'Stealing our culture': South Koreans upset after China claims kimchi as its own

Agriculture ministry drawn in to row after state media prompts backlash with claims that China leads global kimchi industry

Social media users in China and South Korea are embroiled in another row, this time over the provenance of kimchi, the fermented cabbage dish that most people recognise as an essential part of the Korean diet.

Not, though, in China, where state media have sparked an online backlash after one of the country’s fermented dishes received certification from the International Organisation for Standardisation [ISO].

ISO status, the Global Times newspaper reported, was an “international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”.

The very mention of the word kimchi triggered angry accusations among South Koreans that China was attempting to claim kimchi as its own, when in fact the award covered only pao cai – a type of pickled vegetable often found in Sichuan cuisine.

“Its total nonsense, what a thief stealing our culture!” a South Korean netizen wrote on Naver, a widely popular web portal.

Seoul resident Kim Seol-ha said: “I read a media story that China now says kimchi is theirs, and that they are making international standard for it. It’s absurd.”

Some South Korean media said China’s brazen coveting of kimchi was akin to a “bid for world domination”.

The kimchi contretemps is the latest online spat between social media users in China and South Korea. In October, the leader of the K-pop phenomenon BTS faced a barrage of criticism in China after he cited his country’s solidarity with the US stemming from the Korean war – a conflict in which China fought alongside North Korea.

Last month, the popular girl band Blackpink were shown at a zoo in their native South Korea holding a baby panda loaned from China, drawing accusations that they had risked harming the animal’s health.

Even South Korea’s agriculture ministry was moved to comment on the latest cultural clash, releasing a statement saying that the ISO approved standard “had nothing to do with kimchi”.

“It is inappropriate to report (pao cai winning the ISO) without differentiating between kimchi from pao cai from Sichuan,” the ministry added.

Chinese internet users said they had every right to claim the dish as their own, since so much of the kimchi consumed in South Korea – where people eat an estimated 2 million tonnes a year – comes from China.

“Well, if you don’t meet the standard, then you’re not kimchi,” one wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Another said: “Even the pronunciation of kimchi originated from Chinese, what else is there to say.”

Like K-pop, kimchi has benefitted from the Hallyu wave of interest in Korean culture and now has legions of fans outside the South, where it comes in dozens of varieties and accompanies almost every meal.

The UN appears to agree that kimchi is South Korean, with Unesco adding kimjang – the communal act of making kimchi – to its intangible cultural heritage list in 2013.

The body said at the time that kimjang “forms an essential part of Korean meals, transcending class and regional differences. The collective practice of kimjang reaffirms Korean identity and is an excellent opportunity for strengthening family cooperation”.


Justin McCurry in Tokyo and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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