Korean society is based on the tenets of Confucianism, a system of ethics developed in China around 500 BC. Confucianism is big on devotion and respect – for parents, family, friends and those in positions of authority. Confucius also emphasised justice, peace, education, reform and humanitarianism. Many Koreans attribute their country’s remarkable success in recent decades to this attitude. In modern Korean society, Confucianism is most noticeable in relations between people. The Five Relationships prescribe behaviour between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young, and between friends. If you fall outside any of these relationships, you do not, effectively, exist. Many travellers to Korea find the locals rude: they’re probably not, chances are they just haven’t noticed you. Once you’re introduced to someone, you’ll fall within the rules for friends and things will start looking up.
The South Koreans have turned their hand to just about any artform you can name. Traditional music is similar to that of Japan and China, with an emphasis on strings. The two main forms are stately chongak and folksier minsogak. Among the folk dances are drum dances (sungmu – a hectic, lively dance where the participants wear drums around their necks), mask dances (t’alchum) and solo dances (salpuri – these are usually improvised). The most important work of Korean literature is Samguk Yusa, written in the 12th century by the monk Illyon. Recent literature has had a dissident twist to it, with lots of work being produced by student protesters and Taoist-style ecologists. Koreans also consider their language an artform, and are particularly proud of their script, han’gul.
Korea is also strong in the visual arts. Traditional painting has strong Chinese and calligraphic elements, with the brush line being the most important feature. Most traditional sculpture is Buddhist, and includes statues and pagodas – one of the best Buddhas is at Sokkuram. Shamanists do a great line in wood carving. Seoul has several art sculpture parks, where modern sculptors show their works. Seoul is also a showpiece of modern and traditional architecture, including the city gates and the Chosun-era Kyongbokkung Palace.
The mainstay of Korean cuisine is kimch’i – grated vegetables mixed with chili, garlic and ginger and left to ferment. Whatever you order, kimch’i will probably arrive with it. The national dish is pulgogi, or fire beef. Strips of beef are marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and chili and cooked on a hotplate at the table. The most popular street food is pancakes, including p’ajon (green onion pancakes) and pindaeddok (pancake with bean sprouts and pork). Korea’s social life revolves around tea and coffee rooms, and while you’re here you should definitely try some of the country’s famous herbal teas. If you’re keen for something harder, keep an eye out for makkoli jip, the Korean version of the local pub.