Understand Han, and you’re finally on your way to understanding the Korean people.
I had a look on wikipedia for reference and found an interesting quote from a theologian, stating that Han is “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.”
There are some words in Korean that do not have direct translations to any other language. The closest translation is 恨 (hèn) in traditional Chinese. This character was the result of an approximation that old scholars used, since Korea had yet to develop its own writing system.
As far as I understand, 恨 in China has come to mean something closer to hatred, animosity, or resentment in modern times; the contemporary definition differs enough from the spirit of Korean “Han” to be considered misleading.
What exactly is Han?
Han is a difficult thing to explain but it is one of the major concepts that, when understood, would explain so much of what makes Korean people so “Korean” to outsiders.
Han is a culture that is taught not directly as a lessson to Korean children but is absorbed as part of the culture.
It is generally accepted that every Korean fosters a Han on behalf of the nation and the people as a collective, but also harbour personal Han from life experience.
Ever since I was a child, I can remember my mum always telling me that South Korea was a small isolated nation with few natural resources and that we had to fight and scrap for anything that we will get; in hindsight, for someone who moved to a predominantly white country at a young age, both the overt and the passive racism that I experienced probably tempered and also complicated my personal Han in many ways.
This sense of shared injustice probably has fed into another cultural aspect of Koreans, the Jeong that we feel for our homeland and for people who share our ancestry. It’s the basis why Koreans seem to typically “stick to our own kind” when studying or living abroad.
It’s a type of bond that makes people empty out their own personal wealth to pay for national debt when the government goes bankrupt… even in the late 1990s. That’s a subject I will cover in the future.
Why so dramatic?
There are many nations, many peoples, many cultures that suffer inhuman, barbaric and chronic injustices, so why do Koreans make it the centre of their psyche?
Sure, we were treated worse than animals while we were occupied and colonized by Japan, solely based on our nation of origin. We had our family names and national treasures stolen from us. We had our fair share of invasions and enslavement… but many other nations have had similar if not worse experiences.
I think what sets the Koreans apart is how hierarchy formed the backbone of and still continues to shape of society. Meritocracy is still dependent on the bending of the knee to a superior, bowing to one’s seniors no matter what the circumstances; it is a system that disallows certain types of social leapfrogging in almost any form.
The feelings of Han is rooted in a frustrated, unfulfilled state of helplessness against something too powerful to successfully overcome. So naturally it is more wholly fulfilled with the injustice committed by a superior agent, one who is beyond the reach of the wronged, than with the injustices committed by an equal or lesser. With this hierarchy system so ingrained into Korean society and tacitly accepted as the immovable status quo even by those who resent it, you can begin to see that any Korean social institution and every person within them are under the influence of Han.
Simply put, the Korean psyche begins with a deep-seated sense of grief and grievance that we have been somehow served injustices or live under the constant injustices of a powerful agent.
If that injustice somehow takes on a human form, like in the recent presidential scandal involving Choi Soonshil’s exploitation of businesses and institutions, Koreans have no problem marching out and protesting for weeks on end.
We are talking about allegedly 30% of the national population coming out to protest peacefully in the middle of the capital city, without a single arrest or criminal activity among the demonstrators. These events happened not because we want to score political points and take sides, but because we believed, as a nation, that a living embodiment of the great injustices had emerged and that we were the noble and just underdogs confronting it.
Han is a large part of what feeds the Korean people their feeling of entitlement to justice.
Han, the collective spirit
I’ve seen people attribute so many of the stereotypical Korean actions to Han. Even if you spend a day with a group of Koreans, you would see the begging for forgiveness, lamentation of injustices and outbursts of frustration.
Seeing this as simply loud complaining or negativity will only frustrate a foreigner because attributing those actions to the familiar will result in Koreans still being somehow unpredictable.
Korea will forgive people for great wrongs or demand retribution for the smallest of slights based on the shared conscious Han. They will groan and swear under their breath while completing a task and moving on to another while at work. It is almost unnatural for someone doing serious work to be seen to be happy at work, since work is supposed to taking part in bearing a cross that you and your colleagues all bear together.
This shared conscious cultural process is why Koreans will understand emotional outbursts from other Koreans, while foreigners and tourists may find emotional outbursts among Koreans of all social backgrounds completely unpredictable, or too dramatic to be justified.
Even the exchange students and native English language teachers are likely to find such expressions difficult to relate with because Han very much depends on the Han of the moment, factors that are unseen below the surface that can be sensed more quickly and accurately by someone who shares that consciousness of Han.
Korea is a tiny region that suffered as a vassal, a battleground, slave provider, colony and whatever else to nations and kingdoms more powerful itself, many times over. We were a poor nation with a life expectancy of 23 in 1908 (that’s not a typo), ignored by the League of Nations as Japan finally destroyed our status as an independent country, was torn apart in a civil war driven by the world’s two superpowers…
If I told you now that national Han shared similarities with grudges in that Han was additive and cumulated over time, you can imagine that the accumulated Han for the Korean people is incredibly intense and reasons numerous.
The slightest trigger could spark a self-feeding cycle of a feeling of injustice that can make a Korean display an intense outburst of emotions. For many, the safety release valve that tempers some of this is to share a drink with another person to talk freely about each others’ own Han.
You may have seen “going out to drink together for the first time” being referenced on variety shows and drama, but a this social is not just an activity for mutual social enjoyment but a referring to an expected to the forming of a symbolic bond.
As someone who has lived in both Korea and the UK as an adult, I can tell you that this is much less “I want to have a beer with that guy” and more “I would like us to trust each other without false pretenses”.
This sharing of emotions is so intense that one evening and six bottles of soju are often enough to convince two people that they will henceforth be inseparable brothers (or sisters). Maybe you’re beginning to see why Koreans supposedly “drink so often”.
My first compliment at work by a senior was when I finally snapped over the phone at a colleague from a different department, admittedly won the argument and slammed the phone down and swore in Korean.
Odd but I have incorporated that mindset into other parts of my life and it has definitely brought people much closer to me. I sense what those around me are tacitly dissatisfied with and emulate how I think that mood would make a native Korean feel.
I have honestly come to the conclusion that Korean people don’t want to be around other people who are perfectly at peace all the time. They are conscious of their own human emotional imbalances and find someone who has Han to be more relatable. Yes, a positive person, a Dalai Lama is lauded and praised as a breath of fresh air, but Han never seems to go away.
I’ve come to learn that for some, hearing others lamenting about the present is somehow reassuring. Perhaps they want to know that they aren’t the only ones suffering injustices in life, finding a brother or sister in the suffering.
[Stay tuned for Part II, where we will be covering what Han has meant for modern society, and why I think it will be an ironic roadblock preventing Korea from becoming the great nation it aspires to be]