Chemyon: How Koreans Preserve Dignity

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Written by: Thanh Trâm + Thùy Linh

A GLIMPSE OF CULTURE | KOREA

Chemyon, the Korean notion of social face (similar to the concept of Mianzi in China), is pervasive in all interpersonal relationship in this country. Sometimes the awareness of Chemyon behaviors in Koreans is so strong that it goes against the true intentions in their mind. Chemyon is how Koreans preserve their dignity. So, what makes Chemyon so special?

In this article, you will learn about:

1. What is Chemyon?

2.Chemyon In Aspects Of Life:

2.1  Greeting culture

2.2  Koreans use honorifics in communication

2.3  Korean focus on appearance 

2.4  Koreans value wealth and social status

2.5  Living place

2.6  Koreans treasure knowledge 

1. What Is Chemyon?

Chemyon or the face is an external look, simply understood as dignity. It originates from Confucian ideology and pervades the social context and in human relationships. On the premise of appearance, Chemyon deals with the idealized version of humans.

Chemyon directs people to build a perfect life and then how to live it.

2. Chemyon In All Aspects Of Life

2.1. Korean Greeting Culture

Korea is an Asian country, so cultural behavior is respected, especially the greeting culture. That is known as Chemyon in Korean society. This is a cultural beauty that is preserved by Koreans to this day. Someone’s greeting also shows that person’s dignity.

Back in the days, Koreans often bowed to each other when they met. Nowadays, bowing is only used during the Mid-autumn festival or Lunar new year. Back then, Koreans bow to grandparents and parents when greeting and worshiping.

Bowing the head becomes a habit when greeting. Koreans believe that “bowing the head is a sign of respect for older people.” For younger people, Koreans often shake or wave their hand.

chemyon how koreans preserve dignity

2.2. Koreans Use Honorifics In Communication

Honorifics can be used to indicate how close you are to someone. Honorific terms in Korea are special titles, words, and verbs when talking to family members and older people they meet in everyday life. 

Using honorifics is the way of speaking Korean that communicates between speaker and listener. Koreans use honorifics to show respect through speech to someone older or higher than themselves in society hierarchy and preserve that person’s dignity. They will get respect and high appreciation from listeners. Using honorifics is a cultural element to show that you are civilized and polite. 

Koreans use honorifics all the time, everywhere. Using honorifics is a subtle habit that is passed down from generation to generation, showing Chemyon. That is because Korean languages and culture are hierarchical. Age and status are important in communication and everyday life in Korean society.

chemyon how koreans preserve dignity

2.3. Koreans Focus On Appearance

“The good-looking wins over half”. Koreans have heard that since they were little kids. In Korean society, attractiveness is considered a priority. Many Koreans believe that people who have an attractive look have more advantages in work and life. 

For example, Koreans think the prettier and more handsome their resume photo is, the more likely they’ll land the job.

In Korean high school, many students are interested in beauty and makeup, including plastic surgery, especially during the difficult economic situation to get higher opportunities to find a job.

It is not hard to find many beautiful girls and handsome boys wearing neatly and makeup in the subway or anywhere. Korean chemyon plays an important role in preserving a person’s dignity. That is because the way you dress, act and speak shows who you are and makes an impression of yourself on others around you.

Koreans do not want to reveal their flaws although they have a busy day. They still maintain a professional attitude while working. Koreans manage their staff’s style extremely strictly.

chemyon how koreans preserve dignity

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2.4. Koreans Value Wealth And Social Status

Chemyon is closely associated with wealth and social status. Koreans attach great importance to property, degrees, and positions.

The more assets, the higher the degree, the higher the social status. 

According to Dr. Hann, “for Koreans, high social status implies a high moral level.” Therefore, the previledged classes and the middle class have been tremendously influenced by Chemyon. A standard high social status family is not only an affluent family but also the member has to be a paragon of virtue. 

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2.5. Koreans Judge People By Living Standard

In Korea, there is a strong division between the rich, the middle class and the common class on the premise of quality of life.

For example, the Seocho area in Korea has very high-quality schools, so house prices have increased to about 1.33 billion won (about 1.3 million dollars). Gradually, it reflects their wealth and social status.

There are people who strive their whole life to buy an apartment in an area where rich people live. They do that to be recognized as having money, to be admired by friends and people around them. However, it was never easy to escape the poverty trap in Korea.

chemyon how koreans preserve dignity

2.6. Koreans Treasure Knowledge

In Korea, having a degree from Seoul National University is equivalent to owning a $3,000 handbag or a large Seocho apartment.

In addition, it reflects one’s intellectual capacity and academic achievement, and because of the legacy of Confucian exam culture, this is especially appreciated.

Having strong academic background is the primary means of social advancement for centuries. Academic success means entering a prestigious class.

Going to a prestigious university is as valuable for that reason as it is for potential monetization.

And so education plays an important role in the face of a family, not just an individual. A child who passes the exam to a prestigious school will bring a lot of influence to the family: praise from everyone, improved life from material to spiritual.

Conclusion

Chemyon is an interesting aspect of Korean culture. Similar to other East Asian cultures, it reflects Koreans’ core values: have respect for others and live together in harmony. Although to some this may sound limiting and suffocating, Chemyon is still a great way to encourage collectivism and teach people how to function in a community.

Feel free to share in the comment section your experience with Chemyon. All opinions and thoughts are welcome!

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