Han

Hwabyeong

Han is a concept in Korean culture attributed as a national cultural trait. Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of overwhelming odds. It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.

The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a ‘feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.’ In some occasions, anthropologists have recognized han as a culture-specific medical condition whose symptoms include shortness of breath, heart palpitation, and dizziness. Someone who dies of han is said to have died of ‘hwabyeong’ (‘anger illness’ or ‘fire illness’).

Some scholars theorize the concept of Han evolved from Korea’s history of having been invaded by other neighboring nations, such as the Mongols, the Chinese, and the Japanese. Others attribute han to class system strictures, such as the distinction between the elite Yangban class and the peasants. Han permeates Korean cultural expression, for example, in Korean shamanism and Pansori (a genre of Korean traditional music). Japanese scholar Kimura claims that modern history such as the liberation by the surrender of Japan to the Allies rather than to the Korean Liberation Army, the Korean War and the subsequent division of the nation also contribute to the culture as missing glorious history and unresolved han.

In Korean American literary works (e.g., ‘Dictee’ by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, ‘The Language of Blood’ by Jane Jeong Trenka, ‘Notes from the Divided Country’ by Suji Kwock Kim, ‘Comfort Woman’ by Nora Okja Keller) Americans of Korean descent are sometimes portrayed as experiencing ‘Americanized’ or second-generational han.

Han is frequently translated as sorrow, spite, rancor, regret, resentment or grief, among many other attempts to explain a concept that has no English equivalent. Han is an inherent characteristic of the Korean character and as such finds expression, implied or explicit, in nearly every aspect of Korean life and culture. Han is sorrow caused by heavy suffering, injustice or persecution, a dull lingering ache in the soul. It is a blend of lifelong sorrow and resentment, neither more powerful than the other. Han is imbued with resignation, bitter acceptance and a grim determination to wait until vengeance can at last be achieved. Han is passive. It yearns for vengeance, but does not seek it. Han is held close to the heart, hoping and patient but never aggressive. It becomes part of the blood and breath of a person. There is a sense of lamentation and even of reproach toward the destiny that led to such misery.

Korean poet Ko Eun describes the trait as universal to the Korean experience: ‘We Koreans were born from the womb of Han and brought up in the womb of Han.’ Han connotes both despair at recognition of past injustice and acceptance of such matters as part of the Korean experience.

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