Who owns kimchi?

« previous post | next post »

[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey]

"Korean kimchi originally came from China."

–Or so China’s online encyclopedia Baidu Baike declared in its article on kimchi.

Koreans were outraged. What gall for Chinese to lay claim to their national dish! Adding to the furor, China’s English-language newspaper Global Times reported last year that the International Organization for Standardization (the ISO) had recognized an “international standard for the kimchi industry led by China.”

Indignant Koreans flooded the Internet: “It’s total nonsense, what a thief stealing our culture!” a South Korean netizen said. Another wrote: “I read a media story that China now says kimchi is theirs, and that they are making international standard for it. It’s absurd.”

As the controversy grew, South Korean media reported that China’s brazen coveting of kimchi was akin to a “bid for world domination”.

Still, in this particular case, the fight began as a linguistic misunderstanding. What China had won international certification for was not for kimchi at all, but for paocai, the spicy pickled vegetables from the Chinese province of Sichuan. And then, since the Chinese call kimchi ‘Korean paocai,’ Chinese news sources and encyclopedias simply extended ownership to the Korean cultural icon.

Of course, Koreans are understandably sensitive about such matters. The Chinese have long been overweening and smug about cultural matters in East Asia. But in December 2020, because the encyclopedia phrase about a Chinese origin for kimchi had offended so many Koreans, the Chinese deleted it. Moreover, it soon came to light that the ISO certification was for China’s spicy pickle paocai, and not for kimchi. 

Yet, the sniping continued. Chinese Internet users kept saying they had every right to claim the dish as their own. Then, on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, a Chinese blogger added: “Even the pronunciation of kimchi originated from Chinese, what else is there to say.”

Well now, it turns out there is more to say, and in this case, the Chinese are not completely off base. The word “kimchi” was first written down in 1527 in a Korean dictionary, where it was given as the reading of the Chinese characters for ‘steeped greens’ (沈菜). But wait! The Chinese troll is still wrong, because that word was definitely not Chinese! It never, ever appeared in China. Instead, “kimchi” was a Korean form apparently made up out of the readings of Chinese characters by some Korean pedant trying to make the word for a popular local pickle look more elegant and learned. In other words, the creation of the word “kimchi” was like a fancy French name an American chef might give to some homegrown American dish.

(The original, native Korean word for “kimchi” was tihi, the modern form of which, ji (지), is still seen in the names of such humble Korean pickles as 오이지 ‘pickled cucumbers’ or 장아찌 ‘vegetables preserved in soy sauce’.) 


Selected readings


  1. PeterL said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 3:45 pm


  2. Su-Chong Lim said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 4:28 pm

    I don’t want to get dragged into who “owns” what dish, or what “belongs” means. But did you write the second last paragraph in an ironic tongue in cheek vein? In your last paragraph you identify the “original, native Korean word” as tihi. This being a Language Log, for the education and edification of those seeking to be better informed regarding etymology, rather than world domination, could it be that modern Beijing Chinese cai and 16th century Korean hi (whether or not it had never originally passed through Chinese “Characterization” are cognates? Or is that so obvious that you didn’t flag it?

  3. David C. said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 5:54 pm

    I see it as a question of semantics. If the person who poses the question is intending kimchi to mean pickled vegetables as they are made in Korea, then kimchi can only be Korean. If on the other hand, the question is asked recognizing that there are fluid intercultural boundaries, then there would be no issue seeing Korean-style kimchi as part of a continuum of pickled vegetables alongside the 酸菜 (suāncài) made in the neighboring Northeastern provinces of China. At the end of the day, the literal meaning of the words are some variation of "preserved" and "vegetable/greens".

    As alluded to in the second linked post, kimchi today isn't the kimchi made several hundred years ago. The most iconic ingredients we associate with kimchi today – napa cabbages and powdered chili peppers – were not commonly used to make kimchi until about 100 to 200 years ago.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 5:58 pm

    Some years ago there was a minor flare-up on Wikipedia when the daily featured article said (with the deliberate provocativeness of the "Did you know?" type question) "Did you know that sushi originated in China?".

    In that case it wasn't a linguistic matter; it related to the fact that eating raw fish in some form was supposedly transmitted from China. And the person who'd made the claim in the article wasn't Chinese; it was a European.

    The provocative question that started the uproar (again like most "Did you know" questions) conveniently left out just about all context and background. In particular, it skated over the fact that 'sushi' as we usually know it in the West, Edo-mae, wasn't invented in China — historically it is a relatively recent invention in Japan.

    I'm pretty sure the article has been well and truly rewritten by now, but the original furore would be preserved on the Talk page and in subsequent edits to the article.

  5. alex said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 6:08 pm

    "In other words, the creation of the word “kimchi” was like a fancy French name an American chef might give to some homegrown American dish." reminds me of haagen dazs which is crazy expensive in Shenzhen. The locals couldn't believe how inexpensive it is in the States

    "And then, since the Chinese call kimchi ‘Korean paocai,’" i had to laugh at this one when i think of burrito and the naming system here

    Perhaps the naming system is due to the inability for people to remember characters the battle between using characters as sounds vs descriptive names.

  6. Bathrobe said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 6:32 pm

    There is actually a Wikipedia article on The History of Sushi which is full of detail about ancient China, much of it irrelevant, added only in January this year. The added section has the fingerprints of "warring over the interpretation of history" all over it, particularly the familiar obsession with finding an ancient Chinese source for anything Japanese. To quote:

    Passages relate ancient Japanese people with legendary King Shao Kang ruling over the Yangtze delta.

    Men great and small, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs. From olden times envoys who visited the Chinese Court called themselves "grandees" [大夫]. A son of the ruler Shao Kang of Xia, when he was enfeoffed as lord of Kuaiji, cut his hair and decorated his body with designs in order to avoid the attack of serpents and dragons. The Wa, who are fond of diving into the water to get fish and shells, also decorated their bodies in order to keep away large fish and waterfowl. Later, however, the designs became merely ornamental. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:10)[5]

    During the third century, Chinese travelers in Japan recorded examples of Wu traditions including ritual teeth-pulling, tattooing and carrying babies on backs. Other records at the time show that Japan already had the same customs recognized today. These include clapping during prayers, eating from wooden trays and eating raw fish (also a traditional custom of Jiangsu and Zhejiang before pollution made this impractical).[6] Narezushi appears in the Chinese dictionary in the 2nd century CE as the character sa (鮓, pickled fish with salt and rice),[7] which was during a period in which the Han Chinese were expanding south of the Yangtze river, adopting the food from the non-Han peoples.[1] Kuai, Sashimi and Hoe can be traced back to the pre-han Baiyue cultural area in East China, designated Dongyi. Confucius born near present-day Nanxin Town, Qufu, Shandong, China, he was known to have enjoyed eating raw meat.[8] The earliest dynasties (the Shang dynasty and Zhou dynasty) exerted varying degrees of control over western Shandong, while eastern Shandong was inhabited by the Dongyi peoples who were considered "barbarians." Over subsequent centuries, the Dongyi were eventually sinicized.

  7. SAMUEL Robert Ramsey said,

    May 5, 2021 @ 10:52 pm

    Su-Chong Lim, I certainly didn't mean to mislead anyone by talking about the "original" Korean word; I simply meant that at the time the word "kimchi" (first recorded in Hangul as timchoy [Yale Romanization]) appeared in the Korean record, the word in use before that time, as attested in 1481, was tihi (HIGH-Low tones). In any case, I didn't understand at all what you meant when you suggested that a part of that word might have been "cognate" with Beijing cai. Did you perhaps mean it could have been a Chinese loanword into Korean, or what? The form of the word (with a HIGH-Low tonal pattern) was certainly curious; I admit that. It was not the usual canonical shape for a Middle Korean word.

    And David C: You are quite right in saying that today's kimchi is a far cry from what passed as kimchi back then anyway. An excellent point. After all, chili peppers only reached Korea (allegedly) through Kyushu in the early 17th century and didn't become widely used for kimchi until the 19th. Meanwhile, napa cabbage (from China!), which is the most common main ingredient in kimchi today, didn't make it to Korea until the end of the 19th century!

    In any case, folks: I passed this little essay along to Victor in the first place because I was amused at all the online furor about "cultural appropriation" that was being covered in the press last year. I mean, the simple fact is, kimchi is Korean. Period. It's a cultural icon there, both in the North and in the South. It's theirs. It doesn't really matter that the precise recipe for making kimchi varies greatly across the peninsula and over time. (It does!) There are hundreds of types of kimchi anyway. But I do understand why Koreans find it galling for Chinese to claim they somehow created "kimchi" first. Just about all peoples make pickles. But "paocai" is not kimchi.

    To "Bathrobe": I wholeheartedly agree. This business with kimchi is, as you point out, the same kind of thinking that also caused someone to claim the Chinese "originated" sashimi and sushi just because some ancient text contains wording about someone eating raw fish! It does seem to be another example of the obsession with finding an ancient Chinese source for anything Japanese. Or Korean.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 7:47 am

    Robert, do you not think that "what passed as kimchi back then" is more than a little pejorative ? It may not have been kimchi as we know it today, but at that time it was kimchi, not merely something passing as such.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 1:43 pm

    Some of the Chinese claims of ownership are based upon the fact that much of the kimchi now on the market in Korea is actually made in China, where it can be produced cheaper and more efficiently. That, of course, would be a bogus argument, since many products invented and owned by other countries are nowadays made in China.

  10. Robert Ramsey said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 3:18 pm

    Philip Taylor: That wording was certainly not meant to sound pejorative; that was in no way my intent. Far be it from me to badmouth kimchi. I savor it regularly!

    By "what passed as kimchi back then" I only intended to infer that the type of pickle called "kimchi" back in Middle Korean times was very different from what the term refers to today; if today's Seoulite could be transported back to that period, he or she might even be hard pressed to recognize it as "kimchi" per se and just call it by some other name, perhaps some kind of 지 instead!

    You know, cultural property and cultural traditions don't have to be rooted in misty ancient history. As "Bathrobe" amusingly pointed out, the Wikipedia article on the History of Sushi is filled with all sorts of irrelevant detail about ancient China, only for the purpose of "finding an ancient Chinese source for anything Japanese"! More often than not, such searches amount to nothing more than wild goose chases, anyway. In fact, that particular cultural icon, the sushi we eat today, is not very old at all; what's called "nigirizushi" is an Edo-period innovation.

    The idea that kimchi represents an ancient Chinese legacy graciously passed down by the Han to the Dongyi barbarians is beyond ridiculous. Koreans have good cause to be indignant! Please, let's let them enjoy their cultural legacy in peace.

  11. julie lee said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 7:36 pm

    When I lived for a year as a child in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, many decades ago when Guiyang was still in the middle ages—unpaved roads, no running water, no electricity, oil-lamps for light, etc., and there were still slave-girls on this small estate, the slave girls made paocai—pickled turnips then– and it was most fragrant and delicious. When I tasted kimchi in America, my first thought was "This is paocai !!" because it was similar in fragrance and taste.

    My point is not that kimchi came from China, but that there is a close similarity between kimchi and paocai, it seems to me, whereas there is no similarity between the two and German sauerkuart, also pickled vegetable I'm now a devotee of (Bavarian) sauerkrauet (because kimchi is too salty for me now). I wish there were Chinese paocai like what I had in Guiyang long ago, but it is not to be found in Chinese supermarkets in America.

  12. Robert Ramsey said,

    May 6, 2021 @ 9:27 pm

    Like me, I bet many of you also enjoy watching those cooking videos of Li Ziqi (available here on Netflix). Li Ziqi is from Sichuan, and although she's Han Chinese herself, she prepares dishes from a variety of other nationalities in Western China and elsewhere. But one day recently, when she made some kimchi, that episode was blasted right away by some Korean netizens, already overly sensitive from earlier battles over kimchi ownership. This young Chinese woman was trying to usurp their heritage, they complained. Well, I think that was taking this whole cultural heritage thing too far. As far as I know, Li Ziqi never claimed that kimchi was part of her native culture.

    As an American, I am well aware of how nerves can be frayed by suspicions of "cultural appropriation." In this country, two young white women recently opened up a taco stand but were forced to close it because they were "culturally appropriating" Mexican culture. Little white girls dressed up like geisha at a birthday party and caused a storm of protest. (–But notably, not from native Japanese!)

    When do cultures, especially when they involved cooking ingredients and recipes, remain static like museum displays? When I was a boy, no red-blooded American would ever eat raw fish, even on a dare. But now, even midwestern road stops lay out what's labeled as "sushi." Cultural appropriation? Well, is that what Koreans did with their kimchi recipes when chili peppers reached their shores, or when napa cabbage was brought in from Beijing in the late 19th century?

    I wonder if we haven't taken all these cultural battles a little too far.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    May 7, 2021 @ 1:27 pm

    I confess that I have never before heard of Li Ziqi, Robert, and as I don't subscribe to Netflix (or to anything else for that matter), I cannot find her there, but is this the same person (on Youtube) ?

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    May 7, 2021 @ 1:28 pm

    So sorry, I failed to paste a URL into "this"; I meant it to read "this".

  15. Robert Ramsey said,

    May 8, 2021 @ 1:27 pm

    Yes, Philip Taylor, that's definitely who I meant! And yes, it's Youtube where her videos are available.

RSS feed for comments on this post