SEOUL — Just whose new year is it, anyway?
The venerable British Museum was the latest to be dragooned into the Asian culture wars when it publicized a performance by a South Korean entertainment troupe over the traditional East Asian holiday season this week, urging the public to join a celebration of 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 by posting a traditional Chinese painting with the hashtag “Chinese New Year.”
Screen captures of the original tweet circulated online, providing fresh fodder for a raging debate over what to call the 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 “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 flashpoint: Should the holiday be dubbed the “Chinese” or “Lunar” New Year?
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his two-paragraph statement marking the new year this week, managed not to use the words China or Chinese in his message.
“I 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.”
The State Department’s use of “Lunar” raised Chinese hackles and 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.
Korea and Vietnam sourced many traditions 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 and martial arts.
Yet the peripheral states chafed at times against the center’s influence. As part of a cultural divergence, Korea and Vietnam each created its own writing system. 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 began to regain its regional heft under Mao Zedong’s red banner, and China fought the U.S. and its allies to a 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.” 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, they say, “Lunar New Year” is imprecise because there are multiple lunar calendars worldwide.
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 unaware. 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.”
It works both ways. Portuguese soccer superstar Christiano 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. More than 81% expressed “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 said the Japanese refused to apologize. Now, more vitriol is aimed at China.
Kim Ji-myung, who founded the Korea Institute of Simultaneous Interpretation, 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.
During South Korea’s presidential election last year, 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 insisted that 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 that the Biden administration is sticking it to Beijing in the Chinese versus Lunar dispute.
The Hong Kong-based online media outlet Fridayeveryday 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 to hide the Chinese characters on the front, Fridayeveryday claims.
“When Biden turned the red packet upside down in his graphic, it just became ridiculous,” said Nury Vittachi, editor of Fridayeveryday, which promotes the virtues of Hong Kong and pushes back against what it considers Western media disinformation about China.
Mr. Vittachi said virulent anti-China voices have been urging the U.S. to switch from “Chinese” to “Lunar” over the past two years.
A State Department official said “Lunar” has been in use for some 30 years. 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.
A lexical shift is clearly underway.
A survey of official city websites shows that London uses “Chinese,” San Francisco uses both “Chinese” and “Lunar,” and New York, Sydney and the Vatican prefer “Lunar.”
Beyond these “China versus 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,” Australia’s Bastion Insights said in an article this week. Yet “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 be ahead of their bristling netizens. State-run English language media such as Global Times and Xinhua already use the longer format.