Buying Chemyeon: The Commodification of Face in Korea

Buying Chemyeon: The Commodification of Face in Korea

. 4 min read

An 18-year-old celebrates her high school graduation with a double eyelid surgery; a couple hires ‘fake friends’ to attend their wedding; an ordinary citizen lives off instant noodles for weeks to save money for a Chanel bag. Although these scenes could occur anywhere, they are especially prevalent in South Korea, which is known to heavily feature materialism and consumerism in its economy. While one from the West may find it difficult to imagine such practices being a regularity, they are equally common and unsurprising to any Korean citizen, with chemyeon (social face) being a significant reason as to why.

Chemyeon: The Tie That Binds

Chemyeon (체면) is characterized as an individual’s social face and represents the “external expression of one’s inner nature;” the notion of “saving face” signifies presenting a face that maintains social acceptability. The concept is deeply rooted in Confucianism, which is built on collectivism and emphasizes harmony within communities. To uphold order in society, individuals must be especially conscious of their behavior toward others, and the evaluations others have of them regardless of how they think of themselves. As such, chemyeon is heavily tied to morality and ability, two key pillars contributing to social status. Losing chemyeon induces a strong sense of shame among Koreans, which heavily contributes to the culture of comparing oneself to others and fearing negative evaluation.

Although chemyeon is far from a new concept in Korea, the meteoric rise of its economy since the Korean War has made it commodifiable in ways it was not before. Besides having a respectable job and successful family, individuals are now able to buy their way to better clothes, social networks, and bodies, which serves to flaunt disposable income and improve one’s standing among others. This behavior is reinforced by the strength of the ‘growth mindset’ in Korea, which posits that anything and everything about oneself can be improved with time and effort. As such, chemyeon-boosting industries are thriving in Korea where demand is at an all-time high.

The Marketplace for Commodified Chemyeon

One way to maintain chemyeon is to buy and wear myongpoom (명품)—prestigious brand-name luxury goods. Koreans currently exhibit the most spending per capita in the world on luxury goods, and brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel are particularly sought after for their reputability and visible demarcation of logos. Expectedly, this is likely due to the need for citizens to conform and keep up with neighbors along with the ability to outwardly demonstrate wealth as explanations of this trend. This trend is unique to Korea: only 5 percent of Koreans see myongpoom as wasted spending, which is 5 to 10 percent less than other developed nations; additionally, 22 percent of Koreans view “showing off luxury goods [as] bad taste,” which is markedly lower than the 38 percent of Chinese and 45 percent of Japanese, two other Confucian societies with consumerist economies. Culturally, items like Chanel bags and Rolex watches have gone so far as to become staples in wedding gifts between couples and their families.

Chanel handbags are a commonly coveted item among Korean women. "Close-up of a Black Leather Handbag" by Karography.

The overwhelming demand for myongpoom has spawned a wide availability of counterfeit items, which can be afforded at a fraction of the prices of their authentic counterparts. However, the social consequences of getting exposed can be catastrophic. In 2022, reality show Single’s Inferno contestant Song Ji-a sparked outrage when fans discovered that she was wearing and flexing fake designer clothing. Fans demanded a public apology for the facade, while various TV shows cut her cameos, and celebrities she had met took down their photos from social media. To the public, this was more than an act of inauthenticity; it was a deliberate deception of public perception with cheated chemyeon.

Another method to improve one’s chemyeon revolves around Korea’s world-renowned plastic surgery industry. Korea is home to the most cosmetic surgeons per capita and performs around a million surgeries annually. Popular operations such as double eyelid surgery and nose jobs are generally viewed no more harshly than a haircut; around a third of women between 19 to 39 have gone under the knife at least once. It is common for young women to be gifted with these surgeries by their parents after graduation, some of whom even urge their children to get worked on in order to help with job prospects and social success at school. Much of this sentiment is tied to the belief that one’s appearance is changeable with the proper means, and doing so is not just for oneself but for the betterment of the community as well.

Double eyelid surgery is the most popular cosmetic surgery in Korea. "Double-eyelid Surgery: Before and After" by Yukari Tanaka is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Commodified chemyeon goes beyond just designer clothes, plastic surgery, and other material goods. For instance, Korea has a long list of wedding guest rental service agencies, which allows couples to rent guests as paid actors to prop up their social network and community for their wedding. Lee Hyun-su, who runs Role Rental 1-1-9, has taken this a step further and utilizes his catalog of 20,000 actors to stand in for any real-life situation. To some, faking such occasions to save face in front of family and friends brings about far less shame than an unimpressive social interaction.

Respecting the Circumstances

Just because the consumerist culture surrounding chemyeon is rampant does not mean that this aligns with every individual’s thoughts and beliefs. While many do attribute feelings of improved confidence, freedom, and hope to these items, others report the opposite. Some citizens feel suffocating pressure to flaunt more than they really have just to maintain respect from others, and the “Escape the Corset” feminist movement strikes against beauty standards in Korea. While such discourse and activism are steady, industries related to chemyeon nevertheless continue to thrive and expand.

Although some casual observers of Korean society may be quick to dismiss its obsessions with luxury goods and plastic surgery as ‘fake’ or ‘superficial,’ like any other society, it is built upon a unique history and operates under its own distinct fundamental beliefs and values. Ultimately, it is up to the Korean people to steer chemyeon, and the commodification that comes with it, in the direction that best aligns with their society.