One of my Korean students’ favourite pastimes is pulling on my beard. These days, I can’t blame them — circumstances having forced me into (temporary) bachelordom for the first time in years, I’ve made it a project to accumulate as much hair on my face as possible, and even I will admit that the resulting thicket is eminently tuggable. (It’s when the kids figure they can swing from it that problems arise.)
There’s a lurking belief that Koreans can’t grow facial hair. This is profoundly untrue, as anyone who’s familiar with Korean money can tell you; each of the three denominations of Korean won (the 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000) boasts a likeness of an eminent figure from Korean history, and all of them are rocking killer beards. The most impressive is surely the white mop cascading from the chin of Confucian scholar Yi Hwang on the 1,000, but neither fellow Confucian Yi I on the five nor King Sejong the Great (arguably the most famous Korean of all time, at least within Korea) on the ten have anything to be ashamed of — each sports a missile-shaped goatee and full moustache that would make Tom Selleck’s nose pillow bristle with envy.
It is true, however, that in contemporary South Korea, prominent facial hair is a rare sight. I know exactly one Korean man with a beard, and he runs a motorcycle shop. (Come to think of it, I once met a singer in a hardcore punk band who had a smattering of lip fuzz.) Everyone else is remarkably clean-shaven. This is in keeping with Koreans’ general neatness of appearance: clothes are cheap, tidiness is seen as a sign of competence, and matching stuff is a popular hobby. As a whole, the population is so well put together it makes Montreal look like a hovel for grungy hobos.
It seems to me, though, that the facial hair thing is tied to a number of factors beyond just looking neat. Namely, it has to do with a deeper notion of what it means to be respectable, and also, in a related sense, what it means to be masculine. (Apologies if I’m stepping on any toes, here.)
In the West, facial hair has, at least since the 1950s or so, often been associated with rebellion or nonconformity. The beatnik goatee, the hippie tangle, the biker beard, the ironic hipster handlebar — all of these have served as semiotic cues of voluntary withdrawal from the mainstream and association with an alternative subculture. The hairy face is a rejection of authority and of the version of mass work culture that demands a certain standard of grooming, in which shaving everyday is somehow seen as a gesture of loyalty to the company, and a clean face is equated with honesty and sound morals. For the upstanding citizen, beards and moustaches, the simplest and most natural of disguises, denote something to hide. Conversely, the wearing of a beard or moustache is an expression of disdain for the opinion of the majority.
In Korean society, the opinion of the majority is much more valued than in Western cultures that revere individualism. It’s something of a cliché that Korea is a homogenous society, but also true, sometimes to a startling degree. Take the case of Korean pop music and its megahits, of which the current crop includes the Wondergirls’ “Nobody” and Big Bang’s “Lies.” Judging from my experience, every single person in the country not only knows these songs, but likes them. Adults program them as their ringtones; department stores play them ad infinitum over the PA; my students, from the five-year-olds to the thirteen-year-olds, come into class singing their unfathomably irritating English language choruses. How, you might ask, does this differ from Britney Spears? The answer is that there is no popular alternative — no Korean My Chemical Romance or Kanye West or Nickelback for those who wish to obsess over other forms of glossy music product, and certainly no White Stripes or Death Cab For Cutie or other such indie-type acts to sate those who want something purporting to intimacy or cool. Korean popular music is completely dominated by K-pop. Outside of a few student-friendly pockets of Seoul, rock, serious hip-hop and other genres are all but non-existent, at least as far as media exposure goes.
This is significant (and has to do with my point, really) because these kinds of genres were all born out of rebellion. They’re absent from the airwaves for the same reason scraggly neckards and pedophile ’staches don’t show up on Korean men’s jaws too often: rebellion isn’t nearly as much a part of the social fabric in Korea as it is in the West. The Confucian philosophy that has guided Korean thinking since the days of Yi Hwang and Yi I says belonging is preferable to standing out, and this translates into a society in which Western forms of rebellion are seen not just as undesirable, but downright puzzling. Walking through a park the other day and thinking on my impending return to Canada, it occurred to me that, for the whole time I’ve lived here, I have never seen a teenager smoking. Not once. The parks and streets of North American cities are full of high school rats hacking butts, but even though cigarettes cost less than three dollars a pack in Korea, kids don’t touch them. Rebellion isn’t cool.
This absence (or repression) of the rebellious spirit also means notions of what it means to be manly are very different here than in the West. The classic rebel figure — James Dean, Marlon Brando, the Fonz, Axl Rose, John McCain, take your pick — is always inseparable from an idea of masculinity that says bucking the system is a fundamental sign of toughness, and therefore of male strength. Although all of the men I’ve just mentioned are babyfaces or close to it (or were in their heydays), the notion of machismo they’re associated with is related to the same one that posits facial hair as a designator of independence, freedom and nonconformity. The tough man is the one who ventures out on his own. Not so in Korea, where it’s considered much more “masculine” to cultivate close ties with the group in family, business and social life. Segregating yourself from the crowd, through facial hair or a bad attitude or both, simply leaves you exposed and weak.
(Incidentally, this may have deeper roots in the physiological difference in hairiness between Asians and Caucasian men. We, who grow fur, have decided it is a sign of virility or at least an abstract ‘manliness’; Asians, who do not, have not had to construct any such fictions.)
But wait — what about those Confucians from the money? Didn’t they have beards? Well, yes. It has been suggested to me that the disappearance of facial hair from Korean men’s faces can be traced to Korea’s colonization by Japan in the early twentieth century, during which the Japanese forced Korean men to cut off their “top-knots,” which were something like buns, as well as other hair-related totems, as a means of eradicating Korean culture. This would suggest to me that facial hair might have made a comeback as a way of expressing defiance against Japanese rule, but perhaps hairlessness just stuck. I suspect, though, that it has more to do with aforementioned work culture, which prizes a smooth face as an outward manifestation of a flawless soul. Koreans are nothing if not fond of work, or at least convinced of its utter necessity (this versus, say, Canadian guys who show up in Korea in order to do as little work as possible, i.e. me).
For the record, there have been a couple of examples in recent Korean cinema that back up my theory nicely. Choi Min-sik, the star of Oldboy, sports a goatee and moustache in that film (above) as well as Park Chan-wook’s follow-up, Lady Vengeance. The same goes for Kim Yun-seok in this year’s hit, Chugyeogja (The Chaser). The former plays, respectively, a man who was isolated for 15 years, kills people with hammers and ends up totally screwed, and a pedophile who ends up hacked to bits; the latter a detective-turned pimp who no one will believe. So does facial hair serve to define these characters as outsiders, misfits — the Damned.
I have promised my girlfriend I’ll shave before coming home, in no small part because of what having an untended beard can mean at the airport these days. It just goes to show how much weight different cultures put on facial hair, either as a sign of conformity or rebellion, or both at once. No matter how you trim it, facial hair is political. Now, if we could just settle this mess in Ottawa with a solid beard-growing contest…