Geography 101. We may live in an increasingly virtual world, but make no mistake, land still matters. “This land was made for you and me” goes the American folk song. Catchy, but isn’t it more the case that the land makes the people? Consider Korea. North and South Korea together make up a peninsula the size of Utah, which juts out of China to the south, protruding toward southern Japan (which lies only 200 km from the southern tip of Korea.) To the south and east, then, lies Japan, with the East Sea between. (Don’t call it Sea of Japan!) To the North and East is the behemoth China, with the East China Sea as a cushion. PBS titled its program on this land, “Hidden Korea,” and it’s not hard to figure out why it could fly under the radar. Not even typhoons or earthquakes have much impact. Typhoons tend to get hung up in Japan, and the rugged ripples of low mountains that dominate much of the landscape are not volcanic – a safe haven amid the Pacific “Rim of Fire.” It’s a unique setting. And what has been the effect? Multiple.
These are carved onto about 80,000 woodblocks. Goryeo also invented the world's first metal-based movable type in 1234, and the oldest surviving movable metal type book was made in 1377. Smart people - and they still take books and education quite seriously – just ask any Korean schoolgirl or boy.
Hidden (and unified) no more. After Goryeo, came the Joseon Dynasty (for five centuries, up to 1897). Much culture developed in this time and Seoul was established in the northwest region where its bustling streets lay today. During this time also, Korea's isolationist policy earned it the name the "Hermit Kingdom.” However, all that changed when Japan got more ambitious. But I am not talking about the fateful 20th century (just yet). Back in the 16th century, when America was but colonial outpost, Japan decided it wanted imperial outposts of its own on the Asian continent. Laying the way, however, was Korea. Japan never made it to the mainland, being soundly defeated by a Korean “Righteous Army” (and some assistance from Ming China, not surprisingly.) Despite losing over 100,000 noses (yes noses, brought back by Japanese as war trophies), Koreans had stood their ground – with sacrifice. As an American, I salute that.
Two and a half centuries later, came World War II, a more monumental Japanese power play. Longer lasting effects resulted in Korea this time – namely the official political divide between North and South. When Japan surrendered in 1945, the U.S. and then Soviet Union could not agree on Korea, hence the line was drawn on the 38th parallel – communist “Democratic People’s Republic” to the north, democratic “Republic of Korea” to the south. Same people, with two very different political and social fates. I shall leave the North Koreans alone from here. That is what their leaders have tended to foster, after all. Although, we shall see what changes the new young ruler might yet have in store. As for South Koreans, they have their own healthy nationalistic pride. Watch their team with them in the World Cup, for instance. And if it’s versus Japan, really be prepared. Kimchi, it is said, is a fitting symbol of Korean culture – strong, distinctive and defiant.
One people, two nations? Before Japan tried their hand at world domination leaving a divided Korea after World War II, Korea’s location and land enabled the development of a distinct and unified people. The country’s name stems from the Goryeo period (or Koryu), 918–1392, when Persian merchants first visited and dubbed it “Korea.” The Persians discovered in Korea a “one nation” homogenous people. Their language exemplifies this. Scholars can’t even agree if the Korean language is Altaic (proposed language family which includes Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Japonic ) or its own with no lingual ancestor. But what else did the Persians find in Korea?
Early Koreans had some impressive accomplishments. Two of the Goryeo period's most notable products are celadon pottery and the Tripitaka Koreana — the Buddhist scriptures.
Quick note on the latter: Koreans don’t get older (by number) on their actual birthday, but on New Year’s Day. (New Year’s on the Lunar calendar for old school Koreans.) And, by the way, when a Korean is born, that’s their first birthday – they are immediately 1. They rush right into life, which is fitting for this strong, fast-moving, hard-working people of definite global, historical and cultural distinction –and style! – people known as Koreans.
Speaking of food, Westerners would be foolish to lump most Asiatic cuisines together. Beyond the notorious Kimchi (universal Korean fermented cabbage side dish), even Korean rice has distinction. This is not Chinese food. Rice is shorter and stickier in Korea, and sometimes purple (a kind of mixed, healthier rice.) And of course it’s not just what you eat, it’s HOW. It’s not all about chopsticks for Koreans, who eat a lot soups. Even rice is often eaten with a spoon. And the rice bowl stays on the table – bring your mouth down, not the bowl up. Oh, and if you’re wondering how “man’s best friend” fares in Korea. Take heart, Lassie is at least a culinary fare of distinction, and not a common dish. Fittingly, it’s a favorite among men, who claim it has a, shall we say, enduring effect.
Well, there’s much more that could be said of course. We didn’t even get into seafoods, Samsung, and New Year’s traditions.