If there is a topic that has been in the news lately and is becoming more important, that has to be about the face mask, a piece of cloth or other material that covers and conceals what is the most crucial and visible part of the body.
As fear about the deadly new coronavirus, or COVID-19, spreads across the world, surging demand for face masks protecting against the respiratory disease has emptied store shelves and sometimes led to exorbitant price hikes.
While evidence that these masks shield against infection is scant, people find them reassuring because it can work as a physical barrier against droplets released through coughing or sneezing, which is the principal way the virus is transmitted.
In East Asian countries like Korea, wearing a face mask has been encouraged to the point of it becoming a daily necessity for myriads of men and women. For them, a mask is not just a mask, but a symbol of safety and protection.
But historical records suggest that Korean people’s motivation for sporting these masks is not limited to disease prevention. Masks have been worn due to cultural values, social pressure, civic duty, self-expression and politics.
A form of mask wearing was found as early as in the Joseon Dynasty, the last and longest-lived imperial dynasty on the Korean peninsula, which lasted over 500 years from 1392.
With deep-rooted Confucian traditions playing a significant role in the status of Korean women at the time, who were subject to rigorous standards of feminine modesty and chastity, most Joseon women were required to hide their faces with an outer garment and keep distance from men whenever they left the house. Different garments were used to identify a woman’s social status – for example, the “jangot” for the bureaucratic and noble class and the “ssuge chima” for the lower class.
Modern-looking, surgical masks frequently appeared in street images of the 1970s and '80s, when South Korea witnessed the biggest outpouring of popular protest in its history, which helped to bring down the dictatorships of military leaders and led to the emergence of democracy in the country.
Violent clashes erupted as riot police in Darth Vader masks lobbed tear gas shells at students who resorted to rocks and makeshift firebombs. Reports suggest these young protesters wore face masks to make the tear gas a little bit more bearable.
“There is a widely-seen photograph in which Yonsei University student Lee Han-yeol, who was fatally wounded by a tear gas canister during the June Democratic Uprising, was being embraced by his friend whose face was covered with a mask,” said Shim Jae-Mahn, an associate professor of sociology at Korea University.
At the time, these masks were sold at pharmacies under the name of “banghandae,” or body warmer, as there were not enough supplies to deal with the cold and these masks could act as a protective barrier to winter winds.
Three decades later, in 2015, huge anti-government protests once again rocked Korea, with hundreds of thousands of Koreans demanding the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye, who was embroiled in a scandal for allegedly leaking state documents and illegally raising funds from businesses.
Week after week, the protesters poured onto a major boulevard in downtown Seoul. They came wearing different kinds of masks, ranging from life-size cardboard cutouts of the president’s face to those of the Incredible Hulk, even though Park had called for a ban on them by comparing masked protesters to the Islamic State members.
“In the early days of protest, when everyone was confused about whether to ask for the president's resignation or an apology, all the people who had gathered at Gwanghwamun Square wore masks,” Shim said. “In just a week or two, the crowd grew to more than 200,000, and what people did was start taking off masks and posting pictures of themselves on social media.”
For Korean protesters, Shim said masks were meant to display a message against certain government actions and give a sense of belonging to an activist movement. They were also used to avoid tracking and unfavorable treatment by the police.
In recent years, the ubiquitous, white face masks have borne a new meaning in the face of air pollution and infectious diseases like the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Influenza A (H1N1), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and of course the COVID-19. Now, they are a sign of health awareness and civic duty as well as an expression of politeness, hospitality and gratitude to other people.
“I think the mask is the intersection where the individual meets the society,” Shim said. “It appears in not all situations where the two meet but when it does appear, the society poses a threat to the individual.”
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