Guests of the festival were able to get a closer look at the unique Korean writing system and the culture of the Land of the Morning Calm.  Lecturers recounted how, throughout the centuries, Korea, though it was a Chinese oecumene and, during the first half of the 20th century, a Japanese colony, was able to not only regain its sovereignty and its economy but also to make its cultural heritage an achievement of humanity and to cover the whole world with a ‘Korean wave’.

The festival was organised by the Kimchi Business Club, and it received additional support from St Petersburg University, the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in St Petersburg and the ‘Dialogue Russia – Republic of Korea’ forum.

Opening the festival, Sergey Andryushin, Deputy Rector for International Affairs at St Petersburg University, pointed out that there was a special significance in the Hangul Festival’s being held at the University, since it was here, more than 120 years ago, that the Korean language was taught for the first time in Europe.  The Consul General of the Republic of Korea in St Petersburg, Kwon Dong Seok, noted that Hangul is a means of communication for millions of people throughout the world, and, thanks to the influence of present-day Korean culture, more and more foreigners are beginning to study this writing system.  According to Dmitry Pak, President of the Kimchi Business Club, it is symbolic that the festival, whose aim is to promote mutual understanding between the two cultures, is held within the walls of the University, which is suffused with history, learning and culture.

Hangul is able to unite the world and become a symbol of peace
Kwon Dong Seok, Consul General of the Republic of Korea in St Petersburg

Traditional culture as the basis of contemporary identity

As part of the festival’s educational programme, there were open lectures delivered by St Petersburg University scholars.  Nina Finko, from the Department of Korean Studies, launched a series of informative lectures with a talk on Korean national dress.  ‘Koreans are delighted when foreigners exhibit an interest in their culture,’ she told the audience, ‘and especially in their traditional attire, hanbok.’

For Koreans, hanbok is not simply an element of fashion; it is a whole system of values, from the colours to the stitching.  In Korea, for example, there is a special conception of colour, ‘obansek’, which associates colours with the four seasons, the four main points on the compass and the forces of nature.  There is also a special ritual of donning the hanbok – both the women’s and the men’s.  Although the origins of hanbok stretch back two thousand years, today’s designers are increasingly turning to the country’s national costume, interpreting the traditional elements in new ways and adding new features.

Anastasiia Gureva, an associate professor at St Petersburg University, spoke about the role of poetry in Korean society during different periods.  ‘In Korea,’ she noted, ‘the poetic word has been imputed to have a favourable effect on reality since ancient times.  According to her, poetry serves as a mirror for what is happening in the country.  Koreans turn to poetry when they want to draw attention to problems or talk about their aspirations.

Korean poetry can be chronologically divided into three stages:  the traditional period (up to the end of the 19th century), the new period (the first half of the 20th century) and the contemporary period (from the mid-20th century up to this day).  Bilingualism was characteristic of the traditional period, since Korea was then under the hegemony of China.  So, the works that have come down to us from that time can be separated into two bodies:  those that were written in Korean (which was created in 1446) and adhered to indigenously Korean traditions, and those that were written in Old Chinese and were in line with general Far Eastern traditions.  Ms Gureva pointed out that texts from this period are hard to understand.  ‘Korean is a high-context culture.  This means that people say less than what they are thinking.’

The new period was marked by the country’s dependence on Japan, and motifs like the fate of the colonial figure and the state come to the foreground in the poetry.  After Korea’s liberation, during the second half of the past century, experimental tendencies began to appear. 

As an illustration, Ms Gureva used a poem about the fountains at Peterhof by Kim Dynnen, a member of the diplomatic mission in 1896, who had come to St Petersburg for the coronation of Nicholas II.  The diary of this diplomat entries – including the poem – are the basis of his report to the emperor on the results of the mission.

Lost classics

Professor Sergei Kurbanov, head of the Department of Korean Studies at St Petersburg University, spoke about classical Korean literature.  According to him, in China, Japan and Korea, the literature dates way back to the time when the languages first appeared.  What is more, in ancient Korea it was impossible to make a career without a knowledge of the literature.  It indicated how educated a person was.

Professor Kurbanov reminded his listeners that, in ancient Korea, they wrote in two languages, Old Chinese, which was the official written language up to the end of the 19th century, and Korean.  The latter was created in the 15th century by King Sejong the Great so that more Koreans could have a better understanding of classical Chinese literature, without which it was impossible to receive a good education.  For a long time, the Korean language played a subordinate role.

Korean literature, written in Korean, appeared in the 17th century.  It was published in limited editions for the next three centuries.  From 1910 until 1945, the Korean national culture was banned, as the country was under Japanese domination, and it was only in the second half of the 20th century, with the coming of independence for North and South Korea, that the search for lost Korean classics from the 17th to the 19th centuries began.  It was North Korean scholars who first began to look for them.  They republished these works, and the publications found their way to the USSR, where they were translated and then circulated.  Only later did South Korean scholars take up the search for these lost classics, which had been preserved predominantly in private collections.

Professor Kurbanov said that he had been struck most of all by the protagonists of classical literature.  At the centre of a story, he would come upon savvy, strong and talented women, while the men were weak and deceitful.  There were often adventures at the core of a story.  These texts, he said, help us to find something we can grab hold of in life and to tap into the wisdom of the Far East.  According to him, the world is just beginning to learn about Korea’s cultural assets – indeed, many of the treasures of this country’s culture are still unknown to many.

A brief history of K-pop:  from hip-hop to the UN General Assembly

Diana Chochieva, a third-year student, spoke about the history of Korean popular music.  ‘In the 20th century,’ she commented, ‘there was a strengthening of pro-Western tendencies in the mass culture of South Korea, which, along with a retention of the traditional forms, resulted in the emergence of K-pop.

In 1987, in the early days of the June Democracy Movement, when a new constitution was adopted, there was a turn in the history of Korean popular music. Censorship was relaxed (up until then, you could not sing songs that were too ‘pro-Western’ or too ‘pro-Japanese’), American TV channels and radio stations started to go on the air in South Korea, and the South Korean economy began to integrate itself into the world economy. 

By the 1990s, the K-pop business had already developed into an oligopoly that was divvied up by the three largest agencies, and this system has been preserved to this day.  These agencies concentrate on scouting for talent, but the most difficult stage in the process is when it comes to preparing these trainees – because of the stiff competition, no more than one percent of them will ever appear on stage.  Ms Chochieva pointed to the BTS group’s speech during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly as proof of K-pop’s worldwide popularity.

Visitors to this year’s festival were able to see K-pop style dancing performed by the Moon Way group.  They could also see a traditional Korean dance with drums from the Sound Studio and another dance number with elements of taekwondo from the Sky Tigers.