Korea has been said to be one of the most racially and culturally homogenous countries in the world. Although many critics claim that this is a 'myth', it is true that the country has not suffered from the racial and religious conflicts that have troubled so many countries. This alleged racial homogeneity may make a different race the primary indicator of 'the stranger' in Korea.
Thus, I was somewhat surprised by the descriptive statistics from a nationally representative survey of the permanent and naturalised immigrants in Korea conducted in 2013. According to the survey, the majority of immigrants who experienced perceived discrimination believed that they were discriminated against because of their national backgrounds, and not race, religion or economic status. From the respondents’ perspective, Koreans seem to be very proud of their nationality. If, as the immigrants claim, Koreans are so proud of being Korean, what is the source of that national pride? Further, could it be the way they justify discrimination against immigrants?
My Identities article, 'Constructing Chineseness as other in the evolution of national identity in South Korea', addresses these questions. Drawing on scholarly publications, newspapers, policy reports, surveys and films, I compared two different Chinese immigrant groups who came to Korea in different eras. I traced the narratives of Chineseness used to construct Chinese immigrants as strangers and examined how these narratives are related to Koreans’ evolving self-perceptions. The country’s national goals and sources of pride – in particular, historical eras – constitute the national subjectivity. As the most immediate strangers, Chinese immigrants have been easy targets for Koreans to demonstrate and confirm the new national identities they desire.
Chinese residents from Shandong province in eastern China, referred to as Hwagyo, were the first immigrant group in Korea’s modern history. Their Chineseness was constructed from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries when Korea was subjected to colonial rule, and struggled to survive economically as one of the poorest countries in the world. Highly motivated by their desire to survive and grow as a nation, Koreans targeted the most immediate others as threats to those goals. The Hwagyo’s dominance in trading and their expanding economic activities were perceived to be a national security risk that was used to justify the legal measures adopted to marginalise them socially and economically.
Later, ethnic Koreans from the People's of Republic of China, referred to as Joseonjok, immigrated to Korea to take low-income jobs, and became more visible strangers and the new representatives of Chineseness. The Chineseness of these immigrants was contrasted to Koreans’ redefined national character, in which Koreans envisioned themselves as the only legitimate citizens of an advanced, capitalist and liberal society. This new national subjectivity is culturally defined by particular behavioural patterns, ethical orientations and lifestyles. Joseonjok’s Korean ethnicity has not been embraced and celebrated sufficiently to compensate for their cultural otherness which is framed conveniently as Chineseness. Further, the media has often portrayed them as lawless, wild and dangerously naïve compared to the image of orderly, restrained and sophisticated Korean citizens.
These two kinds of Chineseness constructed in different historical eras served the same purpose of designating immigrants as others to enhance the vision of Korea’s national character that its citizens desired. Thus the Chineseness of immigrants to Korea has evolved over time from an economic to a cultural threat, through the process of delineating the legitimate boundaries of economic and cultural communities.
The quest for Koreanness has been troubled by the political polarisation between conservatives and progressives who disagreed over various critical issues from whether the birth of South Korea was legitimate or not, to who are the true evil others to Koreans. However, this long-time discursive divide itself is superficial enough not to enunciate the evolving national goals, visions and characters of Koreanness. As Hall suggested, we should think of identity as a production, which is always in process, and always constituted within representation, instead of thinking it as an already accomplished fact. This paper traces the construction of Chineseness of immigrants as the evolving reflections of self through which Koreanness, as the product of historical experiences, was constantly discovered and expressed.
Blog post by Oh-Jung Kwon, Korea Institute of Science and Technology, Republic of Korea
Read the full article: Kwon, Oh-Jung. Constructing Chineseness as other in the evolution of national identity in South Korea. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1757253