Whatever age they are or location they live in, all Koreans instinctively know the sound of Arirang – the country’s most famous folk song and its unofficial national anthem.

While there are thousands of slight variations of it across the regions, the current standard version is known as Seoul Arirang/Gyeonggi Arirang. It has been sung in some variation for more than 600 years, in both North and South Korea. The composer of the song and lyrics are unknown, but it’s thought to have been sung by ordinary people working in the fields and farms in the past. The lyrics generally tell the story of someone crossing a mountain pass. There’s still a lot of theories over where the song came from and what it represents, but it stirs the emotions of Koreans whenever and wherever it is performed.

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Arirang is very present in modern culture. There’s an English-language TV station named after it, and the song is often performed by idols. Here’s BTS, SHINee and more performing an Arirang remix at KCON France 2016.

Olympic champion skater Kim Yuna skated to the song in 2011.

Two vastly differing movies have been named Arirang as well: Arirang (1926) is a black and white movie that tells the story of a troubled family in Korea under Japanese rule. Arirang (2011) is a documentary film by Kim Ki-duk looking back on his film career.


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British writer and editor living in Japan. Currently studying Japanese, Korean, K-pop dance, and the fine form of 이성종's legs.