Are Koreans…? Part 1: history, genetics, and physiology
I spent some time playing with Google’s auto-suggest for the phrase, “Are Koreans…?”. As usually happens when you play around with auto-suggest, it revealed that most people searching the internet are breathtakingly ignorant, and preoccupied with sex. Which means, I suppose, that people generally are breathtakingly ignorant and preoccupied with sex.
But the questions did seem to cluster around certain topics, and I found those clusters interesting. Assuming that these are really the questions people have about Koreans, I will attempt to answer them from my perspective as a foreigner living in Korea.
Despite the jaw-dropping ignorance of many of the questions, I will try to answer them seriously. A warning, though – the nature of questions beginning with “Are Koreans…” calls for racial generalizations. Some people are uncomfortable with any suggestion that any group of people, even as a generalization, are intrinsically different from any other group. For some people this is an ideological position so strong that they are uncomfortable even with self-evidently true statements such as “People from Europe have, on average, lighter skin than people from Africa.” If that statement, indisputably true, makes you nervous, you should stop reading now. It will get a lot worse than that.
I will try to draw reasoned conclusions from evidence, but some questions can only be answered with a personal opinion, and where I do that, I’ll make it clear that it my opinion, and no more than that. Secondly, I should note that the idea of “race” is dubious at best – when I use the word “Koreans” here, I am talking about people living in the Republic of Korea, and in some cases the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, who are not immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.
Finally, a blanket disclaimer: Koreans, individually, are short and tall, beautiful and ugly, brilliant and incredibly stupid, kind-tempered and ornery, fat and thin. Generalizations are just that, and may or may not be true for any individual.
Almost half of the questions relate to Korean genetics and physiology, so I’ll deal with those in Part 1, because this has turned out much longer than I expected. Part 2, dealing with Korean sexuality, culture, and other random queries, will follow.
- 1 Racial origins
- 2 Appearance (hotness)
- 3 Appearance (other aspects)
As can be seen from the above questions, a lot of people want to know where the Korean people came from. Either that, or people are hopelessly geographically confused. Yes: Korea is in Asia.
To deal with the last question first – the idea of racial “purity” is dangerous and non-sensical. There is no Crufts or American Kennel Club for human beings. Genetic studies of various populations consistently show two things about human beings: we (men more than women) like to travel, and like to have sex with the natives when we do so. (You can ask MBC about that one.) There is no such thing as a “pure” race.
There is, however, a valid related concept called a genetically homogeneous population, which is a population of comparatively limited genetic diversity, caused by a small founder group and a relative lack of outbreeding. Iceland, for instance, is often given as an example of a genetically homogeneous population.
The genetic evidence for Korea is unsurprising – yes, it is a relatively homogeneous population. According to this study, which looked at Korean diversity on the Y chromosome (which is what those wandering males leave behind), all of Korea is pretty homogeneous, with the exception of Jeju-do.* *Thinking about Korean Y chromosomes, I wondered if there was any correlation between Korean family names and Y chromosome haplotypes. Turns out somebody did a study on this, to see if it would be useful for forensic work. “Hmm, this is definitely Kim blood. Sergeant – release all the Parks and Lees.” Turns out it is completely useless – apparently Koreans have been screwing around for so long that family names and Y chromosomes are hopelessly mixed up. Not surprising, as it is an island quite some distance from the mainland.
So, where did Koreans come from? The genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence is pretty consistent. Koreans came to the peninsular in several waves, starting in paleolithic times, from Altaic or proto-Altaic speaking tribes of the Altai Mountains and Baikal lake – in other words, Mongolia and Siberia. The origins of the Japanese are somewhat more diverse, but it seems likely that a substantial number of early migrants to Japan came via the same route, and also directly via Korea. So, the Japanese are descended partly from Koreans, which probably irritates them no end.
Koreans are, however, quite genetically distinct from Southern Chinese, and related to Northern Chinese only due to some population movements of Altaic peoples into Northern China. Koreans are very distinct from Austronesian people, a population originating (probably) in Taiwan in pre-historic times that spread to much of South-East Asia.
So – Koreans are related to Mongolians (most closely)(or not – see this comment), Manchurians, and the Japanese. They are not very related to Southern Chinese, Vietnamese, or any other population in South-West Asia.
Are Koreans prettier than Japanese? Are Koreans the best looking Asians? Are Koreans beautiful? Cute? Ugly? (My favourite): Are Koreans really that good looking?
This is a tough one to answer objectively. People like different things. There are some universal standards of human beauty, but unsurprisingly there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research into different races’ conformity to those universal standards. Thus I am in the strange position of trying to give a subjective opinion on whether or not Koreans conform to universal standards of beauty. That said – I’ll give it a shot.
First, the sex-independent universal standards of human beauty. To my eyes, Koreans seem to have a high degree of facial symmetry. Other universal characteristics include youthfulness, skin clarity and smoothness, and “vivid color” in eyes and hair. Well – they vary among Koreans, as they do among most people. Many Koreans have beautiful skin; on the other hand, adult acne is also pretty common.
I did actually find some studies measuring proportionate leg length amongst different races – who researches these things? – unfortunately, none of them specifically looked at Koreans. My observation is that compared to other Asians, Koreans have relatively long legs, but not so long as some African peoples.
Regarding attributes of female beauty, Koreans, like other Asians, are distinctly neotenous – a retention of child-like physical qualities into adulthood – which is generally regarded as attractive in women. Less so in men.
As for guys, in their prime a lot of them seem to have V-shaped mesomorphic torsos with narrow waists, considered a universal sign of male attractiveness, and they’re taller than any other Asian people by an inch-and-a-half, on average. On the other hand, they don’t generally have the high-testosterone facial qualities that are supposedly universally attractive to women – “broad forehead, relatively longer lower face, prominent chin and brow”. That Asian neoteny…
Writing this, it feels absolutely ridiculous. OK – in a bar debate, I would argue for Korean women as the best-looking women in Asia. I like their cheekbones, and legs, and I like their eyes when they haven’t been sprung open by double-eyelid surgery. Compared to Japanese women, they have longer noses; compared to South-East Asian women, they tend to have more prominent cheekbones and more defined noses. It’s only a personal opinion. I know other people who find Koreans’ faces too flat and who prefer South-East Asian women. I’ve never met a foreign guy who found Korean women unattractive. By limiting the comparisons to Asian women, I’m not being struck by yellow fever, but trying to say whether Korean women are more attractive than Brazilian or Russian, or whatever nationality you think has the hottest women, seems to take this even further into absurdity than it already is.
Foreign women, on the other hand, seem more divided on Korean men – some like them, others find them too feminine. Not being personally inclined that way, I don’t really have an opinion.
Really, these questions are unanswerable, except for the somewhat plaintive final one: “Are Koreans really that good looking?” I presume that whoever is googling this has watched too many Korean dramas and K-pop groups. The answer: of course not. Some are beautiful, some are plain. I like this quote from the recent New Yorker article on K-pop, on this point:
Where K-pop stars excel is in sheer physical beauty. Their faces, chiselled, sculpted, and tapering to a sharp point at the chin, Na’vi style, look strikingly different from the flat, round faces of most Koreans. Some were born with this bone structure, no doubt, but many can look this way only with the help of plastic surgery.
Appearance (other aspects)
Are Koreans naturally skinny? Are Koreans anorexic?
From what I’ve seen of Korean-Australians and Korean-Americans, Koreans are not “naturally” skinny. The Korean diet is inherently balanced and low in meat; also, the social pressure to be thin is extreme. For one thing, the Western cultural restriction on commenting negatively on another person’s physical appearance doesn’t exist here – people will happily tell their friends and work colleagues that they look fat.
The question “Are Koreans anorexic” is interesting to me. My observation of Korean culture is that it encourages a relentless perfectionism, which is a personality trait associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders such as anorexia. I’ve had a few students who showed definite OCD symptoms, but what is the actual prevalence of anorexia in Korea? It is also interesting because it speaks to the much-debated question of whether anorexia nervosa is a disease of cultural hysteria brought about by media attention to the disease, or whether it is culture-independent.
It’s hard to find journal articles on the incidence of anorexia nervosa in Korea, but fortunately for me Eating in Asia blog has done the work for me, properly sourced and everything: incidence of anorexia in Korea is about the same as Western countries, and seems to be culture independent. The data is, however, pretty slim, at least in English.
Are Koreans naturally tan? Naturally pale?
Koreans range from as pale as a red-headed Scottish girl to a milk coffee colour. Face-whitening creams and makeup are extremely common for Korean women.
Are Koreans getting taller?
Yes. The height gap between Koreans who grew up in the post-war period and twenty-something Koreans is incredible.
Are Koreans lactose intolerant?
Lactose tolerance is interesting. It’s a recent emergence in human evolution, strongly correlated with the spread of dairying cultures. So if you come from a culture that liked to drink milk 5-10,000 years ago, you can probably tolerate lactose. If you don’t, you probably can’t.
Lactose intolerance amongst Chinese is about 95%, and about the same for Japanese people. But hey, remember those Mongolians that begat the Koreans? Apparently the Mongolians liked to drink mare’s milk. And so – as best I can tell – Koreans are more lactose tolerant than their neighbours. I found it hard to find reliable statistics on lactose intolerance amongst Koreans, apart from this paper on lactose intolerance in Korean school children, which shows a moderate but comparatively low incidence of intolerance. As lactose intolerance increases with age, it would be wrong to extrapolate from this that Koreans are generally lactose tolerant, but what information I could find did suggest that Koreans were on average more lactose tolerant than other East Asians – not including the Mongolians, with their wacky horse-milk drinking ways.
Are all Koreans single eyelid?
No. The best reference I could find, unfortunately unsourced and not too reliable, is this plastic surgery clinic which puts the percentage of single eyelids for Koreans at 80%, compared to about 50% for Chinese people. Based on my informal survey of my elementary school students, I think this is a bit high. I’d guess it more about 60/40.
Of course, in some places in Korea, such as Gangnam, the incidence of of double eyelids amongst Korean women is much higher.