South Korea’s traditional dress culture — hanbok saenghwal — was designated a “National Intangible Cultural Heritage,” speaking to the clothing’s inseparable ties with the country’s history and culture.
The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) announced on June 22 that it “has recognized the outstanding value of the hanbok culture and how it embodies Korean people’s identity.” The CHA also decided to not only designate “hanbok,” which refers to the clothing itself, but also “saenghwal,” which literally translates to mean “life.”
The organization noted that it found the phrase, rather than the attire alone, to better encompass the “cultural experiences of wearing, making, and enjoying hanbok.”
The Hanbok consists of a jeogori (top) and a chima (skirt) for women, or baji (trousers) for men. An otgoreum (ribbon tied in a particular fashion to close the top) completes the traditional look. The outfit is put together with the lower garments on first and then the top.
The CHA announcement also asserted that ancient Koreans wore hanboks, as proven by various tomb murals from the Goguryeo dynasty (37 B.C.- A.D. 668) and by clay figures from the Silla dynasty (57 B.C.- A.D. 935).
It was during Korea’s three kingdoms period (57 B.C.- A.D. 668), which marks the beginning of the peninsula’s history, that the two-piece, top-and-bottom structure of Korean clothes was adopted.
While details of the clothing have continued to evolve and transform, the basic structural elements were firmly established.
In April of 1900, right before the official Japanese colonization of Korea, the Korean government mandated that state officials wear Western-style uniforms, ending thousands of years of tradition. Though Koreans have preserved the cultural practice to this day by wearing the hanbok on special occasions and holidays such as Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) or Chuseok (Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving).
Many Korean couples also include a traditional ceremony as part of their weddings in which they both change into Korean wedding hanboks.
“Hanbok saenghwal” is the 154th item on the National Intangible Cultural Heritage list following “gaetbeol eoro (tidal flat harvesting)” and “tteok mandeulgi (making of tteok).”
The addition of “hanbok saenghwal” comes only months after cultural disputes erupted between China and South Korea regarding the origin of the hanbok. In February, the opening ceremony at the 2022 Beijing Olympics stirred controversy after a presenter was seen wearing the hanbok, prompting a response from the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.