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Let Them Eat Royal Court Cuisine!: Re-imagining the Food of the Joseon Dynasty as the Prototype of Korean Cuisine

Chi-Hoon Kim, Indiana University

In the past four decades, the royal court cuisine of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) has been celebrated as the prototype of South Korean cuisine. With the launch of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s policy to globalize Korean cuisine as a nation-building strategy in 2008, court cuisine was resurrected to represent the Korean nation. This paper examines the heritage politics of re-imagining and re-positioning an antiquated cultural artifact as a living tradition through commercialization and popularization. I argue that Joseon’s court cuisine is used to portray Korea as timeless and preordained while neglecting major developments since the early 20th century. The paradox of re-creating a romantic past for the purpose of redefining modern Korea raises the following questions: Why is it important to locate the origin of Korean cuisine in Joseon’s royal court? Who gets to decide the content and style of this presentation? And does the regal image successfully communicate the intended message? I will first consider court cuisine as an invented tradition by tracing its commodification since the early 1990s. Second, I will focus on the agency of actors who produced the popular Korean drama Daejanggum (Jewel in the Palace) to demonstrate how this television program solidified re-imagined practices of court cuisine as authentic. Third, I will analyze the limitations of popularizing court cuisine by examining its failed inscription into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative List in 2011. Finally, I will conclude by briefly considering the unintended consequences and potential points of conflict of promoting court cuisine as popular culture.