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Influence and Innovation

We will explore ways Koreans have adapted and innovated at cultural boundaries.
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This week, we will look at how Koreans formed their own culture and ideas. What we consider to be “Korean” today is the result of their long-standing self-awareness and tenacious practice of reconstructing the cultures from outside. Among them, the Chinese culture had the deepest influence on pre-modern Korea. We will explore ways Koreans have adapted and innovated at cultural boundaries. Influence and Innovation Innovation occurs from the un-familiarizing of familiar things. The Korean peninsula has long embraced Chinese culture and had become more and more familiar with it. On the other hand, these pre-modern Koreans became increasingly aware of the insoluble differences between Chinese and Korean cultures. This led to the eventual innovation of the way Koreans interact with and view the world.
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Some innovations were so subtle that we do not even realize that they were innovative. Some innovations were so new that we assume that they could not have been found anywhere else. Let’s explore a key example each of Adaptive Innovation and Disruptive Innovation. An example of subtle innovations is the word “Sungkyun”. You might have heard this word from the K-Drama, “Sungkyunkwan Scandal”.
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What I would like to articulate here is a small but intriguing point: The word “Sungkyun”, which literally means “Attaining Balance,” comes from ancient Chinese texts, but it is also a uniquely “Korean” name. This sort of adaptation is why I would call this type of innovation, “adaptive innovation”. Most Koreans believe that “Sungkyun” is a genuine Chinese term representing the Confucian ideal, but in fact, most modern Chinese have never heard of this term except from the Korean drama. In this ironic situation, we can find an excellent example of how adaptive innovation occurred in the Korean peninsula.
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Koreans selected the word “Sungkyun” from the ancient classical Confucian text for their educational institute, and they sustained the name as their own educational ideal throughout history. I will give a more detailed explanation of “Sungkyun” in the next section. On the other hand, Hangeul is another type of innovation which was not only very novel, but one which also eventually disrupted the status quo on how the Korean language was employed and evaluated. Hangeul is the invented alphabetical system for expressing Korean sounds. When Hangeul was first invented and introduced to Koreans in the mid-15th century, it was not welcomed by the intellectuals of that time, who regarded Hanmun, the classical Chinese written language, to be much superior to Hangeul.
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Despite the enormous opposition by intellectuals, Hangeul survived over 500 years. Today, Korean philosophers communicate their thoughts and arguments in Hangeul, not Hanmun. Since Korean and Chinese have very different grammar, I believe it would have been difficult for Koreans to fully assimilate into Chinese culture. No matter how many Chinese words were adopted into Korean, Koreans felt inadequate in expressing their ideas and feelings through the foreign medium. I think that this is due to the latent Korean way of thinking within the Korean vernacular language. Hangeul was and is a medium of expression to systematically express thought that Koreans could finally call their own, and it developed Korean culture in a conscious way.
This week, we will look at how Koreans formed their own culture and ideas.
What we consider to be “Korean” today is the result of their long-standing self-awareness and tenacious practice of reconstructing cultures from beyond their cultural borders. Among them, the Chinese culture had the deepest influence on pre-modern Korea. We will explore ways Koreans have adapted and innovated at cultural boundaries.
Have you heard of cultural innovation before? Why do you think that cultures are driven to innovate when faced with cultural boundaries? Share your thoughts below!
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Introduction to Korean Philosophy

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