Decoration of a royal palace, Changdeokgung, Seoul
Having been in the cultural sphere of China for much of its history, substantial Chinese influences are evident in traditional Korean culture. Nevertheless, many fundamental differences remain and Korea has managed to retain a distinct cultural identity from its larger neighbor. Koreans are fiercely proud of their heritage and their resistance to outside domination.
During the Joseon dynasty, Korea's dominant philosophy was a strict form of Confucianism, perhaps even more strict than the Chinese original. People were separated into a rigid hierarchy, with the king at the apex, an elite of officials and warriors and a small group of nobility below him, a middle class of merchants below them, and then a vast population of peasants. The educated were superior to the uneducated, women served men, and everybody stuck to a defined role or faced severe consequences. While Korea adopted its own version of the imperial examination system used in China to select officials, unlike its Chinese counterpart which was open to the general public, the Korean imperial examination was only open to those from the aristocratic or yangban class. Buddhism and its supposedly dangerous notions of equality and individual spiritual pursuit were suppressed. While the Joseon dynasty ceased to exist in 1910, its legacy lives on in Korean culture: education and hard work are valued above all else, and women still struggle for equal treatment.
Koreans believe that the things that set them the most apart from other Asian cultures are their cuisine, their language and their hangul script. Outsiders will note their extreme modernity, tempered by a well-developed artistic and architectural joyfulness. Nothing goes undecorated if it can be helped, and they have a knack for stylish interior design. South Korea also has a vibrant film and TV industry, and the country is one of only a few countries in the world in which local films have a greater market share than Hollywood films.
Korea has a significant number of Christians (29%) and Buddhists (38%), with churches dotting the towns and temples and monasteries on hills. However, slightly less than a third of the country professes to follow no particular organized religion but most, if not all, are strongly influenced by traditional Korean Buddhist and Confucian philosophies that have been seeped into the Korean cultural background.
The Most Frequently Asked Travel Questions about South Korea
Where To Stay & Best Hotels in South Korea - updated Jul 2020
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