The kimchi war between the people’s Republic of China and South Korea


The kimchi war between the people’s Republic...

In recent months, South Korea has risen against Beijing’s want to associate the pao cai speciality with its most representative and identifying gastronomic recipe based on fermented cabbage: kimchi. Undoubtedly, the latter is the best known and the most popular dish in Korean cuisine, so much so that, at the end of the early 2000s, South Korean institutions adopted a series of initiatives to promote its national culinary brand. This policy, called kimchi diplomacy, aimed at improving its global understanding and reputation and, thus, strengthen its soft power abroad

Yet, at the end of 2020, the People’s Republic of China put forward the idea that kimchi belonged to the historical and cultural heritage of the Land of the Dragon and that it was attributable to its local variant. As a result, it questioned the Korean origins, causing the parties to start a heated exchange of official statements and denials.

The dispute between the two Asian countries began in December last year. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) – the non-governmental body based in Geneva, which has the task of harmonizing the technical regulations of single countries and elaborating a common international standard – defined and released the ISO 24220 standard related to the development, transport and storage of the Chinese pao cai. The latter is a dish based on salted and fermented vegetables, traditionally considered a Chinese variant of kimchi produced in the southwestern province of Sichuan1. Although the ISO itself cleared that the pao cai document should not apply to kimchi, some major Chinese mass media reported the news describing this certification as “an international standard for the China-led kimchi industry”. They claimed the origin of the Korean gastronomic food as Chinese.

Faced with such declarations, the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs reacted with an official note. It reiterated that kimchi and pao cai are two different dishes and that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 20012. had already defined the international standard of the former.

The resolution shown by the South Korean government in wanting to avoid the Chinese cultural appropriation of the Korean national dish led to the intervention of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in favour of linking the Chinese pao cai with the Korean kimchi.

The mentioned episode is part of the latest strategy of cultural imperialism adopted by the Chinese authority to strengthen the central power over its peripheries. In adopting the traditions, knowledge and culture of the numerous ethnic minorities living in its territory, China seeks to weaken any potential independence claims. We should not forget the millenary tendency of China to consider itself the enlightened nation in a world of barbarians. The Sino-centric vision of international relations conveyed by the notion of Tianxia (天下, everything [that is] under Heaven), which has made a comeback in recent decades in Chinese political and cultural circles3. This strategy has also affected the Korean peninsula. Since last year, South Korean media and institutions have begun to report other episodes of appropriation of typical elements of its local culture by Popular China, for example, the attempt to label traditional Korean hanbok clothing as a kind of Chinese hanfu or associating historical figures or Korean national heroes, such as Sejong the Great, Yun Dong-Ju or Kim Yuna, with the Chaoxianzu, the ethnic minority of Korean origin, living in north-eastern China.

The idea of Tianxa, developed during the Zhou dynasty, in power in pre-imperial China between the 12th and 13th centuries BC, forms the basis of the traditional Chinese approach to international politics. According to the Tianxia paradigm, the political entity of reference is not the nation-state of Western origin but the whole world, as a whole, governed by universal principles of harmony and cooperation between its components. In this sense, it diverges from the Western idea of international relations, defined by an intrinsic antagonism between sovereign states. The Chinese conception of world politics, on the other hand, envisages a harmoniously, although not evenly established international system, in which the Chinese state plays a central and hegemonic role compared to the other neighbouring countries, considered tributary and more or less sinicized. The new Tianxia reflects the traditional Chinese vision of the world order: a cosmopolite system of governance that exceeds national and geographical borders, in which China is the leading actor.

Coming to the cuisine, we must first point out that the Chinese identify kimchi with pao cai, generating ambiguity regarding the difference between the two dishes on the Chinese side. In reality, in Inner China, or the Eighteen provinces – an expression that designates historical China – there is no documentation or historical reference to the traditional kimchi-making and its re-interpretations, unlike in the Korean peninsula. The first Korean testimony of the word kimchi, referring to the meal in question, comes inside a kind of recipe book dating back to the Goryeo era (918-1392). This book lists different types of kimchi consumed during some ancestral rituals, such as the standard recipe, the one with turnip, passing through the one made with bamboo shoots. The dish is also the absolute protagonist of a poem by the Korean scholar Yi Gyu-bo (1168-1241) that described the preparation and eating of light kimchi made of pickled turnip.

Anche durante gli inizi del periodo Joseon (1392-1910) sono stati scritti diversi testi di carattere Similarly, during the early Joseon period (1392-1910), several agricultural or culinary texts were written illustrating kimchi in detail. For example, the scholar Seo Geo-Jeong (1420-1488) often dedicated his history books to an extensive study of the production and eating of this delicacy4.

Nowadays, kimchi still represents the central ingredient of Korean cuisine. People have never altered its recipe, although, currently, hundreds of versions vary according to seasons, regions or the ingredients employed for its preparation. For example, in the colder north of the Korean peninsula, kimchi is blander, prepared with little chilli powder and very watery. On the other hand, in the warmer areas of South Korea, they add salt, fermented fish and lots of chilli powder to extend its shelf life and creating a richly spicy, salty and dense dish. All the varieties of kimchi have in common the process whereby each vegetable used must first be salted, then seasoned with different sauces and ultimately fermented. In addition, they all share the quality of being a dish rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals, making it an excellent diet food and with unquestionable beneficial effects for the body. The scientific magazine Health has classified it among the best anti-cancer foods in the worldd5.

Thanks to the fermentation process that produces lactic ferments and aromatic components that help digestion, Koreans are generally convinced that this food boosts their handling of the hectic lives, typical of Korean city life. In general, kimchi is so rooted in Korean tradition that UNESCO has declared Gimjang, the ceremony of its preparation and distribution, which takes place in October and November, as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity6. During the Gimjang, Korean families get together and prepare large amounts of kimchi. They share it with all the community, creating a high moment of social connection and strengthening the friendly relations between all its members. If in the past, they considered kimchi mainly as a necessity to face the chilly and harsh winters when vegetables became scarce, now it represents one of the moments of affirmation of Korean identity.

All this contributes to explaining the resolute response of South Korean institutions towards Popular China. The attempt of Beijing to include kimchi in the Chinese gastronomic culture has touched an identity feature deeply rooted in the Korean national sentiment. Beyond the origin of kimchi, the risk for Seoul is that the diplomatic diatribe could bring out the paradox that the country is constantly increasing the consumption of the product manufactured in China. About 15% of the kimchi eaten gets to South Korea almost exclusively from mainland China; over 70% of South Korean restaurants serve kimchi imported from this neighbouring Asian country because of its lower cost.

For many years, domestic production has not been sufficient to meet the incredibly high demand for kimchi in South Korea. They estimate that, in a year, South Koreans consume an average of 1.85 million tons of kimchi, about 36 kilograms per capita. In addition, thanks to the international success of this food, national companies export abroad part of its production of kimchi. As a result, according to official data, the trade deficit of the South Korean kimchi industry was approximately 7.8 million dollars in 2019, despite a 36% increase in exports, which reached 119 million dollars7. Without forgetting that this incident has contributed to making Chinese pao cai appreciated in the West, bringing it to the attention of all gastronomy enthusiasts and thus marking a point in favour of Popular China in strengthening its soft power.

LUCA GALANTINI

[1] “ISO 24220:2020 – Pao Cai (Salted Fermented Vegetable) – Specification and Test Methods”, Sito ufficiale della ISO, https://www.iso.org/standard/78112.html(27/05/2021).

[2] “How Kimchi Rekindled a Decades Long Feud”, BBC Online, 18/12/2020, http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201217-how-kimchi-rekindled-a-decades-long-feud (27/05/2021)..

[3] T. Zhao, ‘Tutto-sotto-il-cielo’: così i cinesi vedono il mondo, trad. ita. di A. Casarini, in “Il marchio giallo”, Limes Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica, No. 4, 2008, pp. 47-55. Cfr. J.A. Millward, Qing and Twentieth-Century Chinese Diversity Regimes, in A. Phillips, C. Reus-Smit (eds.), Culture and Order in World Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2020, pp. 75-78. Cfr. T.wai (eds. E. Fardella, A. Ghiselli), Cina: il Mediterraneo nelle nuove Vie della Seta, Approfondimenti dell’Osservatorio di Politica Internazionale, No. 132, Roma, Italia, 2017, pp. 10-11. Disponibile su: http://www.parlamento.it/application/xmanager/projects/parlamento/file/repository/affariinternazionali/osservatorio/approfondimenti/PI0132App.pdf.

[4] M. Baroli, “Tutto quello che dovete sapere sul kimchi”, La Verità Online, 26/02/2021, https://www.laverita.info/tutto-quello-che-dovete-sapere-sul-kimchi-2650812890.html (28/05/2021).

[5] A. Magistà, “La guerra fredda del kimchi tra la Corea e la Cina”, La Repubblica Online, 01/03/2021, https://www.repubblica.it/sapori/2021/03/01/news/kimchi_coreano_e_pao_cai_cinese_la_diplomazia_in_cucina-288894867/ (31/05/2020). Cfr. J. Raymond, “World’s Healthiest Foods: Kimchi (Korea)”, Health Online, 26/06/2013, https://www.health.com/condition/digestive-health/worlds-healthiest-foods-kimchi-korea (31/05/2021).

[6]“Kimjang: Making and Sharing Kimchi in the Republic of Korea”, Sito ufficiale dell’UNESCO, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/kimjang-making-and-sharing-kimchi-in-the-republic-of-korea-00881(31/05/2021).

[7]“Cina e Corea del Sud ora litigano sull’origine del kimchi”, Affari Italiani Online, 06/12/2020, https://www.affaritaliani.it/esteri/cina-corea-del-sud-ora-litigano-sul-kimchi-710241.html?refresh_ce (31/05/2021).

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