Xinqi? Why kimchi is getting a new Chinese name

(CNN) – More than just a spicy dish served in Korean homes and restaurants around the world, kimchi – the iconic dish of fermented vegetables – has once again become the subject of a cultural feud between China and South Korea.

Among them is a stipulation that xinqi should be the official new Chinese name for kimchi. The old common translation, pao cai (salted fermented vegetables), would be withdrawn.

The problem is that there is no Chinese character to represent the pronunciation of kimchi. As a result, the Agriculture Ministry reportedly considered some 4,000 Chinese characters before deciding on xinqi, saying it looked a bit like kimchi.

Xinqi (辛奇) consists of two Chinese characters: Xin means spicy. Qi means unique, or curious.

With this new name, the Seoul government hopes to draw a clear line between Korean kimchi and Chinese pickled vegetables, the latter being called pao cai (泡菜) in China.

“With the use of the word ‘xinqi’ for kimchi in Chinese, the ministry expects Korean kimchi and Chinese pao cai to be clearly differentiated and awareness of the traditional South Korean dish, kimchi, to be strengthened in China, ”the statement said.

The new directive is mandated 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 Chinese media discussing the Korean dish.

Nonetheless, it sparked a wave of heated debate among the media and internet users in both countries.

What is the difference between kimchi and pao cai?

Before delving deeper into the feud, one should understand the difference between kimchi and pao cai.

Kimchi is a collective term for over 100 types of fermented vegetables in Korea, but it most commonly refers to napa cabbage fermented with seasonings, including red chili, garlic, ginger, and salted seafood.

Fermented vegetables with different ingredients like chonggak kimchi (fermented radish kimchi) or with lower spice levels like baek kimchi (unspiced white cabbage kimchi) also fall under umbrella kimchi.

A kimchi-making festival in Goesan, South Korea on November 7, 2020. Much of the factory-made kimchi consumed in South Korea now comes from China.

Jun Michael Park / The New York Times / Redux

Pao cai, meanwhile, literally means “soaked vegetables” in Chinese. This is because pickled vegetables are often prepared by soaking different types of green vegetables, from cabbages to carrots, in a saline solution, with or without seasonings. The jars of vegetables are then fermented at room temperature.

Because they have some similarities, kimchi is often referred to as “hanguo pao cai”, which means “Korean fermented vegetables” in China.

Not the first time

This is not South Korea’s first attempt to make “xinqi” the de facto Chinese name for kimchi.

In 2013, the Agriculture Ministry lobbied for a new name in response to the growing number of kimchi products produced in China in overseas markets, as well as in South Korea’s domestic market. Since 2006, South Korea has suffered from a kimchi trade deficit with China. From 2007 to 2011, the country’s imports of kimchi products from China increased at least tenfold.

On the other hand, in the same year, South Korea succeeded in obtaining the “kimjang”, the tradition of making and sharing kimchi, inscribed in the intangible heritage of UNESCO in 2013, making this dish a proud “Cultural symbol of Korea”.

A spicy sauce used to make kimchi is prepared in a traditional process known as 'kimjang', at a house in the South Korean port city of Donghae in 2020.

A spicy sauce used to make kimchi is prepared in a traditional process known as ‘kimjang’, at a house in the South Korean port city of Donghae in 2020.

Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

“Kimchi is South Korea’s national dish, not only because Koreans eat it at almost every meal, but also because it’s the best-known Korean dish in the world – many Westerners still can’t distinguish gimbap from sushi, but can recognize kimchi is from Korea, ”says Elaine Chung, lecturer in Chinese studies at Cardiff University and researcher in East Asian studies.

Chung’s work mainly focuses on Chinese and Korean cultures, and she has done extensive research on the impact of calling kimchi “xinqi” instead of “pao cai” in 2014. She told CNN Travel that the debate has intensified since then.

“When I wrote this article, the kimchi / xinqi controversy was largely a social media dispute between Chinese and Korean netizens. But this time it seems to have a much bigger impact on the offline world. “, she 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 the kimchi.”

BTS gets drawn into the drama

Why the need to fight back now? A renewed interest in the Chinese name for kimchi has emerged after a series of cultural conflicts over the past year.

In November 2020, China obtained IOS certificate for Sichuan pao cai. In an article published by Chinese state-owned media Global Times, the writer proclaimed that “Sichuan pao cai has become the international standard” for the pao cai industry.

“The so-called ‘Kimchi Sovereign State (Pao Cai)’ has only existed in name for a long time,” the article said.

South Korean netizens and media were unimpressed, calling the report an attempt to “steal” kimchi and Korean culture.

The issue has rekindled strong anti-Chinese sentiment, prompting more and more cries to “cancel Chinese culture in South Korea.”

Images of a seemingly naked man drenched in a pool of cabbage and brown liquid at a Chinese kimchi factory, titled “China’s Hateful Kimchi Factory” were shared on YouTube and by South Korean media, feeding even more tension.
The South Korean government has made further attempts to differentiate the two. Earlier this year, a new kimchi book was released by the country’s national promotion agency, including a section highlighting how pao cai is different from kimchi.
In 2013, kimjang - the tradition of making and sharing kimchi - was listed as an intangible heritage of UNESCO.

In 2013, kimjang – the tradition of making and sharing kimchi – was listed as an intangible heritage of UNESCO.

Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

But that hasn’t eased the tension, as the feud has moved beyond the culinary world and into the tourism and entertainment industries.

The plan to build a “Chinatown” tourist site in Gangwon province was canceled in April this year after thousands of Internet users signed a petition. Meanwhile, the TV drama Joseon Exorcist was dropped after just two episodes, with audiences protesting scenes featuring the protagonist wearing Chinese-style costumes, drinking Chinese alcohol, and eating Chinese food like cakes. moon and Chinese dumplings.

Even members of the K-Pop group BTS found themselves caught up in the drama.

When a program featuring the group translated kimchi as “pao cai” in Chinese subtitles in June, many South Korean netizens exploded in anger. The comments claimed that the translation helped promote Chinese pao cai.

Naver, South Korea’s largest search engine and the online platform behind the show, said the translation complied with the latest translation guidelines provided by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

“We will change the problematic captions once we receive further guidance,” a Naver spokesperson told the Korea Herald following the incident.

About a month later, the ministry released its new xinqi guidelines, bringing us back to the present.

What is different this time?

Some companies have already reacted to the name change.

Naver’s translation tool revised the Chinese translation from Kimchi to Xinqi. On the Chinese website of global South Korean food brand Bibigo, the kimchi product page is also translated by xinqi.

But the new name doesn’t seem to appeal to Chinese or Korean netizens.

On Chinese social media site Weibo, comments about the stories about the new name are mostly negative. Some refuse to use the term, saying they think 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 into Chinese.

Women prepare cabbage for making kimchi during the traditional community process known as

Women prepare cabbage for making kimchi during the traditional communal process known as “kimjang”.

Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Image

“I don’t understand why we have to respond to the ‘xinqi’ translation proposed by the Koreans. Shouldn’t the language develop according to the habits of the users?” one user said.

The name change attempt failed in 2013 because most Chinese-speaking people didn’t use the term, Chung notes. This is unlikely to change now.

“It’s hard to persuade people to use an empty signifier – because the combination of the two Chinese characters means nothing in Chinese – to replace a term they’ve used for years,” says Chung.

Additionally, the name xinqi may not be legally recognized in China.

The document released by the Korean government calls on South Korean companies exporting kimchi to China to be cautious as Chinese law requires companies to use names familiar to Chinese consumers.

This means that companies may not be able to use the term “xinqi” alone to describe kimchi; they will still have to label it as pao cai.

The new guidelines say the Agriculture Ministry will notify companies affected by the name change, without providing further explanation.

“There are also opinions that Korea is appropriating its own traditional culture for the Chinese, because the pronunciation of xinqi is quite different from that of kimchi. to invent a Chinese term compromising the authentic Korean sound, ”explains Chung.

“It is a big mistake that the Korean government willfully came up with a bizarre 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 to the world. entire, “Kim wrote in the opinion piece.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to predict whether the latest attempt to change the Chinese name for kimchi will be more successful.

But, as Chung puts it, “it probably won’t do much to end the ongoing popular culture war” on the famous dish.

CNN’s Yoonjung Seo contributed to this feature.

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