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Opinion pieces on business & economic issues

LEE Joon-Hwan

Modern Reinterpretation of Traditional Technologies

LEE Joon-Hwan

June 28, 2010

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Fifty years after embarking on a storied path to modernization Korea is nearing the ranks of the top ten economies in the world. In that time, the nation's science and technology has made significant gains, though some naysayers may say mature technologies from abroad were the main drivers of the economy's rapid growth. Basic science and source technologies admittedly remain relatively weak. Nevertheless, that does not negate the fact that Korea is on par with advanced countries in many areas of science and technology.

This begs a few questions: Have Korea's traditional technologies affected or contributed to the development of modern science and technology? Was there something that can be called as science in Korea 's traditional society, and if so, how can it be utilized in modern society?

There is no doubt that science and technology existed in traditional Korean society. There are many scientific cultural assets ranging from pre-modern times to today that are very familiar to Korean people. Indeed, some have world-class bearing. "Palman Daejanggyeong," or Tripitaka Koreana, one of the world's oldest collection of Buddhist scriptures carved on more than 80,000 woodblocks ; "Goryeo Cheongja," or blue cladon; and metal-type printing are only a few. Despite their outstanding technologies, however, these cultural assets did not get steady social support because many were made by the social lower class. The rapid inflow of western technologies in postwar modernization and industrialization deepened the departure from traditional technologies.

But nowadays, traditional technologies are reaping renewed interest and appreciation because of their presence in everyday products and services. For example, makgeolli - a Korean traditional rice wine made of traditional fermentation technology - enjoyed a 55% increase in sales in 2009 amounting to 200,000 tons, from 130,000 tons in 2008. Skincare products containing oriental medicine ingredients like "Sulwhasoo" of Amore Pacific and "Sooryehan" of LG Household & Health Care are now positioned firmly as premium brands. Sulwhasoo became best-selling cosmetic brand in 2009, beating global luxury cosmetic brands like Lancome and Chanel.

Their popularity largely rests on consumer preference for products that have healthy, natural ingredients and are environment-friendly; revivalism as a reactionary response to advanced science and technology and uncertain economic conditions; as well as technological developments that help uncover the substance structure of traditional technology and its functional mechanism. In addition, the convergence between industry and technology has expanded the utilization of tradition.

How can such an opportunity be used successfully and develop traditional technology? And how can it be used in the modern world in a more valuable way? Reinterpretation, improvement, and convergence are three key approaches.

First, reinterpretation adds modern value to traditional technology. M akgeolli is a prime example. The Korean traditional rice wine had a reputation for producing bad hangovers and it was widely regarded as a drink for rural people. Reinterpretation was made to overcome the hackneyed views. Thus, emphasis was put on the merits of fermentation technology and that makgeolli constitutes ample dietary fiber, amino acid, lactic acid bacteria.

Second, major improvement of traditional technologies can be done by applying modern technology. A prime example would be the use of hanji, traditional Korean paper. It was once limited to changhoji (traditional Korean paper made from mulberry bark), caligraphy and crafts, but today it can be used to enhance environment-friendliness and functionalism. It can be used in construction materials and clothing substances, and can be used as wallpaper and laminated paper.

Another form of improvement may be seen in Korean traditional houses, or hanok. By remodeling the kitchen in a Western style and installing insulation to keep the home at a comfortable temperature year round, a hanok can feature modern improvements without sacrificing its traditional ambience.

The last approach is convergence. Traditional technologies can be applied to various industries and products to create value-added. For example, the traditional natural dyeing technology can be applied to food, cosmetics, hair dyeing and environment-friendly painting, whereas it was previously used for only textiles. Also, traditional fermentation technologies are actually being introduced into medical and beauty industries. Active academic research is now under way to find a cure for various illnesses, including atopic diseases and nose infection, by fermenting ginseng and red ginseng. A shampoo was developed that prevents hair loss by applying oriental fermentation technology.

Once regarded simply as part our legacy, traditional technologies can be recreated and used in a variety of methods. On the corporate level, it can be used to maximize value added and for differentiation, while on the government front, various traditional technologies and resources of each region can be commercialized to generate higher income in regions and to raise the national image. Traditional technologies will have modern value only when the needs for the current era is identified and continuously evolved.

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