Clean and Right Things (en)

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'목욕도' - 초등 수신서 중에서

‘목욕도’ – 초등 수신서 중에서

It was a coincidence that I returned to Korea when fear of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) was at its peak in the nation. I had never before experienced passing the immigration desk without queuing in double or triple snaking lines. The airport almost seemed strange without crowds of Chinese tourist groups. After a month, MERS showed almost 19% fatality, hitting a hard blow on the nation’s economy by decreasing the potential annual economic growth rate below three per cent. As Korea gained notoriety for its rank as the region with the second highest risk for MERS next to Saudi Arabia and for its ill-prepared public health protection system, the media often described this incident as a national humiliation. Virus-related diseases are part of the hundreds of thousands of diseases unconquered by human civilization, yet people project more fear regarding it as something that arises due to a lack of control and management – something construed as unclean – and define it as a nationally humiliating occasion. Historically, an environment where public hygiene was not managed, especially where germs and viruses were not controlled because of undeveloped sewage systems, has been described as a scene of a primitive or pre-modern society, whereas a society of better public sanitation systems has been defined as more evolved, modernized, and, thus, relatively superior. Throughout modern times, cleanliness and hygiene have gained control within the nation-state, supporting the social order required for national development.

During the Korean Empire (1897-1910) the imperial government adopted modern moral training called su-shin (修身) as the basic education for establishing a ‘nation-state.’ The linguistic meaning of su-shin is analogous to the traditional moral education of the former dynasty, but a provision to become a modern citizen had been embedded into the su-shin of the new empire. While the purpose of the su-shin of Confucianism is to establish an individual sense of morality through internal awareness and self-reflection, the su-shin of the modern West aimed to generate the ‘individual’s healthy body’ through regulation and discipline. [1] The ‘healthy body’ is a ‘body qualified to become a citizen,’ equipped with modern qualifications, which are fundamental forces in establishing the nation-state. If today’s ‘healthy body’ has been defined as the happy life of an individual, the su-shin of one hundred years ago had been deeply involved in building a modern nation-state. [2]

We all have a duty to perfect our physical health for the family, society and nation. One who conceives that one’s health is not related to these has a serious lack of morals. [3]

The textbooks on morality in elementary, middle and high schools suggest practical methods to create the body of a citizen. The textbooks place the transformation of an unclean body into a clean body in the top priority, first recommending the ingestion of nutritious food. Emphasis is placed on cleanliness because hygienic problems cause disease in an individual and have the potential to infect other people with the disease too. [4]

We already know that hygiene is the most indispensable moral to maintain physical health. Hygiene not only protects one’s own body but also enforces the health of the public, which is righteous. [5]

Also, the books emphasize practical guidelines such as healthy meals and the cleanliness of tableware:

Since the body grows with the digestion of vegetables, one should choose nutritious plants. Binge drinking and eating cause great damage to the body. Therefore, you’d better avoid those vices. [6]

Cleanliness is the best way to good hygiene. It is not right to leave a dish unclean. [7]

A clean meal is the basis of good hygiene, which is ultimately one of the principles necessary to maintain the safety and order of society. That is, a clean meal or a sanitary meal is beneficial to both the mind and the body and, thus, secures social safety; clean tableware is the instrument that fosters a hygienic, safe, and ultimately proper – or ‘right’ – dietary life.

The traditional Korean high-class table includes a set of three or five, or even nine, side dishes besides rice, soup and various sauces, and these have to be set in an elegant set of ceramic ware. The same is true of the high-class table of the West, which incorporates a set of tableware of unified design along with cutlery that matches the tableware. Moreover, all of these elements are to be used according to set rules. The table setting of the Korean modern nation-state combines aspects of the traditional and Western styles but still abides by the overall rules and etiquettes of the high-class table. On the other hand, the general public’s table was far different from such elaborate settings, particularly during the time when food was scarce and the water/sewage systems were poor.

A contrast between the high-class and public tables is especially apparent in the tableware of the elite and that of the ordinary man; the high-class table featured tableware made of fragile ceramics or pottery while the tableware of the ordinary people’s table involved multiple types of bowls and dishes. Although brassware is infrangible, it takes too much time and energy for the people to keep clean for everyday use, thus, another material was essential for the cultivation of a hygienic lifestyle. Therefore, when stainless steel tableware, which was easy to keep clean, appeared on the market afterwards, the general public could finally have the standardized, ordered and hygienic table that modern society required! The system of mass production enabled all the people to use the uniform, standardized vessels and cutlets. The same can be said of the various mass-produced kitchenware made of plastic and other synthetic materials; everyone could live with a structured form of dietary life that could meet the nation-state’s criteria – as long as they kept those materials clean by using flour (when detergent was not popular). Here, I will not further discuss how much aesthetic sense we had lost through such a shift in tableware materials.

To raise essential questions again, does dietary life have to be hygienic? Is a hygienic table the right thing? Must the ‘right’ dietary life be a qualification for a citizen of the modern nation-state? According to the ‘right’ dietary standard of the nation-state, a disorganized, unclean table is a wrong table. Depending on the culture or customs, however, the etiquette and manners have completely different interpretations. By using an unclean bowl for oneself, one can show respect for one’s guest. In China, for example, bowls with cracked or broken rims would represent the host family’s abundance. An anthropologist Mary Douglas defined ‘dirt’ as ‘any matter considered out of place’ or something that is out of a given standard and determined that the border between cleanliness and dirt is grounded on modern rationalism. The blood of animals or women, considered unclean or profane in one culture, becomes a sacred symbol in another culture. Likewise, if we think beyond the criteria of modernity, the hygienic and unhygienic would be attributed with entirely different values. [8] Dipesh Chakrabarty, a historian well known for postcolonial theory, analyzes V S Naipaul’s description of Indian streets in India: A Million Mutinies Now (Calcutta) – a chaotic Indian streetscape where pedestrians and vehicles merge with one another and the people eat on piles of mixed garbage. [9] Chakrabarty interprets this description not simply as the Westerner’s view on the underdeveloped East, but as the language of modernity, a consciousness of the modern citizen and public health and an awareness of the aesthetic order related to the management of public space. [10]

Modernity does not tolerate the state of ambiguity where clean and dirty matters fuse together – the state of disorder. Thus, modernity constantly attempts to distinguish the two from each other. In order to maintain the hygiene of modern society, the city consistently separates the dirty from the clean and collects the former in one place; one of the most iconic places of this separation is the landfill. The Nanjido Landfill (currently the World Cup Park), Korea’s largest landfill of the 1980s-1990s, was an unsanitary landfill where garbage collectors dumped together all kinds of waste from electronic items to food. The garbage collectors, who sorted out the recyclable items in the garbage dump, remember the experience of eating wasted or leftover food in the landfill.

We found a lot of food in the field, especially in the winter. At first, eating things like watermelons was difficult, but later everyone tried to eat more. In winter, especially after the New Year’s holiday, we had sticky rice cakes, various pan-fried meats, seafood, vegetables, and pig heads that had been used in worship of the ancestors. During the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, we had a great amount of fabulous foods, which had been discarded at the athletes’ training centres. They just threw away whole packs of leftover foods. We ate as if we were in a feast (but we didn’t eat the foods that had fallen and broken apart). When we found the pigs’ heads or other meats, we cut them into pieces and barbequed them with the frozen sticky rice cakes that we had also attained. When it snowed during such feasts it was the most perfect, romantic scene ever. Wearing our garbage-collecting bags around our waists, we enjoyed real romance. We could do anything if only we had a portable stove. [11]

This is not an attempt to romanticize the living conditions of a poor environment. The act of traversing the modern social order that strictly distinguishes the clean from the dirty, of excavating the piles of the waste that had already been designated as abandoned, is a sort of de-/post-modern act that collapses the boundary – the boundary where we experience a sense of community (if it is not a purely manipulated memory of nostalgia). The modern concept of hygiene, which controls matters from cleanliness to aesthetic order, not only makes the nice and clean tableware or kitchenware the basis of sanitary dietary culture, but also controls even the right form of organic ingredients such as vegetables. Blemished fruits or oversized, bumpy vegetables are not right for commercial regulations because they are wrong in terms of hygiene and aesthetic order. Thus, some farmers make a frame that forces crops to grow in certain standardized forms from the beginning. Now even natural products are controlled by standards for an increased commercial value. The relationship among cleanliness, hygiene and conventional beauty is, as such, grounded on the modern concept of order, which demarcates the clean to the right and the dirty to the wrong. Dirt is assumed to threaten the social order. However, there is a sense of community and sharing at the heart of dietary life, which may overcome the order of cleanliness and sanitation, and here the eating and cooking tools – the supporting instruments for those activities – are rendered in the form available under the given circumstances. In this context, I propose to reinterpret Louis Sullivan’s maxim “form follows function” into “form follows the most optimal function available under the current socio-economic situation (content and environment).”


Jeong Hye Kim
PhD candidate in Architectural History and Theory
The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

Originally published in the exhibition catalog of ‘맛 MA:T’ (taste)
The Korea Foundation, in Seoul (2015) and New York City (2016)


1. Cheol-woon Kim, “Modern Transfiguration of Moral Training: The Individual Confined by the State,” A Collection of Philosophy Treatises (Saehan Philosophy Association) Vol. 2, No. 48 (2007), p. 140.
2. Ibid., pp. 144-146.
3. Textbook for Moral Education I; The Korea Daily News clearly remarked that the ultimate purpose of fostering new citizen is “to preserve the nation’s own merits and selectively adopt the foreign cultures” (“Civilization and Military Force,” The Korea Daily News (Daehan Maeil Shinbo, 1904-1910) [February 19, 1910]; Mi-sook Goh, The Korean Modernity [Seoul: Bookworld, 2001], p. 114).
4. Middle School Textbook for Moral Training I, Ch. 9 “Food and Healthcare” and Ch. 12 “Cleanness”; Cheol-woon Kim, p. 147.
5. Textbook for Moral Training IV, Ch. 5 “Hygiene”; Cheol-woon Kim, p. 148.
6. High School Textbook for Moral Training, Ch. 48 “Body,” p. 34; Cheol-woon Kiim, p. 150.
7. High School Textbook for Moral Training, Ch. 49 “Pureness,” p. 34; Cheol-woon Kiim, p. 148.
8. Refer to Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976 [1966]), Ch. 1 and 2.
9. V S Naipaul, India: A Million Mutinies Now (Calcutta), pp. 1-2.
10. Dipesh Chakrabarty claims that this perception is not simply ‘western,’ but the language of modern governments, both colonial and post-colonial, and of modernist nationalist (Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Of Garbage, Modernity and the Citizen’s Gaze,’ Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 27, No. 10/11 [March 1992], pp. 541-547).
11. Interview with nun Magdalena who lived for approximately three years in Nanjido in the late 1980s (August 26, 2014).


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