SEOUL — Just whose new year is it, anyway?
The venerable British Museum is the latest to be dragooned into the Asian culture wars when it publicized a performance by a South Korea entertainment troupe over this week’s traditional East Asian holiday season, urging the public to join a celebration of what it billed as the “Korean Lunar New Year.”
That sparked a furious online backlash.
“Stop appropriating my culture, it’s Chinese new year,” was one of the more restrained responses on Twitter. The museum swiftly retreated, posting a traditional Chinese painting with the hashtag “Chinese New Year.”
But screen captures of the original tweet circulated online, providing fresh fodder for a raging debate over what to call the new year’s celebration. Is the “Lunar New Year” — or worse the “Korean Lunar New Year” — a “cultural appropriation” seeking to deny the day’s Chinese roots? Or is “Chinese New Year” just one more example of the Middle Kingdom’s ingrained insensitivity toward other, “lesser” cultures on its periphery?
At a time when a resurgent China is once more towering over Asia, the debate has become a soft-power flash point: Should the holiday be dubbed “Chinese” or the “Lunar” New Year?
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his two-paragraph statement marking the new year earlier this week, managed not to use the words China or Chinese in his message:
” wish all observing the Lunar New Year around the world good health, peace, and good fortune,” Mr. Blinken’s message read in part. “This is a time of celebration and optimism for the coming year, and I particularly wish to recognize the millions of Asian Americans who celebrate this new lunar year. You are an essential part of our American tapestry.”
With the State Department have gone “Lunar,” Chinese hackles have risen, as have the stakes in the debate.
Culture and power
Unquestionably, the festival originated in the font of ancient East Asian culture, China, which has always marked the inauguration of a new year by the lunar rather than the solar calendar. From there, the new year, or spring festival, spread to the China-influenced kingdoms on the empire’s flanks in Korea and Vietnam. Today, it is widely celebrated across the region and among the East Asian diaspora globally.
Traditionally, Korea and Vietnam sourced much from the “Middle Kingdom.” Chinese takeaways included writing systems of Chinese ideographs, philosophies such as Confucianism, religions such as Buddhism, medical techniques such as acupuncture, literary classics, martial arts and more.
But the peripheral states chafed, at different times, against the center’s influence. Culturally they diverged — with Korea and Vietnam both creating their own writing systems. Politically, both fought wars against China, including in the 20th century.
A chaos-wracked China, bedeviled by imperial aggression, was dubbed “The Sick Man of Asia” for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The ancient cultural powerhouse only began to regain its regional heft under Mao Zedong’s red banner, when China fought the U.S. and its allies to standstill in Korea.
China’s rise as an economic and military superpower, bolstered by a newly enriched middle class, gave fresh impetus to Chinese influence and assertiveness. With the internet enabling real-time cross-border debate, they are piling onto multiple issues — robustly.
One Chinese critic of the U.S. adoption of “Lunar New Year” called Mr. Blinken a “sinophobic, warmongering top diplomat.”
Curiously, the issue does not arise in the local languages. In Chinese xinnian means “new year;” in Korean, seollal is “new year’s day;” and in Vietnamese, tet simply means “festival. So, it is in the global lingua franca, English, where the battle lines are drawn.
Defenders of “Chinese New Year” argue that China originated the holiday. Moreover, “Lunar New Year” is imprecise, as there are multiple lunar calendars worldwide, they state.
Defenders of “Lunar New Year” point out that, regardless of its origins, the holiday as it is celebrated today is not exclusive to Chinese.
The controversy can catch many unawares. Members of the K-pop band Girls Generation were lambasted on social media for using Seollal and “Lunar New Year” by Chinese netizens, according to South Korean media. One defender of the group fumed that Korea had been suffering from overbearing Chinese “for 3,000 years.”
But it works both ways. Portuguese soccer superstar Christian Ronaldo took flak from Korean netizens after wishing his fans a “Happy Chinese New Year.”
Such linguistic squabbles may seem petty to outsiders, but they contribute to an atmosphere of growing ill will and tension.
A 2022 global poll on “Sinophone Borderlands” conducted by multiple institutes worldwide found that Koreans dislike China more than any other nation, with over 81% expressing “negative” or “very negative” reactions. In addition to air pollution, COVID-19 and authoritarian governance, the survey found “cultural appropriation” was a core issue for South Koreans.
The findings of this, and other polls, mark a seismic shift. For decades, Koreans expressed antipathy for the Japanese for their Pacific War atrocities and alleged refusal to apologize. Now, more vitriol is aimed at China.
Kim Ji-myung, who founded the Korean Interpretation Institute, accuses China of heavy-handedness.
“There is a long history of, if you wanted to inscribe your cultural heritage to UNESCO, China would submit objections as they would insist the roots of Korean culture are Chinese, and they own it,” Ms. Kim said. “Chinese are too authoritarian and greedy — they behave like Big Brother.”
Politicians are compelled to respond to public ire.
Amid South Korea’s 2022 presidential election, both candidates were drawn into a furious online debate in which Koreans accused Chinese of appropriating their traditional national clothing style known as hanbok. Chinese partisans shot back, insisting hanbok was based on Ming Dynasty originals.
Washington weighs in
With the U.S. engaged in its own multi-domain competition with China, it was no surprise that American diplomats sided with Seoul in the hanbok debate.
Now there are suspicions the Biden administration is sticking it to Beijing in the Chinese-Lunar dispute.
The Hong Kong-based online media outlet Friday Everyday cited the “Lunar New Year” greeting tweeted by Mr. Blinken. The greeting includes an image of traditional red envelopes (offering cash gifts during the holiday) that are turned face down — in order to hide the Chinese characters written on the front, Friday Everyday alleges.
“When Biden turned the red packet upside down in his graphic, it just became ridiculous,” said Nury Vittachi, editor of Friday Everyday, which promotes the virtues of Hong Kong and pushes back against what it considers Western media disinformation about China.
Mr. Vittachi added that a range of virulent anti-China voices have been urging the U.S. to switch from “Chinese” to “Lunar” over the last two years.
But a State Department official said that “Lunar” has been in use for some 30 years. And a search of the U.S. Embassy website in Beijing came up with just a single mention of “Chinese New Year” amid a multitude of “Lunar” references.
But a lexical shift is clearly underway.
A survey of official city websites shows that London continues to use “Chinese,” San Francisco uses both “Chinese” and “Lunar,” while New York, Sydney and the Vatican prefer “Lunar.”
Beyond these “China vs. the rest” politics and squabbles, angst is appearing among those who identify ethnically, rather than nationally, as Chinese.
“Businesses and government organizations are increasingly using the name ‘Lunar New Year’ to promote multiculturalism and inclusion by acknowledging the festival is celebrated by many Asian cultures,” noted Australian marketing and advertising media, Bastion Insights, in an article this week. But “renaming the festival … created fear and concerns around loss of cultural identity and autonomy among Australia’s 1.4 million-strong Chinese community.”
Some media outlets have suggested a combination — “Chinese Lunar New Year” — as a solution.
In that, Chinese officialdom may just be ahead of their bristling netizens. The longer format is already in use by state-run English language media such as Global Times and Xinhua.