Korean Culture: The Definitive Guide
This guide covers the highlights of Korean culture.
It will help you understand why Korea is the way it is.
So if you’re sick of reading the same old stuff (“Koreans eat Kimchi”), this one’s for you.
The first kingdom in Korea was founded in 2,333 BC, making it one of oldest continuous cultures in the world.
Korean culture is very distinct, partly due to its location.
Like they say, geography determines destiny. Being surrounded by large and sometimes hostile countries influences how Koreans think to this day.
Korean culture has 4 main themes:
- Speed – Koreans skipped the whole dial up phase most countries went through and started off with fast broadband internet. Deliveries that take more than 30 minutes are considered late. It can be contagious even for non-Koreans. After a few years in Korea I found myself jumping into a gallop with the locals when I saw a crosswalk signal turn green. I have to adjust when I go abroad or I’ll be running people over on the street.
- Competition – even before preschool, Koreans are ranked from shortest to tallest, head size and later by test scores. This only picks up steam throughout life. If you don’t believe me, try getting a seat on the subway during rush hour in Seoul.
- Appearances – looks can be everything. Not just physical, but also the clothes and makeup you wear, the car you drive and the company you work for. I was the most poorly dressed and groomed person when I first arrived in Korea. I had to adjust in order to fit in. People will treat you according to your appearance. If you look like a student, then you’ll be treated like one.
- Jeong (정)– the unspoken bond that keeps the country going. It’s formed with everyone from coworkers to the convenience store ajumma who straightens your tie in the morning if it’s crooked. This explains why in business in Korea, contracts are more of a flexible roadmap, and the relationship is more important.
A 5,000 year mix of Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism, Korea has some very interesting customs.
Bowing – it’s important to greet with a slight bow at the waist, and a two-handed handshake if offered. Don’t skimp on the shaking part.
Shoes – like in most asian countries, it’s customary to take one’s shoes off before entering a home. Koreans are especially appalled to see people wearing shoes in bed on western tv shows.
Two hands – it’s polite to give and receive items with two hands. This is especially true when pouring drinks.
Signs of Affection – Koreans are warm people in the right setting, but public shows of affection are rare. Hugging is also not common among friends or family members and is reserved for couples. If you try to hug a friend of the opposite gender, you’ll be met with surprise at best.
- Yangban (양반) – noble class who were scholars and government officials
- Jungin (중인) – middle class who were subordinates of Yangban
- Sangmin (상민) – working class including farmers that made up 75% of the population
- Cheonmin (천민) – lowest class including butchers, ditch diggers, etc.
Smiling – it’s uncommon to smile on the street for no reason, especially at people you don’t know. Smiling is reserved for loved ones and friends. Koreans believe that, “if you see someone smiling on the street, leave”. The reason being is they’re either selling something or are a cult member.
Excusing – it’s also not necessary to say “excuse me” if a little bit of jostling occurs in public. Otherwise you’ll be saying it all day, especially in Seoul. Contrary to what your Korean textbook tells you, no one says “실례합니다”.
Baekil (백일) – celebration of 100 days. Given the aforementioned strife, infant mortality rates were high until 50 years ago. This ceremony is still important though, but more for family and tradition.
Doljabi (돌잡이) – when a child turns one year old, he/she is placed in front of a table with some objects. It’s believed that the one they pick up will determine their destiny. Some of the common items are a thread(long life), pencil(studious), money(wealth), and stethoscope(doctor). The items can be selected according to the parent’s hopes for the child.
Blood type (혈액형) – Koreans believe your blood type determines your personality. For example:
- Type A are narrow-minded perfectionists
- Type B are passionate but self-centered
- Type AB can be either ambitious or crazy
- Type O are outgoing/popular but sometimes ruthless
They will be surprised if you don’t know yours.
Couple style (커플룩) – it’s not uncommon to see couples wearing the same shirt, even when they’re not on their honeymoon. I’ve even seen complete matching outfits with socks and shoes that are identical. Regardless of your opinion on couple shirts, it’s hard not to be impressed with the effort.
Hwangab (환갑) – 60th birthday celebration. Life wasn’t easy in Korea, and making it to 60 was kind of a big deal. This celebration is still very important even though life expectancy is higher than 60. Children are supposed to give their parents fancy gifts or a swanky dinner at a 5-star hotel.
Weddings (결혼) – in the past, weddings lasted 3 days. But during the period of economic growth, Park Chung-hee limited them to a brief celebration to reduce waste. Now, weddings tend to last a few hours, buffet reception included. I’ve been to ones where people left early to eat and watched the ceremony on live CCTV.
Ancestral rites (제사 or 제례) – according to traditional Korean beliefs, a person’s spirit visits their house to eat 제사상 on the anniversary of their death. The deceased are still considered part of the family for a few generations.
Funerals – a three day affair with an outpouring of emotion. A picture of the deceased is displayed in black and white and mourners come with cash envelopes and flowers. Only immediate family stays for 3 days. Usually the firstborn son plays the role of host (상주) and wears all black while greeting visitors.
Protests – it seems like there’s always one going on in Gwanghwamun (광화문) or Yeouido (여의도). Koreans fought hard for their democracy and continue to be politically active. They impeached their previous president in a few months with peaceful protests of over 1 million people in the dead of winter.
From Pansori (판소리) to Kpop, music has been an important part of Korean life for a few millennia. Music from Baekje (백제) even influenced Japanese royal court music.
Most music before 57 BC was played with string instruments for shamanistic harvest rituals.
During the Three Kingdoms period, each region had a musical instrument they favored.
In the Goguryeo (고구려) kingdom, people would gather every night to sing and dance.
Music became more uniform in the Goryeo (고려) period after the Three Kingdoms were united. Music in the Royal Court incorporated styles from United Shilla (통일신라) into their Buddhist celebrations.
Music further evolved during Joseon (조선), especially under King Sejong (세종대왕), who even wrote a few songs himself. He also developed an independent musical notation, Jeongganbo (정간보), for different instruments. Many songs were recorded in Akhak Gwebeom (악학궤범).
Due to Korea’s class system, music for Yangban, the noble class and music for peasants became different.
While court officials and nobles enjoyed instrumental music during ceremonies and celebrations with acrobats and performers, the public enjoyed more oral traditions like pansori, sanjo (산조) and namsadang (남사당).
Fast forward a few centuries and Kpop is a dominant force around the world. On top of its traditional Korean roots, Kpop is influenced by nearly every genre of music on the planet. They even have their own music apps.
Just like how religion influenced western art (for example, Catholic influence during the Renaissance), Korean art transitioned with the major religions of the time. This includes:
- Shamanistic art during the bronze and iron age
- Buddhist art during the Three Kingdoms and Goryeo periods
- Confucian art during Joseon
Korean art is known for its beauty from simplicity, spontaneity and harmony with nature.
Korean art dates back to 7,000 BC with pottery. Pottery and jewelry then show a Siberian influence with similar comb designs and curved beads representing bear claws.
One of the most interesting art discoveries was 7,000 year old petroglyphs (반구대 암각화) of whales, tigers, deer, turtles and other marine life carved into a cliff in Ulsan.
Art blossomed during the Three Kingdoms period with the rise of Buddhism.
Baekje was considered the kingdom with the finest art with concepts borrowed from Chinese dynasties that in turn influenced Japan. They even used a signature smile on many statues that was mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s.
Shilla was the last kingdom to adopt Buddhism, since they were furthest away from China. They developed unique art and excelled at gold smithing.
Once Shilla unified Korea, art really took off. One of my favorite experiences was visiting Seokguram (석굴암) in Gyeongju and seeing the perfectly preserved Buddha statue in the only artificial granite cave in the world. Pictures don’t do the experience justice and you’ll be amazed at how surreal it is.
Celadon pottery from the Goryeo period was covetted by China and considered the best in the world. It was popular for its unique blue-green “King-fisher” color and the different shapes they could blend into one piece.
With the start of the Joseon kingdom, Buddhism was out and Confucianism was in. But that didn’t stop the Buddhist influence on art. Even though the royal court didn’t officially favor it, the public still appreciated its beautiful simplicity. Over time, Chinese influence on Korean art fizzled out and the country underwent its own art renaissance. During this time, Korea developed its own style of painting, which was more realistic and colorful.
During Japanese colonization and the Korean War, Lee Jung-seob created revolutionary art. Too poor to buy materials, he used tin foil from cigarette packages and anything else he found laying around. He’s known for his iconic White Ox oil painting and embodies the spirit of Koreans who never give up.
Calligraphy became a major art form in Korea after the invention of paper. Five major types of calligraphy developed over time:
- Jeonseo (전서) – real script
- Yeseo (예서) – official script
- Choseo (초서) – cursive script
- Haengseo (행서) – semi-cursive script
- Haeseo (해서) – block script
You can see the elegance in calligraphy’s simplicity and minimalism. It allows for more expression than you’d imagine, since artists show their personality through their brushstrokes.
Paper made from Mulberry roots from 751 was discovered in the 1960s, proving the old saying that “Korean paper can last 1,000 years”. Unfortunately, most paper art was destroyed during the numerous wars Korea hosted.
Poetry started to catch on during the Three Kingdoms period. It was mostly reserved for nobility. Joseon kings would play a drinking game with a cup of refined rice wine(소주 or 청주) that they’d float on a circular stream. The object was to come up with a poem before the cup came back to them. The person who couldn’t keep up would drink.
Hyangga (향가) was developed in unified Shilla. It’s the first purely local poetry that transcribed Korean sounds in hanja(Chinese characters). It’s known for its formal rules that dictate structure, the longest of which was 10 lines.
Goryeo songs lacked clear form and tended to be longer. They were mostly oral with some recorded later during the Joseon period. Here’s a surviving example of one.
Sijo (시조) is the most notable Korean poetry style and was developed in late Goryeo but became popular in Joseon. They’re characterized by having 3 lines with 14-16 syllables. Sijo are usually about nature, love, nostalgia, past events and moral lessons. While mostly created by yangban, Kisaeng (기생), or “female entertainers” were also allowed to write and recite Sijo.
Gasa (가사) were long poems originally sung by Yangban to show off their free time and loyalty to the king. After the development of Hangeul in late Joseon, women and peasants were able to make their own. The themes were often related to love and nature. It’s theorized that this form of poetry evolved into modern Korean music including Kpop.
The Korean peninsula is a geopolitical hotbed that has hosted more than a few invasions and wars. As a result, martial arts have flourished and evolved into separate disciplines. The first recorded evidence of Martial arts in Korea was on the walls of royal tombs dating back to 1st century Goguryeo. Some of the more notable ones are:
Ssireum (씨름) – not well-known outside of Korea, it’s a form of traditional wrestling where the winner gets a cow. The object is to throw your opponent to the ground with grappling without the hitting and pushing seen in sumo. While more of a strategy than a rule, Sirreum competitors tend to be leaner than those of sumo. Tournament winners still get a golden cow trophy along with prize money.
Taekkyeon (택견) – billed as a sort of proto-taekwondo, the two styles have little in common. It’s more of a Korean Capoeira with throws, since the basic steps look like a dance.
Taekwondo (태권도) – literally means foot fist way, but places more emphasis on kicking. It’s a competitive sport practiced all around the world and even at the Olympics. Speed and agility are the focus.
Hapkido (합기도) – a hybrid style of martial arts with striking techniques from Korean martial arts and grappling from Japanese Judo developed after World War II.
Archery (양궁) – while archery was invented in multiple regions around the same time, Koreans dominate the sport now. It was also the main focus of warfare throughout the history of Korea.
So Ssaeum (소싸움) – think bullfighting without the bullfighter. Probably won’t be endorsed by PETA any time soon, this traditional event pits bull against bull. Fortunately, no animals are harmed in this sport as the first one to back down loses.
E-Sports (e스포츠) – took off in Korea during the 2000s with the advent of fast broadband. Koreans have helped this sport grow into the multi-million dollar industry it is today. If you don’t believe me, play any online game at 2am against someone with hangeul in their username.
Hiking (등산) – While not exactly a sport, it’s treated that way in Korea. It’s not uncommon to see groups of hikers in matching outfits and gear dominating mountain paths.
Koreans have their own distinct way of doing business influenced by military hierarchy and confucianism.
It’s important to understand the gab (갑) and eul (을) relationship and where you fit in. Here are some helpful articles on Korean business culture:
- Gifts for business visitors
- Business fashion guide
- Korean email etiquette
- Business card etiquette
- Phone etiquette
- Texting etiquette
- Important Korean statistics
The most iconic Korean outfit is Hanbok (한복). It consists of a jeogori, or blouse shirt/jacket and chima or wrap around skirt for women. Men wear a jeogori and baji or pants. Hanbok is still worn today as formal attire for ceremonies and holidays. It’s even having a resurgence in pop culture.
From Doenjang (된장) to Soju (소주), fermentation is a cornerstone of Korean cuisine.
After traveling to 50+ countries, Korean food is still my favorite for everyday eating, since it’s healthy, filling and delicious.
Korean food is based mostly on garlic, doenjang (fermented soybean paste), gochujang(red pepper paste), and toasted sesame oil. With these ingredients, they’re able to make a wide variety of dishes. Even after a decade in Korea, I’m still trying new things.
Some of the more popular dishes are:
- Bulgogi (불고기)
- Galbi (갈비)
- Samgyeopsal (삼겹살)
- Namul (나물)
- Bibimbap (비빔밥)
- Naengmyeon (냉면)
- Tteokbokki (떡볶이)
- Kimchi (김치)
- Ramyun (라면)
Even though vegetarianism is only common at Buddhist temples, there are many great vegetable dishes. I was surprised at how Koreans can make vegetables taste great without using cream or butter.
Every meal comes with side dishes or banchan that can be refilled once or twice depending on the ajumma’s mood.
Alcohol is a big part of the dining experience. There are over 1,000 types of alcohol for every occasion. When it rains, it’s customary to drink rice wine (막걸리) with savory Korean pancakes (전). After a rough day, Koreans tend to drink soju. Soju goes well with raw fish (회), pork belly or soup (탕). People drink beer with fried chicken and call it chi-maek (치맥), meaning chicken and maekju (맥주). This is common during sporting events like World Cup. Koreans even have their own fun drinking games.
Koreans have a unique snack industry that has held elections and even spawned black markets.
|새해 첫날 |
|Jan. 1st||First day of the new year|
|Dec. 31st to Jan. 2nd of the Lunar Calendar||Lunar New Years|
|Mar. 1st||Independence Movement Day|
|Apr. 8th of the Lunar Calendar||Buddha’s Birthday|
|May. 5th||Children’s Day|
|Jun. 6th||Memorial Day|
|Aug. 15th||National Liberation Day|
|추석 연휴 (Chuseok)||Aug. 14th to 16th of the Lunar Calendar||Harvest full moon festival|
|Oct. 3rd||National Foundation Day|
|Oct. 9th||Korean Alphabet Day|
Korean is a unique language spoken by 77 million people around the world. The linguistic family it belongs to has been disputed for many years. For a while, Korean was included in the Altaic family along with Mongolian. Most linguists currently consider it a language isolate with no genealogical relation to others. It now has its own family called the Koreanic family. It’s a fun language to learn with many unique expressions as well.
South Korean vs North Korean
While people from the two countries can understand each other; pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar are diverging.
Chinese characters or Hanja arrived during the Three Kingdoms period along with Buddhism. Only the elite could learn them and most of the population was illiterate.
In the 15th century, King Sejong the Great developed Hangeul, an alphabetic writing system to increase literacy. Now literacy rates are nearly 100% and one can learn how to read in an afternoon.
Words that are uniquely Korean or very useful. Konglish is mostly a combination of Korean and English words.
Korean sounds are fun to compare with their English counterparts. Here’s a guide to Korean onomatopoeia.
The Korean language changes constantly. Here’s a guide to new Korean slang.
The fastest way I’ve found to get fluent in Korean is with guided conversation. Pimsleur takes you from 0 to conversational in three months. You can try the full course free for 7-days here.
Korean culture evolves at light speed. Here are some new trends that are uniquely Korean.
Hallyu (한류), or the Korean Wave is a large part of modern culture. It started in the 1990’s and has helped popularize Korea around the world.
Started in 1996 with the boy band H.O.T., it’s an unstoppable force that has reached every corner of the globe.
Another driver of the Korean Wave. The first global hit was Autumn in my Heart (가을동화) in 2000, but Winter Sonata (겨울연가) took it to the next level in 2002. K-dramas are popular for their relatability, emotional connection, complete stories and attractive actors. They’ve even started taking over Netflix.
It was only a matter of time before Koreans developed their own skincare and cosmetics. K-beauty is a newer part of the Korean wave popularized by K-pop and K-dramas.
I hope you enjoyed my guide to Korean culture.
It should give you a good foundation to understand Korea.
Even after a decade living there, I’m still learning new things about their sophisticated culture.
Let us know if I missed anything in the comments!
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