(CNN) – The kimchi, the iconic fermented vegetable dish, is not only a spicy food served in Korean homes and restaurants around the world, but has once again been the subject of a cultural dispute between China and South Korea.
The latest round of the culinary battle broke out in July, when the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism published a note modifying the official guidelines on “the appropriate foreign language” for some Korean foods.
Among them is the stipulation that “xinqi” will be the new official Chinese name for kimchi. The old common translation, “pao cai” (salty fermented vegetables), would be withdrawn.
The problem is because there is no Chinese character that represents the pronunciation of kimchi. Therefore, the Ministry of Agriculture would have considered some 4,000 Chinese characters before deciding on “xinqi”, stating that it sounded like kimchi.
Xinqi (辛奇) consists of two Chinese characters: Xin means spicy. Qi means unique, or curious.
With the new name, the Seoul government hopes to draw a clear dividing line between Korean kimchi and Chinese pickled vegetables, the latter called pao cai (泡菜) in China.
“By using the word ‘xinqi’ for kimchi in Chinese, the ministry hopes that Korean kimchi and Chinese pao cai will clearly differentiate themselves and increase awareness of the traditional South Korean dish, kimchi, in China.” says the statement.
The new guideline is mandatory for the South Korean government and affiliated organizations. But this is only a recommendation for South Korean private companies that need to translate the word kimchi into Chinese, in addition to the Chinese media that talk about the Korean dish.
However, it has sparked a wave of heated debates between the media and netizens in both countries.
What is the difference between kimchi and pao cai?
Before delving into the dispute, one must understand the difference between kimchi and pao cai.
Kimchi is a collective term for more than 100 types of fermented vegetables in Korea, but most commonly it refers to napa cabbage fermented with seasonings, such as red chili, garlic, ginger, and salty seafood.
Fermented vegetables made with different ingredients, such as chonggak kimchi (fermented radish kimchi) or with lower levels of spices, such as baek kimchi (non-spicy white cabbage kimchi), also fall into the kimchi category.
Pao cai, meanwhile, literally means “soaked vegetables” in Chinese. This is because pickled vegetables are often made by soaking different types of vegetables, from cabbages to carrots, in a saline solution, with or without seasonings. The vegetable jars are then fermented at room temperature.
Because of its similarities, kimchi is often referred to in China as “hanguo pao cai,” which means “Korean fermented vegetables.”
It’s not the first time
This is not South Korea’s first attempt to convert “xinqi” into the de facto Chinese name for kimchi.
In 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture pleaded for a new name in response to the increasing number of kimchi products produced in China in foreign markets, as well as in the domestic market of South Korea. Since 2006, South Korea has suffered a kimchi trade deficit with China. Between 2007 and 2011, the country’s imports of kimchi products from China increased by at least tenfold.
But after the official announcement of the new name in 2013, the reaction was swift. The name xinqi was so unpopular in China that the old translation, pao cai, was restored shortly thereafter.
On the other hand, that same year South Korea got “kimjang”, the tradition of making and sharing kimchi, inscribed as UNESCO Intangible Heritage in 2013, turning the dish into a proud “cultural symbol of Korea”.
“Kimchi is the national dish of South Korea, not only because Koreans consume it in almost every meal, but also because it is the most well-known Korean food in the world: many Westerners still cannot distinguish gimbap from sushi, but they can recognize that the kimchi is from Korea, “says Elaine Chung, professor of Chinese Studies at Cardiff University and researcher in East Asian Studies.
Chung’s work focuses primarily on Chinese and Korean cultures, and as early as 2014 he conducted extensive research on the impact of calling kimchi “xinqi” rather than “pao cai.” He tells CNN Travel that the debate has intensified even more since then.
“When I wrote that article, the controversy over kimchi / xinqi was largely a dispute on social media between Chinese and Korean netizens. But this time, it seems to have a much bigger impact in the offline world,” he says.
“The government’s announcement of the new name can be seen as a response to its own people, showing them that it is doing something to fight for ownership of kimchi.”
BTS gets caught up in the drama
Why the need to fight back now? Renewed interest in the Chinese name for kimchi stemmed from a series of cultural conflicts in the past year.
In November 2020, China got an IOS certificate for Sichuan pao cai. In a Article Published by the Chinese state media Global Times, the editor proclaimed that “Sichuan pao cai has become the international standard” for the pao cai industry.
The so-called “Sovereign State of Kimchi (Pao Cai)” has long existed in name only, “the article said.
Netizens and the South Korean media were unimpressed, calling the report an attempted “theft” of kimchi and Korean culture.
The affair rekindled strong anti-Chinese sentiment, prompting calls to “cancel Chinese culture in South Korea.”
Images of a seemingly naked man drenched in a puddle of cabbages and brown liquid at a Chinese kimchi factory, titled “China’s detestable kimchi factory” were shared on YouTube and by the South Korean media. further fueling the tension.
The South Korean government has made other attempts to differentiate the two products. Earlier this year, the country’s national promotion agency published a new book on kimchi, which included a section highlighting the difference between pao cai and kimchi.
But this did not ease the tension, as the dispute spilled over into the culinary world and spread to the tourism and entertainment sectors.
The plan of build a “Chinatown” in Gangwon Province was canceled in April this year after thousands of netizens signed a petition. Meanwhile, the period television drama “Joseon Exorcist” it was canceled after two episodes as audiences protested scenes in which the protagonist wore Chinese-style suits, drank Chinese liquor, and ate Chinese food, such as mooncakes and Chinese dumplings.
Even the members of the K-Pop group BTS got caught up in the drama.
When a program starring the group translated kimchi as “pao cai” in the subtitles Chinese in June, many South Korean netizens erupted with anger. Comments claimed that the translation helped promote Chinese pao cai.
Naver, South Korea’s largest search engine and online platform behind the program, explained that the translation conformed to the latest translation guidelines provided by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
“We will change the problematic subtitles once we receive the new guidelines,” a Naver spokesperson told the Korea Herald after the incident.
About a month later, the ministry released its new guidelines on xinqi, bringing us back to the present.
What is different this time?
Some companies have already reacted to the name change.
Naver’s translation tool has revised the Chinese translation from Kimchi to Xinqi. On the Chinese website of the South Korean food brand Bibigo, the kimchi product page is also translated as xinqi.
But the new name doesn’t seem to appeal to either Chinese or Korean netizens.
On the Chinese social network Weibo, comments about the new name are mostly negative. Some refuse to use the term, saying they believe kimchi is a dish influenced by Chinese pao cai. Others say they recognize the difference but don’t like being told how to translate kimchi in Chinese.
“I don’t understand why we have to respond to the ‘xinqi’ translation proposed by the Koreans. Shouldn’t the language be developed following the habits of the users?”, said a user.
The name change attempt failed in 2013 because most Chinese-speaking people did not use the term, Chung notes.
That is unlikely to change now.
“It is difficult to convince people to use an empty signifier, since the combination of the two Chinese characters does not mean anything in Chinese, to replace a term they have used for years,” says Chung.
Also, the xinqi name may not be legally recognized in China.
The document issued by the Korean government asks South Korean companies exporting kimchi to China to be cautious, as Chinese law states that companies have to use names known to Chinese consumers.
That means companies won’t be able to use the term “xinqi” just to describe kimchi; they will have to label it pao cai.
The new guidelines say that the Ministry of Agriculture will advise companies affected by the name change, without giving further explanation.
“There are also opinions that Korea is appropriating its own traditional culture for the Chinese, as the pronunciation of xinqi is very different from that of kimchi. It is argued that since kimchi (in Korean pronunciation) is already internationally recognized , the government shouldn’t invent a Chinese term compromising the authentic Korean sound, “says Chung.
Kim Byeong-gi, retired professor at Korea National Jeonbuk University, wrote in the Korea Joongang Daily that the new name is “totally absurd”.
“It is a big mistake that the Korean government has voluntarily devised a strange term – xinqi – to promote kimchi and differentiate it from China’s pao cai. It may obscure the meaning of kimchi, a proud name already known around the world,” he wrote Kim in the op-ed.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to predict whether the most recent attempt to change the Chinese name of kimchi will be more successful.
But, as Chung puts it, “it probably won’t do much to end the current popular culture war” over the famous dish.
– CNN’s Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.