By Sohn Woo-hyun
CHUNCHEON, South Korea, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) -- Chinese students are flocking to colleges and universities across the country. According to official statistics, the number of Chinese studying in South Korea has increased almost 10-fold over the past six years to 53,461, 70 percent of the entire foreign student population in South Korea.
Meanwhile, China has also emerged as one of the most popular destinations for South Koreans studying abroad, numbering 66,800 last year.
This influx of Chinese students to South Korea is unprecedented in the long history of Sino-Korean exchanges that spans thousands of years. Historically, it was almost always Korea that sent its students to China, including Buddhist monks and scholars, in an effort to emulate China's advanced culture. It was seldom the other way around. China was the hegemon of East Asia, and the flow of civilization in this part of the world was always eastward from China to Korea, and then from Korea to Japan, until the mid-19th century.
Now all this is changing with South Korean pop culture, which has swept not only Japan, China and Southeast Asia, but has also expanded to the rest of the world in a phenomenon called "Hallyu," which literally means the Korean Wave in Chinese characters. And thanks to the revolution in communication technology, the Korean Wave is moving faster.
The term "Hallyu" was coined in mid-1999 by Chinese journalists surprised by the rapid growth in popularity of South Korean entertainment and goods in China. South Korea is said to be among the world's top 10 cultural exporters, and the Korean Wave began with the overseas popularity of Korean TV dramas across Northeast and Southeast Asia. The growing success of Korean dramas was soon matched by Korean movies, popular music, food and language.
Most of the Hallyu fans in Japan are middle-aged women, and it is not uncommon to see a crowd of housewives welcoming a South Korean star, usually a hero of a melodrama, arriving at Haneda airport in Tokyo. But unlike in Japan, the Hallyu fans in China are mostly young people, and this has profound implications for the future of Sino-Korean relations.
Chinese students who come to South Korea to pursue higher education already know about this country through South Korean television dramas they have watched in China. The students say they were so fascinated by these programs, which convinced themselves and their parents that South Korea is a developed country and an ideal destination for overseas study.
These students' majors vary from business administration to electronic engineering. They also include the Korean language and literature, journalism and translation (Korean-Chinese and Chinese-Korean). Many of them, who speak fluent Korean, hope to work in business dealing with Chinese-South Korean trade after graduation. But there are also those who wish to become teachers, journalists and diplomats.
Liu Ye from the port city of Yantai in China's Shandong Province, across the Yellow Sea, says that she discovered "a modern South Korea" through Korean television dramas and began to like the country and its people. Liu is a Korean language major who learned taekwondo, a Korean martial art, while in China. She wants to be a journalist.
Liu introduces herself as an "aficionado" of the South Korean boy band Big Bang, and she is not the only one to be enamored of South Korean pop stars. Ding Weiyong from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou named himself "Rain" after the world-famous South Korean singer by that name.
Ma Lusang from Ningbo, south of Shanghai, is an East Asian Studies major at Hallym University in Chuncheon, a lake city some 90 kilometers northeast of Seoul that is frequently featured in television dramas highly popular in China and other Asian countries. She had studied the Korean language for three years at the Foreign Languages' High School in Ningbo before coming to Korea last year. Her goal is to become a translator of Korean, Chinese and English.
Qiu Yanan is a senior from Yanbian majoring in business administration. "I'm very satisfied with my life in Korea. I like Korean food and the good environment here," says Qiu, who hopes to get a job with one of the best South Korean conglomerates such as Samsung or LG. Although she speaks fluent Korean, she says she has some difficulties with the use of honorifics, adding that she was struck by the hierarchical relations between senior and junior students in Korea. In China, she says, upperclassmen and underclassmen are more or less on egalitarian terms.
"China and South Korea are becoming increasingly important partners in many areas, and the role of Chinese students studying in Korea will be all the more greater as this partnership continues to grow," says Chang Bum-sung, a Hallym University professor who heads the department of East Asian studies at the College of International Studies (CIS).
"We foresee an increase in demand for Korean-Chinese and Chinese-Korean translators as Sino-South Korean exchanges expand, and that is why we have created a new department within CIS to produce such translators," he said, adding that this department admits only Chinese students, unlike those at other universities.
When you see these young Chinese come to South Korea to continue their education and seek employment opportunities, the alienation of the two peoples on either side of the bamboo curtain is now a thing of the past.
These students are a new generation of Chinese, born after China opened itself to foreign investment and the global market, which has made the country one of the world's fastest growing economies. They are not interested in politics, much less ideology. Asked what he thinks of North Korea, a staunch ally of China, a student from Shanghai said bluntly that "it (North Korea) is like China 40 years ago."
Many South Koreans were angered by Chinese reluctance to rebuke North Korea for the brutal sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan that killed 46 seamen in March. Be that as it may, there is good reason to be optimistic about the future of Sino-South Korean relations as we witness the burgeoning of young Chinese who speak the Korean language and know Korean culture. They are a new generation of Chinese who strive to "seek truth from facts."
(Editor's note: Sohn Woo-hyun is a visiting professor at the College of International Studies at Hallym University in Chuncheon, South Korea. He was a journalist turned diplomat who served as minister for Cultural Affairs at the Korean Embassy in Paris. He was awarded the title of Knight of the French Order of the Arts and Letters (Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts and des Lettres) in 2004. In Seoul, he was the director of the Government Publishing Office and foreign press secretary to President Kim Young-sam.)
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