Korean Culture – Guide to History, Customs, People, and Modern Day

Last Updated on April 21, 2021 by 90 Day Korean
An alley of traditional Korean houses

Are you curious about Korean culture?  Many people are since South Korean culture is becoming more popular all across the globe.

Perhaps you’ve heard about K-Pop, K-Dramas, Korean food, or Korean movies, but don’t know much about them. Or maybe you’ve just heard a lot about South Korea in general, and you’re curious what the country is all about.

Rest assured, you’ve come to the right place! This page is chock full o’ everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the culture of South Korea.

Read on to find out more!

An alley of traditional Korean houses

History of Korean Culture

The Korean culture is one of the oldest continuous cultures in the whole wide world. Today, starker cultural differences exist in today’s Korea, which has been split into North and South Korea. However, originally this cultural and historical heritage was shared quite identically across the entire Korean peninsula and even southern Manchuria.

Korean culture comprises all of its history, customs, traditions, and beliefs. It has been shaped by each of its different dynasties, wars, changes in religious beliefs, the modernization of the world as a whole, and many other customs and traditions that have passed on between generations, experiencing slight changes with each generational pass. The lasting tensions between North and South Korea, which were split into their separate countries in 1945, continue to shape up both countries today.

On a perhaps more visible surface, Korean culture also consists of its food, holidays, national sports, and societal norms, as well as its popular culture in the form of music, movies, dramas, and fashion. And those are just some of the small pieces of what the culture is as a whole.

Basic Facts about Korea

The Korean peninsula, consisting of North and South Korea, is one of the most homogeneous regions in the world. Meaning that almost everyone residing in any part of the region is ethically Korean. In South Korea, the population is estimated to be a little over 51 million, and a little over 25 million in North Korea.

Additionally, there are around 7.4 million ethnic Koreans living all around the world. The native language is Korean, which you can read all about here. Lastly, their government type is a republic, with a president as the head of state.

Korean Beliefs

The spiritual ground and beliefs of Koreans are built mainly around the religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Of these, especially Confucianism has a long record of influence in Korea, and its political and social philosophies can still clearly be seen in today’s Korea. However, Buddhism and Christianity are also highly visible in the society.

For example, the concept of hierarchy in Korea comes from Confucianism. The hierarchy is built based on a person’s age, job status, education level, and general social rank. Thanks to Confucianism, a lot of emphasis is put upon respecting one’s elders and ancestors.

And although especially the younger generations are becoming more and more individualistic, Korea is still a largely collective society, with family, workplace, and others’ perception of you holding a lot of importance. Therefore, it is not rare to still see the type of family dynamics where the eldest son of the family holds additional responsibilities over the family. He is also expected to take care of the parents when they reach retirement age.

Korean traditions and customs

There are two major holidays in South Korea every year: Lunar New Year’s Day (설날, seollal) in January-February and Korean Thanksgiving (추석) in September-October. Both holidays are celebrated together with family, with respecting ancestors, certain holiday foods and family games playing a big part of the day.

One of the most important parts of 설날, both traditionally and today, is to perform a ritual called 세배 (sebae). In it, the whole family, dressed in 한복, performs a deep traditional bow, while wishing for the year to bring in a lot of luck. For food, it is normal to eat rice cake soup, savory pancakes, and stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables.

On 추석, on the other hand, it is 차례 (charye), an ancestral memorial rite, that is the most important part of the holiday. It involves a whole lot of preparation in order to create a table of offerings, and on the table will also be two candles at the edges, an incense holder in the middle, and the memorial tablet, symbolizing the spiritual presence of the ancestors, at the very center. For food, stuffed rice cakes (called 송편, songpyeon) are made as the most traditional one, with a whole lot of others being enjoyed as well.

Korean traditional arts

There are a variety of traditional arts in South Korea that can still be seen and enjoyed today.

Korean dance

Originally, dances in Korea were formed as a part of shamanistic rituals, an impressive five thousand years ago. Over time and the different dynasties, varieties of folk dances have evolved from these ritualistic dances. There were more than 12 types of dances that were popular to perform in the court in front of royals, for example. Some of the most popular and common traditional dances, well-known even today, are as follows:

  • 탈춤 (talchum) = a dance performed while wearing a mask
  • 가인전목단 (gainjeonmokdan) = a calm dance where a vase of flowers is placed at the center of the stage and the dancers will dance around the vase, picking out flowers from the vase
  • 농악 (nongak) = an energetic dance including also drums
  • 부채춤 (buchaechum) = a fan dance

A group fo male dancers dancing and playing traditional Korean instrument

Korean painting

Painting is a type of art that has been a part of Korean culture since prehistoric times. In its earliest form, it was a form of rock art, where images were created by carving out parts of a rock surface. Once Buddhism arrived in Korea, new painting techniques were introduced, quickly becoming the common and popular way to paint. This includes for example calligraphy.

Korean crafts and ceramics

The history of ceramics in Korea goes back thousands of years. The dominant ingredient to use has changed over the dynasties, ranging from coils and clay to pottery, to porcelain. Korean ceramics have also had a strong influence on shaping Japanese ceramics.

Korean music

Korean folk music is typically referred to as 판소리 (pansori), which has even been designated as an intangible cultural property by UNESCO. Pansori is performed by one singer and one drummer. Some pansori songs also include dancers and/or narrators. Another type of folk music is 풍물 (pungmul), which involves drumming, singing and dancing; it is traditionally called 농악, which has been mentioned above.

Besides folk music, Korean court music is another traditional form of Korean music. It was developed at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty, getting some of its influences from Chinese court music. There are also similarities to Japanese and Vietnamese court music.

There are three types of court music. The first form is 아악 (aak), which was drawn directly from the Chinese, performed in state sacrificial rites, and still existing today as music performed in some Confucian ceremonies. The second form is 향악 (hyangak), which was created entirely by Koreans. 향악 was often accompanied by traditional country dances, with the dances being performed for an audience. The third one is 당악 (dangak), which mixes Chinese and Korean court music styles into one style. There are specific types of dances that go along with 당악.

Often referred to as ‘hallyu’ or the Korean wave, the Korean popular culture is no longer only famous and popular in Korea, but becoming widespread across the globe. It mainly includes Korean pop music, dramas, and movies. In fact, although K-Pop, through acts like BTS, is a hot topic these days, it was originally Korean dramas that became famous to watch in other countries.

Korean cinema

When speaking of Korean cinema, it usually counts the time from 1945 onward. The movies take a lot of influence from Korea’s own past, featuring a lot of material from the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the road towards democratization and globalization, and so on. Although there is still present some shyness to put certain materials on film, simultaneously Korean filmmakers are bold in expressing their views of the society, through internationally well-received movies like The Handmaiden and Parasite.

Korean dramas

Korean dramas differ from a lot of Western TV content, as they are typically only made to last for one season, with one overarching plot lasting 12 to 16 or so episodes. Historical stories and sitcoms may last longer, even up to 200 episodes, but the majority of prime-time television is set up this way. The dramas range between a variety of topics, from history and action to school and work life.

However, many of the most popular dramas have had a romantic story as their main element. Love stories on screen in Korea often play out quite differently from what is common in the West, with bedroom scenes and even deep kisses still remaining relatively rare to see. In the past few years, Korean dramas have also become more interested in tackling today’s societal issues, such as classism, mental health, bullying, spy cameras, corruption, and so on.

K-Pop

K-Pop is short for Korean pop, Korea’s response to Western mainstream music. The music itself samples different genres from rock and jazz to hip hop and techno, influenced by worldwide trends.

However, despite the influences, K-Pop is also quite different from Western pop, with idol groups being its leading force. These groups are formed by entertainment agencies, from hoards of young trainees, who have been signed to the agencies in hopes of debuting as an artist at a young age, often years before getting lucky. In each group, each member plays their own role: there’s a dancer, a rapper, the main singer, a pretty face, and so on.

And although the songs themselves are important, the entire concept of each ‘comeback’ – the term used whenever a group or an artist releases new content – is carefully crafted. From hair styling to dance moves and music videos, there is often a specific theme behind each single or album release, which also influences the mood and tune of the songs.

Korean homes and clothing

As with other aspects of Korean culture, traditional homes and clothing continue to be visible in today’s Korea. For example, in neighborhoods like Seoul’s Gwanghwamun, it is possible to see modern Korea’s glassy high-rise buildings blend in seamlessly with historical Korea’s traditional palaces, all in one spot, complete with locals and tourists walking about wearing traditional attire.

Korean traditional homes

A traditional Korean home is called 한옥 (hanok). It was thought that they cannot be built on any random spot, but the site to build the house on needs to be carefully selected. In detail this means that the houses should be built against a hill so that they’d receive as much sunlight as possible; a way of thinking that is still shared in modern Korea as well.

These traditional houses typically comprise an inner wing and an outer wing. How these “wings” are used depending on the wealth of the family, and in general, the size of the house was also directly correlated with how rich the family was. However, even if it was the richest family in Korea, the right to the largest house was reserved for the king.

A basic design of the inner wing would include a living room and a kitchen, as well as a central hall. The richer families may have some more rooms attached to this layout. Meanwhile, the poorer families would use the outer wing for their cattle. The most common building materials were wood and clay, followed by tile, stone, and thatch. That is one large reason why so many of these houses are no longer preserved in today’s Korea.

For heating, 온돌 (ondol) was used. 온돌 means floor heating. It has been in use in Korea since prehistoric times, and it is still the main form of heating today, in modern apartments as well, typically heated up using gas.

Korean clothing

The traditional outfit in Korea is called 한복 (hanbok). It consists of a long-sleeved shirt and a long wide hemmed skirt. The specific styles and colors of each 한복 differ. Even today, it is normal for 한복s to be worn during the big holidays of 설날 and 추석. In addition to which they’re often also worn at weddings by the bride and groom’s parents, as well as the bride and groom at some point after the ceremony. Or even during the ceremony if it’s held in a traditional Korean style.

There were different types of 한복s in use. There was the kind used for every day, the kind for ceremonial events, and the special kind, which was usually restricted for the use of shamans, officials, and the like.

In general, clothing used to be an important mark of someone’s social rank, with people of different ranks dressing differently. Those of lower ranks typically wore plain clothes of plain colors, whereas upper classes and royals wore heavy and flashy outfits, complete with jewelry.

Korean cuisine

At the very center of Korean cuisine is rice. Korea has a long history of being nearly exclusively an agricultural country, with this having changed only recently, and you can still clearly see this in today’s cuisine. Fish and other seafood also play an integral part in shaping Korean cuisine. Besides them, fermented dishes are largely important, kimchi being the most famous of them, rich in nutrients. The most common ingredients to use for cooking are 된장 (doenjang) which is a fermented bean paste, ginger, chili powder, fermented hot pepper paste, garlic, salt, sesame oil, and soy sauce.

In general, Koreans eat a lot of rice, vegetables, and meats. It’s typical for each meal to consist of multiple different side dishes, called 반찬 (banchan), in addition to the main course. Of them, kimchi is the staple side dish present at every meal.

rice mixed in a bowl

Pork is perhaps the meat eaten the most in Korea, with 삼겹살 (samgyeopsal), which is grilled pork belly, one of most Koreans’ favorite foods. Several different chicken dishes also exist, including chicken feet. Beef is seen as the meat with the highest value, which explains its comparatively higher price, although since the latter 20th century it has become more common to eat on a regular day instead of solely on special occasions.

A lot of Korean food is served grilled, steamed, fermented, or pickled. There are also a large variety of soups and stews, as well as noodles. In addition, several specific foods, such as salty pancakes or tofu with kimchi, are commonly eaten while enjoying alcohol.

Korean Concept of “Face”

To fully understand the way of behaving and thinking of Koreans, you need to understand the concept of the face – 채면 (chaemyeon) in Korean. It is among the most integral and important things in influencing how Koreans behave in their daily life and interactions with others.

채면 in meaning translates as the appearance a person wants to – or seeks to – offer others of themselves. It is especially prevalent when it comes to one’s status in the society. For example, if someone is going through hardships with a relationship, an employment situation, finances, or even something more simple as struggling to do well in school, they will want to disguise that and instead show a more poised version of themselves.

This concept is also important for interactions with interpersonal relationships. Largely because of Confucian influences, Koreans hold maintaining harmony in high regard. And therefore all conflict with others is to be avoided, and it is even feared that it could lead to saving face. Thus, it is more sought after to keep harmony and hold in negative thoughts and emotions.

This is an age-old concept in Korea. However, due to the hardships that came from being under Japan’s rule and then the war that led to Korea being split into two, it has regained importance in the Korean society.

What is South Korean culture like?

South Korea is a unique culture with influences from China, Japan, and the West. When you first come for a visit, you will notice some things that are familiar to your home country. For example, you will likely see chain restaurants and global stores that are popular back home. At the same time, you’ll notice customs, styles, and social norms that are uniquely South Korean.

South Korea a fast-paced and well-organized country. Many people speak conversational English in the large cities (Seoul, Busan, Daegu, etc). There are a large number of Chinese, Japanese, and other foreign-language speakers because of the large amount of trade and tourism in South Korea.
South Korea is strongly influenced by Confucianism.

What is the History of Korean culture?

Korea is one of the oldest cultures in the world. Koreans have passed down their traditions and stories for centuries. The country started to become split between North Korea and South Korea in 1945, and since then the two Koreas have increased cultural differences.

Some of the South Korean traditional arts are ceramics, music, crafts, dance, and paintings. You can often see these displayed if you’re visiting the cultural and tourist areas of South Korea such as 인사동 (Insadong) or 명동 (Myeongdong).

What does the dragon mean in Korean culture?

If you visit traditional buildings or look at Korean artwork, you will often see dragons. For Koreans, the dragon has a positive meaning. It symbolizes water, rain, clouds, and farming. Therefore, Korean dragons are often said to have lived in bodies of water such as oceans, rivers, and lakes.
The word for dragon in Korean is 용 (yong).

Korean Holidays

South Korea shares many holidays with the rest of the world but also has some holidays unique to its culture. The most popular holidays are 추석 (Chuseok | Korean Thanksgiving) and 선랄 (Seollal | Korean Lunar New Year). During these two holidays, many Koreans return to their hometowns to visit their families.

What is the most popular national holiday in Korea?

During public holidays in Korea, most offices, banks, and government buildings are closed. However, places like museums, restaurants, cafes, amusement parks, and shopping malls remain open. The night before most public holidays, it is usually very busy in Korea with people going out to celebrate and meet friends.

There are some Korean holidays that are culturally celebrated but are not public holidays. Some examples of those are Pepero Day, Valentine’s Day, White Day, and Black Day. Koreans do not get a day off during these holidays.

Korean Holiday DateType of Holiday

New Year's Day
January 1Public Holiday

Lunar New Year
1st day of 1st lunar monthPublic Holiday

Valentine's Day
February 14Cultural Holiday

Independence Movement Day
March 1Public Holiday

White Day
March 14Cultural Holiday

Black Day
April 14Cultural Holiday

Buddha's Birthday
8th day of 4th lunar monthPublic Holiday

Children's Day
May 5Public Holiday

Parent's Day
May 8Cultural Holiday

Memorial Day
June 6Public Holiday

Constitution Day
July 17Public Holiday

Liberation Day
August 15Public Holiday

Chuseok
15th day of 8th lunar monthPublic Holiday

National Foundation Day
October 3rdPublic Holiday

Hangeul Day
October 9Public Holiday

Pepero Day
November 11Cultural Holiday

Christmas
December 25Public Holiday

Understanding Korean Culture

Korean culture is truly full of history, tradition, and uniqueness. If you want to properly learn about Korea, it is important to educate yourself on its basic pillars, which you have just done by reading our article. Korea’s speedy rise from a war-ridden and undeveloped country to one of the global economy’s high hitters is one reason that allows for Koreans, and for us, to enjoy such a blend of tradition and modernism in Korean culture today.

What aspect of the culture are you most excited to get to explore once you’re in Korea yourself one day: the food, the music, the history, or something else?

    7 replies to "Korean Culture – Guide to History, Customs, People, and Modern Day"

    • Avatar for Christine Joy Christine Joy

      Thanks for this wonderful and informative information.

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Sure, it’s our pleasure. We’re glad that it has been valuable to you. ^^

    • Avatar for ANIS ANIS

      thank u ^^

    • Avatar for Sarah Jassim Sarah Jassim

      I am muslim and I want to travel to Korea for enjoying there.
      I have a question..
      Is it easy to find halal food in Korea?

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Hi, Sarah! It’s not very easy to find a Halal food place in Korea because we put pork-related products almost in every food! But there are more vegan restaurants now, and you can also ask for menus with no pork in it in usual restaurants. ^^

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