(CNN) — More than just a spicy staple served in Korean households and restaurants around the world, kimchi — the iconic fermented vegetable dish — has once again become the subject of a cultural feud between China and South Korea.
The latest salvo in the long-running culinary battle was fired in July, when South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism released a notice that it’s amending the official guidelines on “the appropriate foreign language” for a few Korean foods.
Among them is a stipulation that xinqi is to be the new, official Chinese name for kimchi. The old common translation, pao cai (salted fermented vegetables), would be retired.
The issue stems from the fact there’s no Chinese character to represent the pronunciation of kimchi. As a result, the Ministry of Agriculture reportedly considered some 4,000 Chinese characters before deciding on xinqi, claiming that it sounded kind of like kimchi.
Xinqi (??) consists of two Chinese characters: Xin means spicy. Qi means unique, or curious.
With the new name, the Seoul government hopes to draw a clear line between Korean kimchi and Chinese pickled vegetables — the latter of which are called pao cai (??) in China.
“With the use of word ‘xinqi’ for Kimchi in Chinese, the ministry expects Korean kimchi and Chinese pao cai are differentiated clearly and the awareness of South Korea’s traditional dish, kimchi will be raised in China,” the release said.
The new guideline is mandated for the South Korean government and affiliated organizations. But it’s only a recommendation for private South Korean companies that need to translate the word kimchi into Chinese, in addition to Chinese media discussing the Korean dish.
Nonetheless it has kicked off a wave of heated debates among media and netizens in both countries.
What’s the difference between kimchi and pao cai?
Before diving any further into the quarrel, one should understand the difference between kimchi and pao cai.
Kimchi is a collective term for more than 100 types of fermented vegetables in Korea, but it most commonly refers to fermented napa cabbage with seasonings, including red chili pepper, garlic, ginger and salted seafood.
Fermented vegetables made with different ingredients like chonggak kimchi (fermented radish kimchi) or with lower spice levels such as baek kimchi (non-spicy white cabbage kimchi) also fall under the kimchi umbrella.
Pao cai, on the other hand, literally means “soaked vegetables” in Chinese. That’s because pickled vegetables are often made by soaking different types of greens, from cabbages to carrots, in a saline solution, with or without seasonings. The jars of vegetables are then fermented at room temperature.
Because they bear some similarities, kimchi is often referred to as “hanguo pao cai,” which means “Korean fermented vegetables,” in China.
Not the first time
This isn’t South Korea’s first attempt at making “xinqi” the de facto Chinese name for kimchi.
In 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture lobbied for a new name in response to the increasing number of China-produced kimchi products in overseas markets, as well as in South Korea’s domestic market. Since 2006, South Korea has been suffering a kimchi trade deficit with China. From 2007 to 2011, the country’s imports of kimchi products from China increased by at least tenfold.
But after the official announcement regarding the new name was made in 2013, the backlash was swift. The name xinqi was so unpopular in China that the old translation, pao cai, was restored soon after.
On the flipside, that same year South Korea succeeded in getting “kimjang,” the tradition of making and sharing kimchi, inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage in 2013, making the dish a proud “cultural symbol of Korea.”
“Kimchi is South Korea’s national dish, not only because Koreans consume it for nearly every meal, but also it is the most well-known Korean food in the world — many Westerners still cannot distinguish gimbap from sushi, but can recognize that kimchi is from Korea,” says Elaine Chung, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at Cardiff University and a researcher in East Asia Studies.
Chung’s work mainly focuses on Chinese and Korean cultures, and she carried out extensive research on the impact of calling kimchi “xinqi” instead of “pao cai” back in 2014. She tells CNN Travel that the debate has grown even more intense since then.
“When I wrote that paper, the controversy over kimchi/xinqi was largely a social media row between Chinese and Korean netizens. But this time, it seems to have a much greater 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 it is doing something to fight back for ownership over kimchi.”
BTS gets caught up in the drama
Why the need to fight back now? Renewed interest in kimchi’s Chinese name emerged after a series of cultural conflicts over the last year.
In November 2020, China obtained an IOS certificate for Sichuan pao cai. In an article published by China’s state media, Global Times, the writer proclaimed that “Sichuan pao cai has become the international standard” for the pao cai industry.
“The so-called ‘Kimchi (Pao Cai) Sovereign State’ has long existed in name only,” said the article.
South Korean netizens and media were unimpressed, calling the report an attempt to “steal” kimchi and Korean culture.
The issue rekindled strong anti-Chinese sentiment, spurring increased cries to “cancel Chinese culture in South Korea.”
Footage of a seemingly naked man soaked in a pool of cabbages and brown liquid in a Chinese kimchi factory, titled “China’s obnoxious kimchi factory” was shared on YouTube and by South Korean media outlets, further fueling the tension.
The South Korea government has made other attempts to differentiate the two. Earlier this year a new book about kimchi was published by the country’s national promotional agency, including a section highlighting how different pao cai is from kimchi.
But it didn’t ease the tension, with the feud moving beyond the culinary world and into the tourism and entertainment sectors.
The plan to build a “Chinatown” tourist site in Gangwon Province was called off in April this year after thousands of netizens signed a petition. Meanwhile, the TV period drama Joseon Exorcist was scrapped after just two episodes, with the public protesting against scenes that feature the protagonist wearing Chinese-style costumes, drinking Chinese liquor and eating Chinese food like mooncakes and Chinese dumplings.
Even the members of K-Pop group BTS found themselves caught up in the drama.
When a program starring the band translated kimchi as “pao cai” in the Chinese subtitles in June, many South Korean netizens exploded in anger. Comments claimed the translation helped promote Chinese pao cai.
Naver, South Korea’s largest search engine and the online platform behind the show, explained that the translation was in accordance with the latest translation guidelines provided by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
“We will change the problematic subtitles once we receive new guidelines,” a Naver spokesperson told the Korea Herald following the incident.
About a month later, the ministry issued its new guidelines on xinqi, bringing us back to the present.
What’s different this time?
Some companies have already reacted to the name change.
Naver’s translation tool has revised the Chinese translation of kimchi to xinqi. On global South Korean food brand Bibigo’s Chinese website, the kimchi product page is also translated as xinqi.
But the new name doesn’t seem to appeal to either Chinese or Korean netizens.
On Chinese social media site Weibo, comments on 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 in Chinese.
“I don’t understand why we have to respond to the translation ‘xinqi’ proposed by Koreans. Shouldn’t language develop following the users’ habits?” one user said.
The attempted name change failed in 2013 because most Chinese-speaking people did not use the term, notes Chung. That’s unlikely to change now.
“It is difficult to persuade people to use an empty signifier — as the combination of the two Chinese characters does not mean anything in Chinese — to replace a term they have used for years,” says Chung.
Also, the name xinqi may not be recognized legally in China.
The document issued by the Korean government called for South Korean companies exporting kimchi to China to be cautious, as Chinese law states that companies have to use names familiar to Chinese consumers.
That means that businesses may not be able to use the term “xinqi” alone to describe kimchi; they’ll still need to label it as pao cai.
The new guidelines said the Agriculture Ministry would advise 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, as the pronunciation of xinqi is quite different from that of kimchi. It is argued that since Kimchi (in Korean pronunciation) is internationally recognized already, the government should not invent a Chinese term by compromising the authentic Korean sound,” says Chung.
Kim Byeong-gi, a retired professor at Korea’s Jeonbuk National University, wrote in the Korea Joongang Daily that the new name is “totally absurd.”
“It is a big mistake that the Korean government voluntarily came up with a bizarre term — xinqi — to promote kimchi and differentiate it from China’s pao cai. It can obscure the meaning of kimchi, a proud name already known around the world,” Kim wrote in the opinion piece.
Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to predict whether the latest attempt to change kimchi’s Chinese name will be more successful.
But, as Chung says, “it will likely do little to end the ongoing popular culture war” over the famed dish.