China Lays Claim to 'Arirang'

      June 23, 2011 13:48

      China has outraged patriotic Koreans by registering the folk song "Arirang," widely considered Korea's unofficial national anthem, as part of its own cultural heritage.

      Beijing says it merely registered the song as part of the culture of ethnic Koreans in China, but some experts believe the move is an extension of the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences' Northeast Project, which critics say sought to co-opt the culture of the early Korean kingdoms. The move is seen as a precursor to registering those cultural assets on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

      Beijing has designated in its latest list of cultural assets pansori, or traditional Korean narrative song, also sung by ethnic Koreans in Liaoning Province, "Arirang" sung by ethnic Koreans in the Yanbian region, as well as the gayageum (12-stringed zither), festival celebrating the 60th wedding anniversary, and ssireum or Korean wrestling.

      Earlier, China had designated as its own cultural heritage the traditional Korean feast celebrating one's 60th birthday, traditional Korean wedding ceremony, hanbok or traditional Korean dress and a farmer's dance, saying they are practiced by ethnic Korean in northeastern China.

      The Korean Arirang Association in a statement on Wednesday said, "When China first designated some ethnic Korean cultural customs including the farmer's dance in Yanbian as part of its own culture, rumors started to circulate that China would go further than that, and it seems they have become a reality now." It said the move "is a definite threat at a time when the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has chosen 'Arirang' among 100 icons representing Korea and has linked the song with efforts to promote the country's brand image."

      China succeeded in registering the Yanbian farmer's dance on the UN World Heritage list in 2009.

      The Cultural Heritage Administration dismissed the fears. In a statement on Wednesday it said, "It is like designating an important cultural asset to protect it by law." The administration said China only listed "Arirang" as sung by ethnic Koreans there, not Korea's version of the song, and the move cannot be seen as part of the Northeast Project.

      The CHA added it is preparing to revise mechanisms for protecting Korea's cultural heritage "by following global trends, such as the UNESCO World Heritage List." In other words, it plans to register the different styles of "Arirang" in Korea, including versions sung in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province and Jindo, South Jeolla Province. It apparently made that decision in an emergency meeting on Wednesday in response to mounting criticism.

      But the CHA has acted late and China now has a head-start when it comes to registering the song with UNESCO.

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