism. The old propaganda cliché used very similar characters for “Asia” and “sphere”.

The expression, yukyo munhwakwŏn (Confucian cultural sphere) conveys a positive idea of the “cultural sphere” to which both China and Korea happen to belong. Such “good” connotations can be confirmed by looking through articles in the mainstream dailies, which include the expression in their titles. On February 10, 2006 Sǒul sinmun wrote with approval about efforts of the Kyǒnggi province (surrounding Seoul) to become the tourist centre of the yukyo munhwakwŏn or the “Confucian cultural sphere”. On 22 November 2005 Hangyŏre sinmun, while writing about teachers’ day in Vietnam, reminded its readers that this country also is a part of the Confucian cultural sphere (obviously, to evoke sympathy towards a distant cultural relative). On May 13, 2005 the Hanguk ilbo triumphantly wrote that the “Korean wave”, an interest in Korean popular culture and art, is spreading outside the hancha munhwakwŏn or “cultural sphere of the Chinese characters” – with the implication that it is quite natural that people within such a sphere would have an interest in understanding Korean culture.

In thinking about how far Koreans see themselves as participants in a region, it is important that there is a fear of both Japan and China. When China, Japan and Korea are referred to as a grouping, the term ‘tong’a munhwakwon’ (or East Asian cultural sphere) is not used. The term usually employed is ‘tong pu’ka’ (which only conveys the geographic sense of ‘North East Asia’, and does not suggest the sense of a cultural community). The term tends not to be used with reference to Vietnam. More strictly, it is usually applied to the Confucian world minus Vietnam. The expression ‘Asia-Pacific’ carries a primarily geographic reference, but can also suggest economic links. It does not imply a cultural community or a cultural sphere.

With respect to the anxiety felt towards other countries in North East Asia, it is important to note that there is a certain lack of focus on the “rise of China” in the Korean media. In South Korea, the “China question” is to some extent a part of the domestic politics, since the Korean Right (traditionally pro-American) sometimes cites the “China threat” as a reason to uphold Korea’s endangered military alliance with the US, while the Korean Left (anti-American and nationalist) rejects such statements as unfounded and often paints a rosy picture of Korea’s prosperous coexistence with the mighty China. At the same time, Korean public opinion continues to be preoccupied with Japan, even though in the current situation Japan hardly constitutes any real threat to Korea.

Although Koreans tend not to see the rise of China as their principle anxiety, in March 2006 a public opinion poll indicated that 37.7% of Koreans considered that China will be the major threat for Korean security in ten years time. In the poll they used the terms wihyǒp (위협 / 威脅), which is a pretty standard translation of the English “threat”, and anbo (안보 / 安保), which implies in particular strategic security in a military sense (Kukmin ilbo, 19 March 2006).

Korea is unique in being perhaps the only long-term participant in the Sinic tributary system which not only used its unequal relations with China for diplomatic gains, but also openly admitted its own position of ritual “inferiority” vis-a-vis China. Accepting this position was a way of legitimizing the existing political and social system. Under the Yi Dynasty – from the early 1400s to the 1890s – Koreans did not doubt Korea’s position as part of the Sinic world. They might have problems with a particular Chinese dynasty (they were not very happy about Qing dynasty, seen as “barbarian” and “impure”), but not about the principles of the tributary relations in general.

In thinking about Korea-China relations it is necessary to note the extent of the Chinese impact on Korea, including its impact on the Korean language. Until the 1890s in Korean, Classical Chinese was the only language of administration, law, scholarship and high culture – and absolute command of this language was expected from all male members of the Korean elite. Even now, Koreans have an astonishing number of Chinese loanwords, especially in more official forms of speech. The share of such words in a newspaper text on political and social question usually reaches 60-70%. All such loanwords can be written in Chinese characters, since every single Chinese character has a standard Korean pronunciation (which, like the modern Chinese pronunciations, derives from Early Middle Chinese). Thus, in most cases, there is no need to translate the Chinese concepts: the words are borrowed wholesale, as they are written in Chinese script, and often (but not always) with similar connotations and associations.

For example, for centuries Koreans referred to Chinese by using whichever official name the Chinese chose to apply to themselves at a particular moment. Since nowadays China is usually described as the “middle state” in Chinese, the same pair of Chinese characters is also the country’s name in Korean (中國, pronounced zhongguo in Chinese and chungguk in Korean).

‘Asia’ is a concept employed in Korea, certainly by the 19th century. It is borrowed from the Chinese, who took it from the West. It refers to East Asia, South East Asia and India, but not the Middle East. There is no particular sense of an Asian unity; Buddhism does not play a part in the conceptualising of ‘Asia’, though there is some sense of Confucianism as an Asian characteristic. Australia is seen to lie outside Asia.

The Six Party Talks bring together China and Japan with South and North Korea. These are all countries in the Confucian sphere but such commonalities in culture do not necessarily form a basis for a meaningful regional grouping. The term most frequently used to refer to these countries is ‘tong pu’ka’ which conveys an essentially geographic sense of ‘East Asia’. Apart from the long-term rivalry between the component East Asian countries, a further problem is the fact that one of them, that is China, contains 80% of the total population of East Asia and holds some 20% of the East Asian GDP. There is much more equality to be encountered among the major countries within the European Union. Another problem in North East Asia is that the countries do not face a single common threat – which might act as a unifying force.





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