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Korean Culture From the Psychological Perspective

Culture defines the way of life of people from their simplest interactions to the most complex of their social values. It covers everything that a person does, thinks and how they perceive the world as a result of growing and living within a certain social system. The total way of life of a people is therefore not easy to completely pen. However, general characteristics that define their interactions can be highlighted.

The Korean culture is not exempt from having a broad spectrum. However, there are some elements that immediately give us a clue on how the culture works. The religious and economic cultures influence the social structure in a big way. The traditional religion in this region is Shamanism but was overtaken by the advent of Confuciusm and Buddhism. In more recent years, modernization has come with Christianity which is fast spreading and has contributed largely to cultural dynamism in this society (, 2009). The traditional economic activity, especially in the village areas, is farming. Because of this, large, closely knit families are especially valued, probably since a large family provides enough labor (PBS, 2009).

With the Confucian system came the patriarchal and hierarchical system order. Patriarchal means that the men are in charge of the families and are charged with the task of feeding and ensuring the well being of the same. The men are respected and bear authority over their female counterparts. The women’s role in the system was to take care of children at home, prepare meals, tend to the home and farm in farming regions (PBS, 2009).

Hierarchical refers to the system of society based on a chain of command system. In this system, age had everything to do with the authority of the individual. The older a person is the more respected they are. Even among peers, the observance of age as a measure of importance is observed in traditional Korean life. Even with the women and children, the older women bore great power over the other women (PBS, 2009). Respect and common curtsey is required within the societal structure (PBS, 2009).

Art and music also played an important part in the culture. There are various kinds of music available in the cultural scene depending on the intellectual influence. The more intellectual Jeongak is associated with the upper class literate and is very slow. The tone of the music is meditative and soft. The accompanying instruments are made of non-metallic material and add to support the tranquil mood (Park, 2006). The second type is Minsogak which is traditional folk music. It is much more expressive than its counterpart and relates more to the daily life of the common man. The beat is faster and livelier and the instruments are innovative (Park, 2006).

The art life of the Korean people dates as far back as the Neolithic age. The construction and art expressions were themed mainly around the concept of displaying naturalism (, 2009). Materials commonly used in fine art include ink, mulberry paper and silk (Park, 2006). In terms of construction, there was a lot of emphasis on the elements of balance and harmony with nature. The main building materials were wood, clay, thatch and stone.

Floor heating (ondol) techniques were used (Park, 2006). Fancy buildings were also put up, with the UN setting up world heritage sites such as the Jongmyo Shrine, Bulguska temple and the Hwaseong city (, 2009).

The food and clothing aspect of the culture are also unique to Korea. The traditional Hanbok was made using silk, hemp and arrowroot. It has been in the culture for hundreds of years with little variation (, 2009). The staple food of this culture is rice, served with a variety of accompaniments. The accompaniments include kimchi, a traditional mixture of pickled vegetables. Doejang, a soybean paste and meat dishes such as bulgogi and galbi, which are made of pork or beef, are also popular (, 2009)

The Korean civilization was very academic from long time ago. Within the city regions, the officials had to undergo education tests (Clark, 2000, 10). Writing and alphabet was also existent, with the Korean elite being content to borrow and assimilate the use of character writing from their Chinese neighbor (Clark, 2000, 12).

Introduce the differences between the traditional and contemporary cultures in Korea, and analyze how the differences were created

The dynamism of culture is a fact every system has to come to terms with. With greater exposure to other cultures comes greater change of the cultures as we know. In recent times, globalization has greatly accelerated this process. Korea is no exception. There are specific elements within globalization that have caused the difference between the contemporary culture and traditional system.

The traditional system embraced a patriarchal system with a high moral code of ethics. Respect for elders and other common curtsey practices were expected in the old culture. The culture emphasized large family units and lineage tracing was held in high esteem. These basic tenets of the culture system are under attack due to various agents of change.

One of the causative agents is religious. With the advent of Christianity within the Korean system has come new values and beliefs (Abito, 1999). While traditional culture advocates for social cohesion and cooperation, Christian values advocate for individual achievement and success with a focus on the nuclear rather than extended family. According to Abito (1999), Christianity has caused the transition to typical city life and the growth of a new elite class possible. This class dismisses traditional Confucius teachings and Shamanism practices as superstitious and outdated. The staunch rejection of traditional values and systems by mainstream pastors and evangelists has further solidified this belief.

The growth of globalization has led to the phenomenon of modernization. Modernization has caused so many changes within the social structure, and by extension modified the culture. One of the ways is it has revolutionized the position of women in the society. According to PBS (2009), the role of women was restricted to being at home tending to it and raising children. With modernization and the advent of feminism in Korea, this has changed.

The economic burden on men is such that women are forced to enter into the job market. This was further worsened the slowing economy in South Korea. More women want to pursue professional careers and their husbands also do not want to raise the children. This has caused a drop in the fertility rate of the country (Button, 2004). Large families are no longer seen as culturally normal when financial implications are applied.

More and more women are entering into the job market due to the education standards received and financial pressures. Another effect of feminism is the increase in divorce rates caused by liberalization. Women are asserting their independence even within marriages as shown by statistics. The divorce to marriage ratio in 2003 was stood at a shocking 55% (Button, 2004).

Modernization has also changed the way teens and unmarried view sexual relationships. As shown, there has been increased openness about sex, with even issues such as homosexuality being openly discussed. The youth see live-in relationships as important in order to prevent divorce. More women are asserting their sexual freedom rights. This has seen the age of sexual activity drop, with some sources suggesting that the figures might be much higher than those presented by the San Francisco Chronicle of 17% of high school students (quoted in Button). Also, the rate of commercial sex practices is on the increase, especially with homosexuality (Button, 2004).

The high school and college age students also are affected by this change. During this age period, the pop culture effect seems to set in more. A personal essay by Kim (2001) revealed that the advent of the mobile phone has changed the society with teens and the younger generation keeping in constant touch. The pop culture is propagated through multi-media and the youth copy these trends to fit in with the hype (Kim, 2001). Button (2004) states that the pop culture is one of the contributors to the sexual exposure that this younger generation is experiencing, and has borrowed heavily from the Japan pop culture.

In summary, the social change witnessed today is generally as a result of the rapid globalization and new ideas that are being fed into the system as a result of modernization. The new position of women and the reorganization of the family structure due to religious and economic factors have resulted in some of the differences. The new trends brought about by technology, especially multi-media also influence the differences between the contemporary and old Korean cultures.


Abito Ito Modernization and Traditional Culture in Contemporary Korea. Kokugakuin University 1999. Web.

Clark Donald N Culture and customs of Korea. 2000 Greenwood Publishing Group.

Kim Eun Mee Inhae Chon, and friends. Ask Asia. Web. Korea Info. Korea’s Official Website 2009. Web.

Park English Recruitment Agency, The Culture of Korea. Park English 2006. Web.

PBS Hidden Korea: Culture. PBS Home Programs. Web.


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