Uh, No. Arirang Belongs to Korea. Thanks.

[Note: This is a reaction to Roboseyo's post, titled Nobody Owns Arirang.]

I remember the first time when I saw my family's jokbo when I was a child growing up in Korea. Jokbo means "lineage book," and it shows the flow chart of everyone who is related to me starting from the very first Korean person who shared my last name, who was born in 69 B.C.E. It was, and still is, an awe-inspiring sight. My family's jokbo is consisted of more than 30 volumes, broken down by centuries, clans and subclans. The volumes would take up two full rows of a bookcase in my grandfather's run-down house, their uniform spines forming a brick-paved road toward my origin. My grandfather would flip to his favorite pages -- dog-eared for easy reference for his show-and-tell with his grandchildren -- and point to a name. The name could be a famous scholar, general, someone I would have learned about in school history classes. After going through some dozen names like that, he would flip all the way back to the last page of the last volume. And there it was -- my name, son of my father, grandson of my grandfather, 81 generations and more than two thousand years from the fountainhead of my family.

Roboseyo, a blogger I like and respect, recently claimed "nobody owns Arirang". I disagree with his view. I begin this post with the story about my jokbo is because I sense that Roboseyo does not have my sense of connection with the past, as is typical of North Americans. I believe that once people understand the feeling of having a meaningful connection with the past, they will have an easier time understanding why Koreans and the Chinese have such significant interest in laying claim on their history and culture.

(More after the jump)

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First, a bit of background is necessary. China recently registered as official Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage such traditional rituals and songs like Korean traditional 60th birthday ritual, Korean traditional wedding ritual, and Arirang, a form of traditional Korean song. Standing alone, this registration is not terribly unusual. More than two million Koreans live in China, and a reasonable claim can be made that China is only attempting to preserve an indigenous culture existing within its lands.

But there are reasons to believe that the motive of China's registration is more sinister. China recently caused a row by commissioning a study is known as the Northeast Project, which incorporated ancient kingdoms that were generally considered a part of Korean history thus far into regional Chinese history. Many Koreans view this project as a step toward China's absorption of North Korea should North Korea fall, as the disputed ancient kingdoms stretched far south of China-North Korea border. This registration of cultural heritage is also seen as a part of that plan. Koreans suspect that the next step for China is to submit Korean rituals and songs to UNESCO as a part of Chinese cultural heritage. In particular, the registration of Arirang is upsetting ordinary Koreans, who consider the song (which has many variants) to be an unofficial national anthem, sung among Koreans since time immemorial.

Now, a bit about Roboseyo's argument. He and I agree on the ultimate point -- at the end of the day, this row is more about the worry over the Northeast Project. Where I disagree is how Roboseyo gets to that conclusion: no one owns culture, therefore no one owns Arirang, therefore Koreans are silly to be upset about China's registration of Arirang as its cultural heritage.

I disagree with that. Severely. Arirang belongs to Korea, and China deserves the outrage.

Roboseyo draws back from his older post about how nobody owns culture. What I found particularly interesting from that post is this passage:
The idea of a culture is way too slippery to talk about it as if it were you could wrap it in a box and own it, or teach it to someone. Even WHEN a culture has certain artifacts that help preserve it - The King James Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, the Koran, the George Washington Myth and the Declaration of Independence, or the Dangun/King Sejong/Lee Sunshin trifecta as anchors, those draw an outline so broad and fuzzy that the details have to be filled in, and every group of people living within that fuzzy outline, fills in the details differently.
To me, this is a silly cop-out that essentially says: "It is not possible to precisely define a concept, therefore the concept cannot be captured and utilized." It is like saying that because the concept of "furniture" can be broad and fuzzy (is a lamp furniture? What about an Ottoman?), we cannot have such a thing called a "furniture store."

"Concept" is a human invention that is based on reality, but it is not itself reality. All concepts are fuzzy around the margins precisely because it is not reality, but a reflection of reality. Even a simple concept like "door" can be quite tough to define around the margins. But the concepts continue to exist and make themselves useful because there is a core to the concept that epitomizes the essence of the concept. I cannot tell you what "doors of Heaven" will look like, but I can sure as hell tell you that the flat plank of wood, standing between my room and the hallway, with hinges and a handle, is a door. Based on my knowledge of the core "door-ness", I am able to think about whether something is a door, and something is not. I am also able to extrapolate on the concept of "door", and think about whether or not I "opened the door" for a prying question when I let slip a private part of my life. The same can be said about a concept called "Korean culture." Around the edges, "Korean culture" can be quite difficult to capture. But at the core, there is no mistaking what belongs within the concept of Korean culture.

This is even more so considering the accretive process through which culture is formed. Culture is formed when a group of people engage in the same behavior over and over again and the same behavior is passed down from generation to generation. Of course, the next generation goes through the organic process of choosing what to adopt and what to discard from the culture inherited from its predecessors. Over time, this leads to huge and dramatic changes within the culture. No one will be dumb enough to think that there has been a single, monolithic version of Korean culture that had remained static in every detail even for the last 20 years, much less for the last 2,000 years.

But, remarkably, certain parts of Korean culture -- the Dangun myth, kimchi, Korean language, and yes, Arirang -- have survived those years and are traceable far back into the distant past, just like the way I can trace my being to a single person who lived nearly 2100 years ago. And those parts sit at the core of Korean culture in a way that other, more fleeting parts of Korean culture do not. Roboseyo thinks that Issac Toast is Korean although a toast is not intuitively Korean, because one cannot find Isaac Toast outside of Korea. Sure, I agree. But is Isaac Toast as Korean as songpyeon is? Only if Isaac Toast stays in Korea for another thousand years can that conversation even begin to happen. Songpyeon belongs to Korea because it stood the test of time for Korean people. Korean people chose songpyeon over and over again for more than a thousand years. And songpyeon, along with other significant markers of Korean culture, forms the ethnic and national identity of Korean people.

Same goes for Arirang -- Korean people chose Arirang over and over again for more than a thousand years such that Arirang absolutely, unequivocally, belongs to Korea. In fact, Arirang is Korea, as it is an integral part of Korean identity. That means appropriating Arirang is not the same with appropriating Gee from SNSD. From the perspective of Korean culture, the latter is a minor annoyance and a copyright lawsuit, while the former is a grave insult and foul thievery.

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Having said that, the naturally following question is: what does it mean that something belongs to Korean culture, and Korean culture belongs to Korea? What claim of ownership can Korea have over Korean culture?

It should be quite obvious that Korea does not own Korean culture like a person owns a piece of tangible property. It is not like the way I own my car. My ownership of my car means that no one else, without my permission, can use my car, much less take it to the shop and modify it. In contrast, anyone in the world is free to sing, listen to, and even make derivations of Arirang. In other words, the levels of exclusivity attendant to the ownership are dramatically different between culture and property.

But ownership necessarily implies some level of exclusivity. The precise location of the line that divides the permissible uses from the impermissible ones, as are common with this type of things, is difficult to determine. For example, I have always thought that Koreans' angst over Japan's supposed appropriation of kimchi to be a silly (albeit understandable) overreaction. As long as I set aside my insane, irrational food purist side, I can take the reasonable position that the Japanese are free to import certain items of foreign culture and adjust them to suit their taste, just as much as Koreans have taken Japanese pickled radish and unmistakably changed its flavor profile. A reasonable person can disagree with this by making a case for where she thinks the line should be.

But no matter where the line is set, China's action toward Arirang -- that is, specifically labeling it as a part of the Chinese culture in the government records and attempting to do the same with international bodies --  falls on the wrong side of allowable use. It is one thing for the Chinese people to naturally absorb Arirang, sing it in their own style over time, until a Chinese breed of Arirang comes to exist. It is quite another for the Chinese government to unilaterally take Arirang and claim as a part of its own culture, knowing full well what the implication of such claim would be. (Especially because unlike North Americans, the Chinese, like Koreans, know what it means to have a culture.) Such claim is made even more odious because it is transparently motivated by China's territorial ambition over North Korea when the regime inevitably crumbles.

Arirang belongs to Korea, as much as God Bless America belongs to the United States. And China is appropriating the song in an unnatural manner to further its political purpose. This is something that deserves outrage on the part of Koreans. Inability to understand this fact leads to the inability to understand the motivation of the vast majority of the world, as Americans are prone to be.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.