Pyeongchang opening ceremony: a shared culture or a “stolen” culture?

Xiaoxia Yin

The world watched the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on Feb. 9. While many viewers in the United States are interested by the attendance of Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump and are looking forward to watching the competitions unfold, in Chinese internet forums, angry netizens are fiercely talking about the “cultural plagiarism” that they think occurred during the opening ceremony.

Before making any judgments of this kind of voice, it is necessary to know what actually happened during the ceremony. At first, the “four symbols” in Chinese traditional culture — which are the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West and the Black Turtle of the North — appeared in the opening ceremony. Later in the ceremony, things like the “Five Phases” and Ink Wash Painting also appeared. As a result, some Chinese netizens accused Korea of stealing parts of Chinese culture, and said that it is shameless for a country to plagiarize the culture of others.

Plagiarism is a very serious matter all over the world. However, it’s less common for people to talk about “cultural plagiarism.” It is unclear if there’s the concept of “copyright” when it comes to culture. In the Western world, the main controversy around culture is about “cultural appropriation” and stereotypes, but they are apparently different from what happened in Pyeongchang since the point Chinese netizens are angry about in the forum is that (as one online commenter wrote), “Korean people demonstrate an originally Chinese culture but convey the sense it is theirs.”

The allegation is plausible under the assumption that culture is exclusive and unique for a country. But in fact, in East Asian history, Korea is actually highly impacted by Chinese and Japanese culture. As a result, the Korean culture shares some similarities to these cultures. For example, Chinese people invented the chopsticks, but using chopsticks is a shared Asian culture. Similarly, since cultural exchange happened so frequently in East Asian history, it is actually not unusual for Korea to learn some culture from its neighbors.

Nevertheless, I can understand why Chinese netizens are so angry. It is not simply because they are not inclusive of the culture but rather due to the tension between the two countries. In recent years, statements such as “Confucius [famous Chinese philosopher] is Korean” and “Li Bai [famous Chinese poet] is Korean” rose in South Korean internet communities, which offended Chinese people because it hurt the national pride of China. In contrast, a number of Chinese TV shows are perceived as having obviously plagiarized Korean TV shows, which made some Korean people believe that Chinese people are the “shameless copycat.” Although both types of “plagiarism” were not recognized by every Korean or every Chinese person, the hatred and misunderstanding between these two countries grew enormously.

Going back to the Winter Olympics, according to an editorial piece in Sohu (a news organization that is as influential in China as the New York Times is in the U.S.), there is evidence showing that the event plagiarized Japanese posters, and the director of the opening ceremony admitted he looked into the creative part of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony. However, it is hard to judge whether a country can perceive a shared culture as its own since people have different opinions on whether a culture should be inclusive or exclusive.