Korean Culture

Hip, Rich, Highly Acclaimed- BTS, Black Pink, Squid Game, Minari, Parasite, Dae Jang Geum (aka Jewel in the Palace)…. K-pop, K-movies, K-dramas: K-culture is commanding the attention of the world!
To discover the wisdom and true makeup of Korean culture, please take a close look.

Korean Spiritual Culture

Korean culture traces back nine thousand years. Ancient Koreans experienced a direct connection with the spirits of heaven and earth and nature itself. They viewed humans, animals, plants, and even grains of sand as being sacred and spiritual. This spirituality was called ‘Singyo’ (“Spirit Teaching”), which was not a religion but a way of life for Koreans’ ancient forebears. From Singyo came the teachings and religions of the East and West that we know today.

One notable characteristic of Singyo was a sacred regard for the number ‘three,’ for three was the basis of nature and life: heaven, earth, humanity; father, mother, child; positive, negative, neutral; etc. In fact, the Primordial Spirit that is the source of all existence was known as ‘Samsin’ (“Threefold Spirit”), the One Spirit that oversees all existence via three means: by creating, by edifying, by governing. Being one with Samsin is Sangjenim, who rules the universe and who was worshipped by the ancients through offering rituals held at ritual mounds on Ganghwado Island and at numerous sacred sites in Northeast Asia and around the world.

In keeping with their Singyo worldview, the ancients regarded heaven, earth, and humanity as manifestations of Samsin. They also viewed heaven and earth as living beings—as the father and mother who give life to and nurture humanity. And so, the ancients believed their fellow human beings to be embodiments of heaven and earth and of Samsin.

Korean History

Korea is a land of ancient traditions. Olden historical sites, such as the stately five-hundred-year-old Gyeongbokgung Palace, stand in the middle of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and in other cities and countrysides across the land. South Korea is also a nation of cutting edge technology, renowned for exporting semiconductors, cars, smartphones, and various other electronic devices. Rising from the ashes of the Korean War (1950– 1953), South Korea became a global economic leader within the span of a few decades. This resilience and resourcefulness can be attributed to the reservoir of wisdom, experience, and drive of a nation whose history stretches back many millennia.

Are you familiar with Ganghwado Island? Located about a ninetyminute drive from Seoul, the island is the site of an ancient ritual mound that sits atop Mt. Marisan. About 4,350 years ago, this ritual mound was used by Dangun Wanggeom, the ruler of Dangun Joseon, to offer rituals to heaven. In other words, this ruler, acting on behalf of his people, offered rituals to Sangjenim, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.

Notably, ancient Korean historical records reveal that Dangun Wanggeom’s domain of rule not only included the Korean Peninsula, it spanned all of Northeast Asia.

Other historical records and artifacts reveal that Korea’s history is actually older than five thousand years, extending back approximately nine thousand years.

K-Food, Clothing, Shelter

A key trait of Korean cuisine is the combination of the eum-yang philosophy and fermentation. For example, the main ingredients for kimchi are cabbage and radish. The wide leaves of cabbage represent eum (yin) and the long stalk of radish represents yang. After combining the eum and yang of cabbage and radish along with numerous seasonings, everything is fermented to produce kimchi, the most recognized dish of Korean cuisine. Various Korean dishes, adored as health food by millions around the world, reflect Korean cultural wisdom and longstanding traditions.

Hanbok: Traditional Attire
Traditional Korean attire known as hanbok is renowned for its beautiful flowing lines and dazzling colors. Graceful and functional, hanbok provides both elegance and comfort to its wearer. Appreciation of Korea’s ancient traditional apparel is growing across the globe, gaining admirers. Moreover, modern interpretations of hanbok are gaining new fans at prestigious international fashion runways.

Ondol: Traditional Floor Heating
A longstanding tradition of Korean housing is ondol, which extends back thousands of years. Renowned for promoting good health through sound sleep, this floor heating technique is still prevalent in South Korea, even in sophisticated modern buildings.

Hangul: The Korean Alphabet

Hangul (“Great Script”) has been lauded by prominent linguists for being ‘scientific’ and easy to learn.

The alphabet was devised in 1443 during the reign of King Sejong the Great (1397–1450). Hangul consists of 14 basic consonants and 10 basic vowels. The basic components of the vowels ( • ㅣ ㅡ ) represent heaven, earth, and humanity. The 5 basic consonants (ㄱ,ㄴ,ㅁ,ㅅ,ㅇ) correspond to the places of articulation inside the mouth, as well as to the five elements in Eastern philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

British historian and travel writer John Man wrote in his book Alpha Beta: How Our Alphabet Shaped the Modern World:

In its simplicity, efficiency and elegance, [Hangul] is alphabet’s epitome, a star among alphabets, a national treasure for Koreans and “one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind”, in the judgment of the British linguist, Geoffrey Sampson.

Recognized for its excellence and ease of learning, Hangul is now taught in 1,670 elementary and secondary schools in 39 countries.

The Korean Flag

The Korean flag, known as ‘Taegeukgi’ (“Taegeuk Flag”), represents the profound worldview of the Korean people, stemming from Korea’s ancient teachings and traditions.

The circle in the center represents Taegeuk (aka ‘Taiji’), signifying eum and yang (aka ‘yin and yang’), female and male, cold and hot, etc. The trigrams in the four corners represent heaven, earth, sun, and moon (as well as father, mother, son, and daughter; east, west, south, and north; spring, summer, autumn, and winter; etc.). The white background represents light, the basis of the universe.

Taegeukgi also represents the perpetual dynamic of birth, growth, maturation (harvest), and rest that governs the universe and all of existence.

Globalization of K-Content

The world is abuzz about the latest Korean drama, Squid Game. Millions around the world are singing and dancing to BTS’s mega hits “Butter” and “Permission to Dance.” Korean movies, TV dramas, pop groups, women’s makeup styles, and other expressions of Korean culture have gained global recognition.

Due to this popularity of Korean culture, termed hallyu (“Korean wave”), many Korean words have entered the English language. In fact, in September 2021, the Oxford English Dictionary added 26 new Korean words to its latest edition.

Interestingly, the OED describes hallyu as “the increase in international interest in South Korea and its popular culture, represented by the global success of South Korean music, film, TV, fashion and food.”

Words of Korean Origin Added to the OED in the September 2021 Update (A Selection from the 26 New Entries)

aegyo – A certain kind of cuteness or charm considered characteristically Korean.

banchan – A small side dish of vegetables, etc., served with rice as part of a typical Korean meal.

bulgogi – A dish of thin slices of beef or pork which are marinated then grilled or stirfried.

daebak – An interjection expressing enthusiastic approval, used in a similar way to ‘fantastic!’ or ‘amazing!’

galbi – A dish of beef short ribs, usually marinated in soy sauce, garlic, and sugar, and sometimes cooked on a grill at the table.

hanbok – The traditional Korean costume worn by both men and women.

Hangul – The name of the Korean alphabet.

japchae – A dish consisting of cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch, stirfried with vegetables and other ingredients, and typically seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil.

K-drama – A television series in the Korean language and produced in South Korea.

kimbap – A Korean dish consisting of cooked rice and other ingredients wrapped in a sheet of seaweed and cut into bite-sized slices.

oppa – Used by a female speaker to address or refer to her older brother, older male friend, or boyfriend.

samgyeopsal – A Korean dish of thinly sliced pork belly, usually served raw to be cooked by the diner on a tabletop grill.

unni – Used by a female speaker to address or refer to her older sister or older female friend.