Hanbok or hanfu? Controversy swirls around Vogue feature as Korean professor and Chinese YouTuber weigh in

  • The controversy surrounding the hanbok featured at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cultural dispute between Chinese and Korean netizens over their respective nations’ traditional clothing.
  • Days prior to the start of the Olympics, Vogue magazine posted a photo of Chinese model Shiyin that had commenters debating whether her attire was a Chinese hanfu or a Korean hanbok. 
  • At the center of the debate are conflicting accounts of history, and while some claim that the hanbok was merely inspired by the hanfu centuries ago, others insist that this is a distortion of history that erases Korea’s claims to its culture. 

Vogue has waded into an ongoing cultural dispute between Chinese and Korean netizens after posting a photo of a traditional dress they claimed belongs to Chinese culture.

On Feb.1, Vogue took to Instagram to post the photo, which features Chinese model and YouTuber Shiyin posing in what the publication describes as a Chinese hanfu. 

 

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A post shared by Vogue (@voguemagazine)

The accompanying feature story was written by Meng-Yun Wang, a former features editor for Vogue China, and published in March of last year. 

Thousands of Chinese and Korean users have gone back and forth in the comments as to whether the photographed dress is China’s hanfu or Korea’s hanbok. 

At the center of the debate are conflicting accounts of history. 

Users coming to the magazine’s defense claim that the hanbok was merely inspired by the hanfu centuries ago, and that the dress in question is, in fact, the hanfu. One user wrote: “It’s Hanfu of Ming style. The Emperor in Ming dynasty bestowed the costume to the Koreans as their formal dress which is called Mianfu.”

On the flip side, many have suggested that this narrative is a distortion of history meant to diminish Korea’s claims to its own culture. 

“To see a world-renowned magazine distorting history like this… The greater the influence, the more responsibility they have for their content. Please check again and correct,” another user wrote.

Some even claim that the recent resurgence of the hanfu is a clear indicator that it was never historically an essential part of China’s traditional clothing to begin with. Redditors have joined in on the debate, with a top comment in the Korea subreddit delving into this theory that the “rising popularity” of the hanfu — as the Vogue caption notes — is depicted in a way that appears similar to the hanbok (despite it not having shared similar qualities in the past) in a deliberate attempt to create a version of history that would allow China to co-opt the style of the Korean hanbok. 

Korean media outlets have staunchly labeled the dress shown in Vogue’s post as either “hanbok” or “hanbok-style.” 

Just as the hanfu versus hanbok controversy was beginning to die down, furor over the photo was reignited after a similar issue emerged days later at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

During the ceremony’s display of ethnic minority groups within China, a young woman was seen among the crowd donning a Korean hanbok. 

Many Koreans expressed outrage online over what they alleged was a display of cultural appropriation. The Chinese Embassy in Seoul, however, later acknowledged that the hanbok belonged to ethnic Koreans and claimed that the woman in the hanbok was merely one of over 50 representatives of the various ethnic groups residing in China. 

Rebuttals from Chinese authorities have done little to quell Korean sentiment, as prominent Korean public figures have continued to be attacked by Chinese netizens for making statements on Korea’s claim to the hanbok.

Hyoyeon of K-pop group Girl’s Generation, BTS’s Suga and actress Park Shin-hye are among some of the celebrities who have posted photos of themselves wearing the hanbok, or the traditional male version of the dress in Suga’s case, over the past week. Some have since turned off their comments after facing backlash from Chinese users. 

 

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A post shared by Hyoyeon Kim (@hyoyeon_x_x)

Professor Seo Kyoung-duk at Sungshin Women’s University in South Korea made headlines on Feb. 10, when he announced that he had made a formal complaint to Vogue magazine protesting their alleged mislabeling of the hanbok. Last year, the professor launched an ad campaign spanning across several major cities, including New York City’s Time Square, that promoted the hanbok as part of Korean culture. 

“A global fashion magazine made a big mistake this time. ‘Hanbok’ is Korean traditional clothing, not ‘Hanfu.’ The Oxford English Dictionary also introduces hanbok as ‘Korean traditional clothing,’” he wrote.

He also added that the YouTuber modeling the garment in Vogue’s photo, Shiyin, regularly “distorts the history of the hanbok.” On her YouTube channel, Shiyin has several videos relating to the hanbok, including one titled, “Hanbok was influenced by Hanfu: Hate Speech WILL NOT Change the History!”

On Tuesday, Shiyin posted another video addressing the recent controversy with Vogue, standing by the magazine’s assertion that the dress is a hanfu and pointing out her observations of the similarities and differences between the two. 

“I found out that it’s not just many foreigners or Korean netizens who can’t tell the difference between the Ming Dynasty hanfu I was wearing and the Korean hanbok,” she states in the video. “Even many Chinese netizens can’t tell the difference. I get comments that would actually say, ‘Why did you make the hanfu look so much like hanbok? Of course it’s confusing to people.’”

Noting the way the hanfu and hanbok, along with the traditional clothing of Japan and Vietnam, fasten similarly, Shiyin says it is “because these countries are influenced by traditional Chinese culture.” The hanbok’s “Chinese origin” and “Chinese influence” is stressed repeatedly throughout the video.

Of the Olympics controversy, Seo says there’s been a “big misconception” as to what has been upsetting Koreans. 

“It’s not just the hanbok’s appearance at the opening ceremony that has made so many Koreans angry,” he said. “It’s because there have already been so many instances where China has laid claim to the hanbok.” 

The current disputes over the origins of the hanbok comes amidst several ongoing cultural clashes between the two countries, the other most recent stemming from China’s claim over one of South Korea’s most well-known dishes, kimchi.

Featured Image via Shiyin Official Channel (left), Arirang News (left)

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