Keehyeung Lee. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Editor: Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi. Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
Introduction: Hanryu, What’s in a Name?
This chapter deals with the so-called “Korean wave” or Hanryu as a highly complex and multilayered formation that is composed of real, imagined, and hybrid cultural practices, a diverse range of lived experiences, and sets of powerful discourses which exist at national, translocal, and transnational levels. By Hanryu or the Korean wave, I refer to the varied and uneven reception process of South Korean cultural/media products and images in Asia as well as particular forms of media and cultural representations in the transborder flows of South Korean popular culture in South Korea. Although Hanryu texts and images are produced and exported by South Korean culture industries, the Hanryu phenomenon is hardly a unitary and coherent process. It entails a complex range of transnational or translocal concerns and connections which unfold unevenly. Put differently, Hanryu texts — television dramas, popular music, and film — travel to different geocultural zones and contexts, resulting in many differentiated forms of reception, responses, and re-appropriation across Asia.
This chapter aims to outline a diverse range of issues regarding the rapid diffusion and growing popularity of South Korean cultural products across Asia by employing a critical and culturally nuanced approach. Indebted to Haejoang Cho (2002), Koichi Iwabuchi (2002; 2004a; 2004b) and other cultural studies practitioners’ pioneering studies on the historical formation of, and the transborder flows of South Korean and Japanese popular culture in Asia, this chapter situates the Hanryu phenomenon in the larger context of transnational cultural formations in the making. It also discusses the implications of the Korean wave from several interconnected angles, and seeks to suggest alternative ways of envisioning South Korean popular culture across Asia for furthering inter-regional cultural understanding and dialogue. Admittedly, my aim in this chapter is limited, but focused: though I will not provide a detailed analysis of dominant discourses that surround the Hanryu phenomenon, nevertheless, I will raise several thought-provoking issues and problematics on the emergence of Hanryu. By doing so, I believe that we as concerned scholars and cultural critics in translocal cultural traffic can come to illuminate the Hanryu phenomenon and other related issues through a more balanced, panoramic, and self-reflexive prism.
The Emergence of Hanryu, the “Boom,” Bandwagoners, and Skeptics
The Korean wave or Hanryu phenomenon and discourses on the highly visible reach and flow of South Korean cultural products across Asia have started to grab wider popular attention since the late 1990s. The term Korean wave was coined by the Chinese mass media in 2001 responding to a rise in popularity of South Korean pop culture products and stars (Jang 2004). This trend later spread to countries in Southeast Asia, in particular Vietnam, and other parts of Asia. South Korean popular culture has recently had a strong impact in Japan with the broadcasting of popular South Korean TV dramas like Winter Sonata and the emergence of active fandom surrounding its main characters. It is almost a customary experience in South Korea to see Hanryu-related reports and events in print and broadcast media (Hirata 2005).
Looking back, the rise to fame of South Korean dramas in the Asian region is indeed quite an interesting saga: up until the late 1990s, South Korean dramas and popular music were produced mainly for domestic audiences. At the same time, they had only a limited foreign fan base and potential to appeal to audiences in Asia. Thus it can be said that South Korean popular culture’s influence on neighboring Asian countries was minimal. Across Asia and in the western market, Japanese popular culture — popular music, manga, and animation — was conceived collectively as the dominant cultural force in Asia with wide appeal to youth and urban professionals (Iwabuchi 2002). Although the South Korean government had firmly closed its cultural market against Japanese cultural products until the late part of the 1990s, they were often smuggled into, and copied in South Korea. This presence of relatively widespread popular desires and appetites for Japanese popular culture among youth in South Korea in spite of strong nationalistic sentiments and deeply entrenched memories of Japanese colonialism merits its own critical analysis.
Hence, in the late 1990s when the reports started to pour in about the impressive and unexpected surge of South Korean television dramas and popular music in some parts of Asia, many local cultural critics were puzzled at first, and took to the Korean wave in a belated fashion. Hanryu emerged rather suddenly and local media institutions, culture industries, and governmental branches on culture and tourism took an active role in defining, capitalizing, and generating Hanryu-related discourses, whereas many cultural critics, progressive academics and experts on popular culture took a more cautious or wait-and-see approach. For most of them, the Hanryu phenomenon was regarded as a temporary or extraordinary phenomenon or fad that was expected to either submerge in due time or decline eventually.
Things have drastically changed since then. It seems that the Korean wave is more than a passing fad and is now here to stay. For the past couple of years, the South Korean media has continuously provided a number of telling signs and symptoms that the Korean wave is indeed a real thing. A number of empirical observations and personal experiences, albeit mostly episodic and one dimensional, have been regularly reported by the local media on the heightened status and increased visibility of South Korean cultural products in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. It was suggested that starting with the Korean TV drama A Star in My Heart in 1997, Hanryu’s popularity began to be detected in China, subsequently including various cultural genres: popular drama, music, film, games, etc (Jang et al., 2004; K. Lee 2004). It was reported that the exporting of Korean pop culture reached new heights in 2004 with the Winter Sonata boom in Japan and another boom with Dae Jang Geum in Hong Kong this year. In particular, the so-called “Yonsama phenomenon,” a sudden highly active fandom centered on the South Korean drama Winter Sonata and its male lead Bae Yong-jun, carried out passionately by middle-aged Japanese women, is perhaps the most mediatized and celebrated example of the reach of Hanryu products in Asia in recent years.
Surely this “boom” in South Korean popular culture across Asia has generated significant economic gains and profits which had never been the case in the past. The South Korean government and culture industry provide information on the economic effects of Hanryu in a seemingly convincing fashion, and the Hanryu boom is often predominantly framed by its commercial potential and monetary gains: according to the Korea International Trade Association, in 2004, Hanryu created 1.4 billion won in added value. It is suggested that Hanryu is responsible for raising Korea’s gross domestic product by 0.2 percent. In particular, South Korea amassed $1.87 billion in three sectors that are largely related to cultural contents and activities: products, tourism and film and television programs (JoongAng Daily, 4 May 2005). According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as of 2004, exports of Korean TV programs abroad brought in $71.5 million, more than two times the imports of foreign TV programs into South Korea, which marked $31 million (Korea Times, 15 April 2005). According to the Korea International Trade Association, cultural products, mainly television programs, movies and recorded music, showed notably brisk export growth owing to the Hanryu phenomenon. The figures contrast starkly with an 8.9 percent rise to $230 million in 2003 and a 4.0 percent drop to $211 million in 2002. It also said as much as 76 percent of South Korean exporters responded to its inquiry that they benefited positively from the increasing popularity of Korean pop culture across Asia (Korea Times, 23 February 2005). It was also reported that the national tourism income posted a turnaround for the first time in six years thanks to the boom in South Korean popular culture in Asia. According to the Korea National Tourism Organization (KNTO), the success of South Korean dramas have an positive impact on tourism: in the January-October period, a record high of 4.79 million foreigners visited Seoul, and in October alone, the number reached a monthly high of 574,690. KNTO officials said tourists from Japan and Southeast Asia accounted for the majority of the visitors. A number of these tourists are attracted to Korean celebrities such as Bae Yong-jun and Won Bin and the locations where Hanryu films and dramas are shot (Korea Times, 29 November 2004).
As a result, at the current juncture in South Korea, Hanryu has been increasingly framed as a legitimate and highly publicized cultural phenomena to be reckoned with, by many social groups with varying interests. By now Hanryu has gained both currency and legitimacy not only in popular cultural spheres and business circles, but also in South Korean scholarly communities. Again this is mainly inspired by seemingly omnipresent signs and kaleidoscopic images presented by the local media that continuously characterize the reach of the Korean wave across Asia. In Asia these days one is bound to see a dramatic increase in things Korean from television dramas to pop stars: there are successive news stories and enough media coverage of popular Korean stars visiting neighboring countries for promotional tours, having concerts and performing in joint productions, and appearing on foreign TV ads; and of Asian youth chanting the Korean names of these stars during their visits or creating online and offline fan clubs, etc.
Local politicians and governmental agencies have jumped on the “Hanryu bandwagon” by presenting various policies and suggestions related to the Hanryu phenomenon. For example, the Kyonggi provincial government recently announced a plan to build by 2008, a 2-trillion-won ($1.95 billion) entertainment and exhibitionary complex named HanryuWood — a compound word of hanryu and Hollywood — in Ilsan, a satellite city near Seoul (Hankyoreh Daily, 17 April 2005). Recently the Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it would take concrete measures to support and promote local culture industries after the prime minister’s meeting with cabinet officials during a National Image Committee meeting. The ministry said it would create a graduate school in cooperation with local universities to provide specialized programs in culture technology within this year, and an academic program to develop expertise on the development and exportation of South Korean cultural contents. Other institutional measures are currently being suggested: an online database of well-known Hanryu stars, named the Hanryu Portal Information Center, under the supervision of the Korea Foundation for Asian Culture Exchange (KOFACE), a further increase of cultural exchange programs with neighboring Asian countries, and the education of manpower for cultural content industries have been planned (Korea Times, 16 February 2005).
With the steady rise and diffusion of Hanryu across several Asian zones, there have emerged groups of business experts, media personnel, and policy makers, especially in government and culture or “creative industries” in contemporary South Korea, who have insisted that Hanryu can create a number of positive and constructive outcomes and lucrative rewards. For instance, Yi O-ryong, former minister of culture and tourism, famed essayist and cultural critic, defines Hanryu as a manifestation of the country’s emerging “soft power” which is a new kind of highly competitive, innovative, and adaptive cultural power in an era of accelerated global cultural traffic under the rubric of glocalization and the rise of information and a culture-driven economy. For Yi O-ryong, Hanryu certainly signals and symbolizes a particular example of the glocalization process which can enhance the positive image and new cultural identity of South Korea, from a former colony and culture importing nation to a main cultural exporter in Asia (Yoo et al., 2005:17-18). He also emphasizes that the Korean wave must overcome its “parochial” character to go mainstream: “To become the global mainstream, the Korean wave must die. As South Korean digital technology spreads around the world, it also causes social and civilizational phenomena. But rather than trying to prolong the Korean wave, we must create a new Hanryu based on universal and natural values — a sort of digital Oriental wave” (cited in New York Times, 30 June 2005). Notwithstanding his problematic hyperbole on the significance of Hanryu phenomenon in civilizational terms, Yi is one of the most vocal supporters of mainstream Hanryu discourses in which the strategic merger between information technology and cultural contents is strongly accentuated as a crucial means of not only enhancing the collective image of South Korea as a new cultural powerhouse, but also translating the surge of South Korean cultural products in Asia into financial gains (JoongAng Daily, 7 January 2005; also see Yoo et al., 2005).
According to Yi and other cultural entrepreneurs in creative industries, the promotion of the IT (information technology) industry can demonstrate Korea’s capabilities as an advanced nation. In addition, South Korea’s surging cultural sector led by the booming film and television industry can demonstrate Korea’s dynamic cultural qualities and forward-looking national character. Recently, Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan also emphasized a similar view: he stressed the pressing need to expand and manage the gaining popularity of Korean pop culture abroad which could cement the image of the nation as a formidable “IT Power.” On this kind of IT and cultural policy-related agendas were measures to connect an improved image of the nation with increased investment opportunities and exports. Accordingly, various government agencies are encouraged to create more diverse events in cooperation with private companies to spread the slogan “Dynamic Korea,” and for that purpose, promotional ads for South Korea’s IT power, IT promotion booths, series of Hanryu-related conventions, and investor relations meetings are being proposed and implemented. (Korea Times, 4 February 2005). These mainstream views, steeped in culture-flavored economism and boosterism are actively formed and supported by leaders of business communities, cultural intermediaries, politicians, and state officials (Kang 2000). Collectively they have vocalized that the surge and growth of South Korean popular culture is a golden opportunity to export cultural contents as well as demonstrate the power of “culture made in Korea.” Let me further elaborate on the implication of these mainstream views on the Korean wave below.
Defining Hanryu Alternatively: Mainstream Versus Minor Views
In this relatively short analysis, I am unable to provide a detailed discursive analysis of Hanryu-related discourses in South Korea though I have provided a thumbnail sketch in the preceding section. According to several cultural studies practitioners in Korea, Hanryu-related discourses are, in large part, shaped by three positions: that of neoliberal thinking, cultural nationalism, and the culturalist position (Cho 2002; Paik 2005).
First of all, powerful discourses formed by governmental, cultural and media institutions have attempted to define and explain Hanryu and its success across Asia through a neoliberal view of culture and in nationalistic terms. In this mainstream views on Hanryu, culture or popular culture is, above all, associated with its “market value” and potential in the highly competitive transnational cultural cum media market. In this vein, Hanryu is often promoted and accentuated as the very evidence that South Korean creative industries have a competitive edge over their counterparts in other nations. Furthermore, it is often emphasized that the Korean wave both demonstrates and embodies the so-called soft power and spirit of innovation which is argued to be essential in the 21st century — a “century of culture and limitless competitions” (muhankyungjjang). In addition, this position, which readily associates culture with knowledge and economy, is often merged with hegemonic or covert forms of renewed cultural nationalism: that the recent rise of South Korean cultural products across Asia embodies the impressive adaptability and creative cultural capability of the Korean people (Yoo et al., 2005).
From a related but slightly different angle, the mainstream approach to the Hanryu phenomenon in the cultural sector tends to utilize several bynow familiar frames: that the Hanryu phenomena, spearheaded by such a well-known drama as Winter Sonata or Dae Jang Geum and popular dance music of, say H.O.T., a local boy band, demonstrates relative generic strength, innovative strategy, and the vitality of South Korean cultural products. According to this dominant explanation of Hanryu products, suggested by cultural producers and critics in the mainstream, Korean dramas have highly attractive stars, sophisticated visual schemes, and absorbing narratives that revolve around emotion-ridden family relationships, love interests and other interpersonal matters among the characters. According to some media scholars in South Korea, these dramas have “common” elements — such as Confucianism and family as master thematic tropes — that can appeal to the audiences in East Asia in terms of “cultural proximity” — sharing of certain powerful social norms, in particular Confucianism, and traditional values centered on family relations (Lee 2004; Yoo and Lee 2001).
Again, from a more genre or style-related angle, Korean popular dance music usually deploys a formulaic structure of its own: idol bands with good looks and superb dancing ability who can digest and perform different forms of music, including hip-hop, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and popular ballads, have become a reigning norm. To put this differently, it has been argued that Korean popular dramas and music have the specific quality of relatively high production values, well-crafted textual and visual strategies that can appeal to a diverse range of audiences, especially youth and urban professionals in Asia, who live in an increasingly modernized, image-conscious, detraditionalized, and urbanized context (Iwabuchi 2004a; Jang 2004; Lin et al. 2004).
Mainstream approaches to the Hanryu phenomenon are also adopted or shared by journalists at major media organizations, government officials and policy makers who tend to embrace cultural essentialism willingly or unproblematically: according to them, the Korean wave demonstrates the “superiority” of modern Korean popular culture and collectively it can be the very core of local cultural contents for export and profits. This essentialized use of cultural nationalism in the Hanryu phenomena is also widely supported and adopted by conservative cultural critics and some members of the academia who often function as allies or cheerleaders of South Korean cultural industries. Simply put, these groups of opinion leaders and scholars are closely associated with the production of annual reports, cultural analysis, and journalistic editorials which often exaggerate the economic effects of Hanryu-related cultural contents. They also tend to overemphasize the role of Hanryu products as the source of national pride and empowered collective images for South Koreans, as well as a new means of “cultural diplomacy.”
What is seriously lacking in dominant discourses on the Korean wave is a more historicized and nuanced understanding of culture in general and the “hybrid” notion of Korean popular culture as an ensemble of heterogeneous elements. From the viewpoint of cultural studies, dominant discourses on the Hanryu phenomenon in South Korea tend to utilize a predominantly essentialistic, homogenized, and reductionistic sense of culture, which is highly problematic and, at best, one-dimensional. Moreover, they often hide a desire to utilize culture instrumentally as a key, yet a reified ingredient of what is often known as “cultural economics” [munhwa kyungjaeng], a new breed of emergent scholarship in the era of “the culturalization of economic life” (Hartley 2005; Miller and Yudice 2002). The mainstream version of cultural economics has been constituted through the articulation between capital and culture, creative activities in the cultural sector — such as film, television, popular music, and IT — and economic enterprise. In this kind of hegemonic cultural economics approach, creative activities embodied through the promotion of cultural contents and culture-related services are increasingly being seen as a formative part of key national strategies of innovation and survival. Increasingly culture and creativity have become market assets and new sources of wealth. It seems that this kind of new trend which prioritizes culture and knowledge emerged during the Kim Dae Jung government when it selected and publically advertised the so-called “new intellectuals” [shinjisikin] as a forward-looking visionaries and “venture specialist” in creative industries who would lead the development of the knowledge-based new economy. It was no accident that Shim Hyong-rae, a former comedian who became a science-fiction filmmaker was selected and promoted as South Korea’s first new intellectual. Indeed, the status and stock of culture and cultural contents have risen enormously with such an endorsement. The state has started to implement neoliberal policies not only in economic areas, but in media and cultural sectors. Thereafter cultural contents industries have been in the public spotlights and gained recognition. At the same time such a heightened visibility of, and attention to culture and culture-related areas have been shaped by commercially minded cultural boosterism and rampant promotionalism.
At this point, one can point out the very fact that culture, in South Korea, was historically long regarded as a second fiddle to economy in South Korea’s bulldozer-style phase of developmental capitalism. Or culture was often considered as key ideological means to boost ruling ideologies and to mobilize the popular masses by the state. Under authoritarian rule in the 1960s to the late 1980s, elements of Korea’s traditional and patriotic culture are selectively reinvented and utilized in the disciplinization and “education” of the popular masses. At the same time, popular and youth cultures are often the target of severe official repression for their association with “foreign[ness]” and moral decay (Kang 2000).
Such an attitude toward culture started to change in the 1990s with the rapid growth of local culture industries and the expansion of consumer cum popular culture in everyday South Korean life. What the emergence of youth culture and the rise of Hanryu accompanies, is a radically changed outlook where culture, especially popular culture, has become the representative culture of modernized and “dynamic Korea.” At the same time, as is mentioned above, mainstream Hanryu discourses are increasingly merged with, or submerged into econocentric and statecentric discourses on the knowledge-based “new” economy, national branding strategies, and national competitiveness, are the newly emphasized names of the game South Korea must play and actively pursue.
Against this kind of instrumentalistic use and redeployment of culture for neoliberal economic entrepreneurship, self-conscious local cultural critics and progressive cultural workers have begun to intervene. By challenging the reification of culture and cultural exceptionalism often attached to dominant discourses on Hanryu, the culturalist approach presents a much more sober and balanced view which resituates the Hanyru phenomenon through a non-state-centric and counter-nationalistic counter-discourses. Put differently, the culturalist position at one level challenges the deeply embedded nationalistic and essentialist claims often utilized in mainstream discourses on Hanryu, though it certainly recognized the power of the state and culture industries as main agents of cultural production.
From the standpoint of the culturalist approach, the mainstream views on Hanryu disregard or willfully forget the very fact that South Korean popular cultural products are hybrid in their very nature, and relatively new cultural constructions. As a matter of fact, Hanryu-related cultural products have little to do with traditional Korean culture or collective popular sentiments (Shim 2004). For instance, they are mostly a mixture of western cultural genres and formats, and they also convey cosmopolitan imaginaries and sophisticated urban styles (Kim and Yang 2005). Here, one of the most telling examples is that of South Korean pop and dance music which utilize a complex array of generic and stylistic forms and beats — for instance, hip-hop, techno and dance music, rock and rhythm and blues — selectively borrowed or sampled from their dominant others, either American or Japanese popular music. In this respect, South Korean cultural products — such as films, television dramas, music videos, and popular music — are relatively refined, but not so original “copies of copies” or commercially creolized or bastardized texts that have similar “clones” or counterparts in other geographical regions. Progressive cultural critics argue that in reality, South Korean popular culture should be considered as a subcategory to transnational popular and consumer culture which operates through the commodification of diverse (multi)cultural differences. Borrowing a local cultural critic’s words, South Korean popular culture is “a regional variant of [commodified] global pop culture” which in reality was “nothing uniquely Korean” (Shin 2005).
Instead, the culturalist position traces and resituates the emergence of Hanryu as a complex transborder cultural phenomenon and formation in the era of polycentered cultural production by using nuanced historical and comparative approaches. In this alternative position to Hanryu phenomenon, the making of Hanryu is interpreted both comparatively and critically through its historical predecessors – the Americanization of Asian popular cultures in the post Word War II years and the surge of Japanese popular culture as a dominant cultural force and form in the region for decades. In this position, Hanyru is regarded as an accidental event that came to emerge due to the unexpected convergence of multiple — institutional, cultural, and political — factors and conditions. As cultural critic Shin Hyunjun aptly puts (2005:23):
the so-called “Hanryu (the Korean Wave)” is neither Japanese pop culture nor something like a common culture shared by Japanese and Korean audiences. It is a hybrid culture from its very inception and formation… K-culture [Korean popular culture] is a concept that is defined according to its relationship with others [American and Japanese pop culture], this relationship includes a “hierarchy.”… when K-culture stars perform in China or Southeast Asia the [local] media often uses such slogans as “going out to conquer Asia.” This (groundless) pride in the superiority of Korean culture is defined not in terms of original creativity but rather through the establishment of hierarchical relations with [hegemonic] others.
Hence, progressive intellectuals and cultural studies practitioners in South Korea criticize the mainstream views on Hanryu for their lack of due cross-cultural sensibility and concern for inter-regional dialogue, as well as their emphasis on the willful commodification of culture and cultural differences. Instead, they approach and evaluate Hanyru more cautiously through a series of contextualizing efforts. For instance, the culturalist position takes the Hanryu phenomenon as a relatively recent wave of transnational cultural flows and traffics which have historically existed for decades in Asia. Before and even with Hanryu, the flow of Japanese popular culture as a prototype of transnational culture created by a non-western other has been a strong presence across the Asian region. In the 1980s, Hong Kong cinema was a defining element of a particular form of transnational cultural flow especially in Asia before its popularity somewhat died out in the following decades.
In this fashion, the culturalist position attempts to bring in a much more critical and politicized reading of the Hanryu phenomenon by foregrounding the issues which are often disregarded or downplayed by mainstream discourses on Hanryu: the possibilities of cross-cultural or transborder dialogues from below that can be mediated through Hanryu texts and their audiences in various geopolitical regions. Moreover, the culturalist position looks into and traces other agents and players who are bracketed or marginalized in dominant versions on the flow and reception of South Korean cultural forms. There are multiple audiences including women and youth as well as cultural workers in different geographical regions and sites who consume, receive, use, and interact with South Korean cultural products differentially. These audiences have created multiple forms of symbolic spaces and identities — kinds of translocal cultural zones and “pan-Asian identities” in the making — that have emerged with the negotiated receptions of Hanryu texts and contents.
For instance, Angel Lin and her colleagues (2004) did a qualitative analysis of the reception process of South Korean media texts in Hong Kong. To summarize, their findings indicate that local audiences approach these “alien texts” through pre-established cultural repertoires and sets of cultural meanings of their own. That South Korean media texts as travelling cultural forms convey urban and modern ways of living and images did appeal to the local viewers in Hong Kong. There seemed to exist common structures of feeling and lived experiences. Nevertheless, due to the highly syrupy and melodramatic storytelling and expression in South Korean media texts, the viewers responded that they tended to hide their following of South Korean melodramas in public settings. What has emerged through Lin and her colleague’s analysis is that Hong Kong viewers demonstrate the negotiated reception process of South Korean dramas by both challenging the limitations of some values embedded in these texts and acknowledging the emotional or affective power of the texts they watch. In doing so, the viewers adopt different socio-cultural values, including feminist and established ones, in reading and utilizing South Korean dramas in their own lives. By ushering in much differentiated and location-specific reception modes of South Korean cultural texts in Hong Kong, their research testifies to the fact that the Hanryu phenomenon has multifaceted dimensions, connections, and ramifications which are often not properly dealt with in the mainstream discourses which are circulated in South Korea.
Koichi Iwabuchi (2004b) brings in an equally important perspective which is not shaped by nationalistic frames or essentalistic claims on the Hanryu phenomenon. Upon charting the emergence of South Korean popular texts in Japan and Korea-related popular themes in Japanese television dramas, Iwabuchi focuses on the problematic status of Korean Japanese whose presence and identities are often sidelined or disregarded in both South Korea and Japan’s mainstream approaches to the Korean wave phenomenon. Among other things, Iwabuchi sharply points out the fundamental flaws in the statecentric celebration and admission of Hanryu as a means of bringing about mutual understanding in each country. What is missing in this kind of dominant — and seemingly benign — argument is that the much complicated social issues surrounding Korean Japanese people and their particular history of identity formation and the problem of their oppressed status as marginalized ethnic others in Japan are often erased in the name of celebratory rhetoric which claims that Hanryu brings both Japanese and Koreans much closer.
There is yet another exemplary piece of research on the Hanryu phenomenon which utilizes a much balanced and inclusive analysis. Recently, a research team at Kwangwoon University in Seoul, led by Professor Soohyun Jang and other faculty members (2004), has explored the reception of South Korean cultural products in China. It is one of the most organized and detailed studies which interrogates the Korean wave phenomenon in China. According to their multidisciplinary work, the mainstream portrayal of the lived realities and reception processes surrounding the Hanryu phenomenon in China is much exaggerated and lacks a balanced as well as context-specific understanding. By using institutional, quantitative and qualitative research, they have found out that Hanryu is not a widespread cultural phenomenon in China. It is revealed that Hanryu-related products and images are consumed and received by specific groups of people: predominantly urban-based youngsters and urban dwellers. In other words, Hanryu certainly seems to have a niche market in China: some groups of followers or loyal fans in mostly urban areas indeed follow and consume Hanryu-related cultural products. According to the research team, the wider exposure to South Korean popular culture among Chinese viewers and users does not necessarily enhance the national image of South Korea. In their collaborative research, for instance, Chinese viewers’ responses to Hanryu texts varied. Some viewers tended to perceive urban imagery, lifestyles, and images related to consumption in Hanryu texts as much desired elements and were the reasons why they pursued Hanryu texts. By identifying with the characters who have to deal with family and interpersonal relations in a modernized setting in Hanryu texts, some Chinese viewers could connect the social world depicted in Hanryu texts with theirs. In other words, Hanyru texts functioned as cultural and symbolic cultural vehicles through which the Chinese viewers could project and engage in their own lived experiences and “emotional realism” shaped by the compressed and uneven process of modernization.
An equally important matter Jang and his colleagues’ research found is that Hanryu should be perceived and located in the institutional and political context: the relative success of South Korean cultural products has been attributed to the rapid growth of Chinese media industries and the following demand for relatively cheap and appealing forms of popular entertainment from abroad. It should be also pointed out that the Chinese government allowed and regulated the flow of South Korean popular cultural products through its intervention and management of the domestic cultural market (Jang 2004:385). Jang and his research team diagnosed that Korean cultural products have representational strategies and thematic elements that can certainly appeal to, as well as attract a particular structure of feeling in Chinese audiences: their desire for relatively well-crafted cultural products and images, consumption and modern life styles. Their research findings challenge the mainstream views on Hanyru in South Korea which are often steeped in rosy forecastings of Hanryu’s enormous economic potential, market edge, and cultural creativity. In a way, what is emerging from this exemplary research is that a more cautious, self-reflective, and modulated approach to the Hanryu phenomenon is needed.
In Lieu of Conclusion: Towards Inter-Asia Cultural Dialogues: Where is Asia in the Dominant Discourses on Hanryu?
In contemporary South Korea, many cultural studies practitioners would agree that Hanryu-related phenomena have (accidentally) brought about important issues surrounding the role of transnational cultural traffics and border crossings embodied through cultural forms and images to the forefront of public concerns and agendas. This can be considered an enabling opportunity for those who take (transnational) cultural politics seriously and people who want to utilize Hanryu as a new opportunity for constructively engaging with translocal and transnational forms of popular cultures shared through Inter-Asian channels (Kim and Yang 2005; Lee 2005).
Unfortunately they still belong to the minority. What is often missing in the mainstream discourses on Hanryu in contemporary South Korea is any self-reflexive understanding of Hanryu as one of the potential conduits for cross-cultural sensibilities and inter-regional dialogues, and eventually as an opportunity for taking steps towards cultural regionalization (Paik 2005). What makes such alternative imagining and networking hard to materialize is the kind of pervasive and rampant neoliberal market thinking and state-centric thought that tends to shape and dominate the discourses and representations surrounding the flow of South Korean popular culture into other regions in Asia and elsewhere.
Looking at the recent circulation of Hanryu discourses through the cultural studies lens presents new forms of explanation of translocally consumed cultural texts as well as new problematics that need more than critical discursive intervention. To say the least and emphasize the obvious, more concerted and collaborative efforts are necessary for South Korean cultural workers, intermediaries and critics in order to lay the groundwork for more open, non-hierarchical, and reciprocal cultural understanding and exchange among South Korea and its neighbors. Especially for concerned cultural practitioners, the next step seems to be to put more interventionary and institutional measures into the existing alternative approaches to the Hanryu phenomenon beyond the usual informed criticism of mainstream approaches. Such attempts seem to include, to name a few, more concrete institutional level interventions in the name of “critical cultural policy,” politico economic analysis of local culture industries as a main producer of Hanryu texts and their strategies, and more self-reflexive ethnographic and comparative analysis of the discrepant reception processes of Hanryu texts in specific geographical locales through the collaboration between South Korean and local scholars.