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Korean Food and Culture

FOOD AND CULTURE IN KOREA

Choson or Tai Hun is the name the Koreans give to their beautiful mountainous country. The name means “Land of the Morning Calm,” a name perhaps representing more hope than fact.

As a strategic land bridge between north Asia and the outside world, especially the islands of Japan, the mountainous peninsula of Korea traces its origin to a legend. According to this, it was Tangun the great Divine being who descended from heaven and claimed leadership of the many Mongol tribes said to have inhabited the area more than 4,000 years ago. Archeological findings confirm the presence of migratory Ural-Altaic tribes around the tenth century B.C.E. throughout the peninsula and in southern Manchuria as well.

The Land of the Morning Calm first faced invasions by the Han Dynasty of China which brought the introduction of bronze metal-working skills as well as the gradual division of the land into three kingdoms: Koguryo in southern Manchuria and northern Korea; Paekche around the basins of the Han River in central Korea; and Silla in the south of Korea. Chinese living styles, Buddhism, and later, Confucianism formed the foundations of Korean civilization.

From 1392 to 1910, the Yi Dynasty in Korea took many steps to unify the people and the country. All government officials had to pass a national examination based on the Chinese classics, especially Confucianism; a phonetic alphabet of the Korean language was developed. This latter achievement and a much earlier one – the invention and use, before 1392, of what is believed to be the world’s first metal type system, inaugurated with the printing of the Buddhist scripture the Tripitaka Koreana, are credited by many as being two of the most important unifying features of the time. The phonetic alphabet was called Hangeul and its 24 precise letters were used in the publication of many precious books. This rich period of relative calm and great cultural achievement was broken in 1591 by Japanese invasions.

In the past, although Korea had taken much from China, her “elder brother,” the hundreds of years during which Korea experienced relative isolation helped to develop customs and distinctive ways of life that are uniquely Korean. So it was that although much suffering came with the Japanese occupation from sporadic conflicts after 1591, and for a long period between 1910 and 1945, another cultural layer was superimposed on the Korean foundation. While the walled towns and cities and the many Buddhist and Confucian temples suggested Chinese influence, it is equally obvious that modern-day Korea’s many rapid transit and highway systems and even the electrical and telephone systems as well as new consumer habits resulting from mass production of cheap goods, the development of mines and factories and expanded seaports, all trace their origin from the western world via Japan.

Although the Japanese can be credited with preserving the unity of Korea during their occupation, other results were not so favorable. It was both the increase in population and the pressures of politics that resulted in a large emigration of Koreans abroad. And with the Japanese withdrawal following World War II in 1945, the vacant administrative posts in government and executive positions in industry were left to be filled by untrained Koreans with the sad result of a period of economic corruption.

Communist North Korea and the Republic of South Korea differ markedly, and not just in political outlook. With a total Korean population of more than 70 million, North Korea has close to 25 million predominantly engaged in agriculture, while South Korea has a population of almost 46 million with more than two-thirds located in cities and engaged in business and manufacturing. From the plains and lowlands of both regions come the major agricultural crops of maize, rice, wheat, vegetables and fruits as well as pigs, poultry, and cattle.

Presently, although North and South Korea have been on divergent ideological paths, the severe famine in North Korea in the spring of 1997 seemed to bring negotiations closer to a lasting peace between the two regions. Many Koreans living at home and living overseas feel they will win the struggle for the restoration of their unique national culture and gain liberty once again so that their land of Choson will truly be the Land of the Morning Calm.

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