Sunday, April 2, 2023
HomePhilosophyTowards ‘han’, or why Koreans usually are not outlined by disappointment

Towards ‘han’, or why Koreans usually are not outlined by disappointment


As a Korean resident of the US, I’ve been each amazed and bewildered by the latest success of Korean fashionable tradition within the nation. Once I first got here to the US within the mid-Eighties, regardless of South Korea’s vital financial advances of the earlier a long time, most Individuals I met nonetheless had the impression of my homeland as an impoverished third-world nation that made low cost however shabby items, typically inserting it in Southeast Asia, and generally complicated it with Vietnam.

However now, my college students on the Midwestern college the place I educate pay attention avidly to Ok-pop music (I nonetheless get startled after I activate the radio to a neighborhood station and listen to the singing of Korean lyrics), whereas lots of my American pals are enthusiastic shoppers of Ok-dramas. In 2020, the Korean movie Parasite (2019) was nominated for six Academy Awards, out of which it received 4, together with Greatest Image, the primary foreign-language movie to take action. Within the following 12 months, a film about Korean Individuals in Eighties Arkansas, Minari (2020), was additionally nominated for six awards, with the veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung, a well-recognized determine to South Koreans, profitable Greatest Supporting Actress. In 2021, the tv present Squid Sport turned the most-watched programme on Netflix within the US and in lots of different international locations. I personally could have benefited from this growth in a modest method, because the Penguin Classics version of my translation of the Joseon dynasty novel The Story of Hong Gildong (2016) – the narrative of an outlaw hero corresponding to Robin Hood, and the topic of a lot of movies and Ok-dramas – offered surprisingly properly, and have become required studying in lots of faculty and high-school courses.

These works have elevated curiosity in Korean tradition usually, creating alternatives for Korean American writers to emerge as explicators of all issues Korean. Of their writings, the idea of han (한) has been invoked as essential to understanding the Korean character, in addition to its tradition and artwork. A supposedly untranslatable time period, it denotes a uniquely Korean sense of profound sorrow, remorse, resentment, rage and different adverse feelings which are all sure up inside a person in addition to the folks as a complete. It has been claimed that fashionable Koreans inherited it from deep custom, as a collective emotional reminiscence of their ancestors’ experiences of historic traumas, together with many overseas invasions all through the centuries. Han has continuously been talked about within the US media too.

An early instance is a 2003 episode of the TV present The West Wing that’s titled ‘Han’, involving a visiting North Korean pianist who seeks to defect to the US. When thwarted from the course, the present explains, he’s crammed with han, ‘a disappointment so deep that no tears can come’. The late Anthony Bourdain, in his cooking and journey present Elements Unknown (2013-18), stated that ‘To take a peek into the darkish coronary heart of the Korean psyche … it helps to get acquainted with han … [it’s a] idea that for non-Koreans could be tough to completely grasp.’ The idea was additionally invoked in journal evaluations of Parasite and Squid Sport, although the phrase was by no means used instantly.

When interpreters of Korean cultural merchandise corresponding to movies and TV reveals point out han, they’re referring to the works’ intense emotionality, particularly the emotions of sorrow, remorse, resentment and rage related to the idea. Parasite, as an illustration, begins with a household of swindlers who goal a wealthy household, however their plot turns lethal with the explosion of seething anger from class resentment. Squid Sport options the unhappy desperation of individuals whose lives are in such shambles that they willingly danger dying in a sequence of sadistic video games for a slim likelihood at salvation. Amongst different fashionable Korean movies, one may level to the sorrow and rage of the inexplicably imprisoned man in Oldboy (2003), the abused and traumatised spouse in Girl Vengeance (2005), the colonial topics having to humble themselves earlier than their Japanese masters and their collaborators in The Handmaiden (2016), and the poor youth who loses the lady he likes to a wealthy man in Burning (2018).

Seen from the angle of han, such feelings appear to be the widespread theme working all through all of the works. That notion is a questionable one, but, as a result of han has develop into the unavoidable go-to time period in explicating all issues Korean, you will need to discover its precise origin and meanings. And it’s finally essential to ask whether or not it’s certainly a helpful time period in understanding Korean tradition.

For a lot of the twentieth century, han has performed a major function within the self-definition of Koreans. It turned a very vital cultural idea beginning within the Sixties when South Korea launched into a concerted effort to beat the tragedies of the latest previous: colonisation by the Empire of Japan from 1910 to 1945; the compelled division of the nation into North and South following the defeat of Japan within the Second World Warfare; and the devastation of the Korean Warfare (1950-53). Even after South Korea took its place on the worldwide stage as an rising financial powerhouse, the stigma of han remained. Han not solely pointed to all of the sorrow and rage from the traumas inflicted on the folks by the historic occasions, but in addition described the distinctive methods by which they carried and handled the experiences. In the end, han got here to indicate a form of Korean exceptionalism outlined by power and resilience within the face of inherent disappointment and ache.

The trope of han took highly effective maintain of the Korean creativeness. Within the cultural realm, main literary figures such because the novelist Pak Kyongni (1926-2008) and the poet Ko Un (1933-), amongst many others, claimed han to be the central aesthetic precept in Korean artwork and literature, relevant even to fashionable media merchandise corresponding to TV dramas and movie. When explaining the time period to non-Koreans, it turned commonplace to insist that one couldn’t perceive the folks with out comprehending han, whereas additionally claiming that solely a Korean may actually grasp it.

The affect of han reached a pinnacle with the discharge of the movie Seopyeonje (1993) by the celebrated director Im Kwon-taek, about practitioners of the normal singing/storytelling artwork of pansori, a piece replete with the aesthetics of han. The film was a home blockbuster, the highest-grossing movie as much as that point, nevertheless it additionally proved to be the final hurrah of han’s cultural significance.

The concept of han has undergone a major decline in cultural significance in South Korea itself

When a cultural concept is transmitted from a rustic (South Korea) to emigrants from that place to a different land (Korean Individuals), there’s an inevitable lag in addition to a translation course of that generally ends in distortions. This typically happens throughout generations, when a notion is handed all the way down to those that usually are not fluent within the language of their ancestry. The case of han supplies instance of this course of.

Lately, many Korean Individuals have taken up the thought to outline their id and describe their life experiences and heritage. They are saying han explains Korean character and tradition in mainstream media. And the idea reveals up continuously in fiction written by Korean Individuals, most just lately in Patricia Park’s novel Re Jane (2015), which reimagines the story of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) in up to date New York Metropolis with a Korean American protagonist. Within the work, the ‘untranslatable’ han is characterised as the feeling of a ‘fiery anguish roiling within the blood, the results of being wronged’. In Jay Caspian Kang’s nonfiction e book The Loneliest Individuals (2021), on the standing of Asian Individuals in US society and tradition, han is described as a ‘Korean situation by which the convinces himself that the world has turned its again on him…’

But few Korean Individuals appear conscious that the thought of han has undergone a major decline in cultural significance in South Korea itself because the late Nineteen Nineties, now to the purpose of irrelevance. With the achievement of prosperity and democracy, the notion of an important character outlined by a profound sorrow from trauma and unrealised potential now not appears applicable. In fact, the folks of the nation expertise financial disparity, as brilliantly allegorised in Parasite and Squid Sport, and gender inequality, as excruciatingly detailed in Cho Nam-Joo’s controversial feminist novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (2016; English translation 2020). They’re cognizant of the countless disaster scenario with North Korea, together with quality-of-life points stemming from the aggressive, workaholic tradition (generally known as ‘Hell Joseon’).

However given the astounding financial, political and social achievements of the latest previous, South Korean folks now not really feel that they’re perennially condemned because the passive victims of historical past. The phrase han remains to be talked about sometimes in fashionable tradition and utilized in colloquial language, notably in reference to the so-called ‘consolation girls’, victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese navy throughout the Second World Warfare. For many up to date South Koreans, nonetheless, the bigger concept of han as a defining attribute feels more and more like a retrograde notion from the previous. So they’re prone to be stunned that Korean Individuals are nonetheless utilizing the time period to clarify up to date Korean tradition to Individuals.

The fashionable irrelevance of han is hardly the principle cause to pause earlier than invoking it but once more, nonetheless. Analysis into the idea’s origin reveals a deeply troubling historical past, one which has been implicated in Japanese imperial ideology, ethnonationalism and sexist response to the development of girls’s rights.

Wanting over the historic origin of han, I’m instantly struck by the non-Korean supply of each the phrase and its significance. Since historical occasions, Koreans have assimilated Chinese language tradition into their very own, together with quite a few phrases of their language. Students have estimated that as a lot as 60 per cent of Korean phrases are of Chinese language origin (Sino-Korean), although solely about 35 per cent are extensively utilized in on a regular basis language. Han is derived from hen (恨) which is in widespread utilization in fashionable Chinese language with the identical common meanings of ‘resentment’ (yuanhen, 怨恨), ‘hatred’ (chouhen, 仇恨), and ‘remorse’ (huihen, 悔恨). In fact, its Sinitic origin doesn’t disqualify it as a Korean phrase, similar as quite a few English phrases are of medieval French origin, however it’s considerably ironic {that a} Sino-Korean time period is believed to indicate an idea so quintessentially and uniquely Korean. As well as, there’s not a single piece of proof that anybody previous to the twentieth century thought that the phrase held some particular that means for the Korean character. In different phrases, the notion that Koreans are primarily a folks of han was constructed solely within the fashionable period.

The concept itself has roots within the Japanese imperial ideology that was used to justify the subjugation and exploitation of Koreans throughout the colonial period. With the enlargement of the Empire of Japan, apologists for the takeover of Korea got here up with the notion of naisen ittai (actually, ‘Japan and Korea, One Physique’). It was primarily based on the historic fable that the Japanese and Korean folks got here from the identical ethnic inventory, however Japan was capable of advance by the pure phases of a civilisation’s growth, finally reaching modernity, whereas Korea stagnated as a result of backward and corrupt tyranny of its ruling class with its slavish devotion to Chinese language tradition. It was the responsibility of the Japanese to come back to assistance from their unlucky cousins and civilise them by imperial tutelage. The concept has its roots in Western theories of racial essentialism that the Japanese adopted, adjusted after which utilised for their very own objective. And regardless of the seemingly benevolent veneer of naisen ittai, it turned the idea of an overt and virulent racism towards the Korean topics of the empire.

Within the fashionable period, the time period han was utilised in praising girls who bear their sorrow in silence

If there’s one one who might be recognized as the daddy of what would later be labelled han, it’s not a Korean however the Japanese artist and artwork theorist Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889-1961). Yanagi disliked the affect of modernisation and industrialisation on artwork and the overall tradition of Japan. Whereas he was a vociferous anti-imperialist who opposed the domination of Korea, he inadvertently contributed to the imperial venture by shopping for into the historic fable of naisen ittai and elaborating on the important sorrow of the Korean folks from their sorry situation. As a result of Korea was such a backward and primitive place, its widespread folks produced works (primarily pottery) of unrefined however genuine magnificence that have been crammed with profound disappointment. As elaborated in his essay Chōsen no bijutsu or ‘Korean Artwork’ (1922), a major a part of the misfortunes of the Korean folks got here from repeated invasions of the peninsula by overseas powers over the centuries. Artisans took all of the adverse emotions from their sufferings and channelled them into artwork, making a chic impact he referred to as the ‘great thing about sorrow’ (hiai no bi). And so Yanagi was the primary to completely articulate the notion of Koreans as a folks outlined by their disappointment.

The concept of a Korean character formed by overseas invasions is one other fashionable fable, one nonetheless circulating right this moment. The Korean peninsula was certainly topic to a sequence of horrible calamities by the twentieth century, beginning with colonisation by Japan in 1910. However within the earlier interval of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), throughout its greater than 500-year span, it skilled simply two main overseas invasions – by the Japanese in 1592-98, and by the Manchus in 1627 and 1636. Whereas these occasions have been little doubt horrible and traumatic, two such occasions in 500 years hardly represent ‘fixed invasions’. By comparability, one may have a look at what number of occasions the Italian peninsula was invaded because the 14th century, or Poland or India, for that matter.

Korean nationalists, who fought for independence throughout the colonial period after which labored to construct a brand new nation after liberation, have been modernisers who had no real interest in restoring the previous order of monarchy and the yangban aristocracy. Of their critique of the ruling class of the Joseon dynasty, it made ideological sense for them to undertake the imperial narrative of the stagnant backwardness of the nation earlier than colonisation. They even took up Yanagi’s notion of the deeply ingrained disappointment of the Korean folks attributable to dwelling underneath the tyranny and corruption of their feudal masters.

Whereas Yanagi used the time period hiai (悲哀, ‘sorrow’), Korean nationalists favoured han (한), a moderately obscure phrase within the Joseon dynasty that began appearing with some frequency throughout the colonial interval. Beginning within the Sixties, intellectuals and artists went even additional, elevating the notion because the true signifier of the important Korean character, cast by the nice sufferings of the previous. This model of han, which emphasised interior power, turned an ethnonationalist idea, denoting absolutely the uniqueness of the Korean character and tradition. And so Korean tradition, Korean artwork, Korean literature, Korean persona and Korean nationwide traits all got here to be explicated by way of han.

Within the Seventies, the thought turned entrenched, taking up troubling gender implications as properly. Students of imperial ideology corresponding to Anne McClintock have pointed out that the colonial topic is constantly feminised as weak, irrational, primitive, childlike and unintelligent, needing the robust and rational rule of their masculine imperial masters. As soon as the Japanese who espoused the thought left the peninsula and Koreans adopted the notion that their folks have been outlined by han, the idea was actually feminised by the concept that girls have been the exemplary carriers. This was expressed within the aestheticisation of girls’s sorrow, which turned a standard trope within the tradition.

A number of years in the past, I translated a Joseon dynasty novel entitled Document of the Advantage of Queen Inhyeon, Girl Min, which is loosely primarily based on occasions that occurred within the royal court docket within the seventeenth century, involving a love triangle of the king, his virtuous spouse and his evil concubine who schemes to take the place of the queen. I explicated the story by way of how, in a patriarchal society, a lady is lauded for her passive acceptance of struggling by her loyalty to male authority figures, whereas a lady who seeks to raised her lot by self-assertion and the pursuit of ambitions is vilified as a nefarious upstart. With the persistence of the thought within the fashionable period, the time period han was utilised in praising girls who bear their sorrow in silence.

But complimenting girls for accepting their subordinate place in society has develop into inappropriate in right this moment’s South Korea, the place girls have entry to schooling and a majority of them select to pursue their ambitions by work. Consequently, the usage of han for the advocacy of a virulent and more and more retrograde sexism turned one of many causes for its decline. As a feminist scholar as soon as informed me: ‘For feminism in Korea to thrive, han should die.’ What the current second requires is the aestheticisation of the fantastic thing about girls’s therapeutic, resistance and empowerment.

When a phrase has a problematic historical past, it’s vital to take word. Like han, the thought of ‘hysteria’ underwent a lot of vital adjustments over time. In its historical Greco-Egyptian conception, it was described as a lady’s sickness ensuing from the detachment of the womb. The time period was revived within the early fashionable interval as a type of profound melancholia. By the late nineteenth century, it had taken an unpleasant flip. In that period, the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot sought a physiological trigger for irregular behaviour that ranged from despair and violent performing out to paralysis and catatonia. Though Charcot thought that each women and men might be subjected to hysteria, it was usually coded as female. Lastly, Charcot’s pupil, Sigmund Freud, denied the physiological foundation of hysteria, turning it into a completely psychological situation.

In the middle of the twentieth century, each the medical and psychological institutions have rejected hysteria as a diagnostic time period. They’ve universally famous the nice struggling that the label has brought on to numerous sufferers, the overwhelming majority of them girls, who have been recognized as hysterics and subjected to all method of intrusive, abusive and damaging ‘remedies’. Though nonetheless in colloquial use right this moment, primarily within the type of ‘mass hysteria’, those that are cognizant of its historical past regard ‘hysteria’ as a poisonous time period tainted by its troubling historical past, its misogyny and the harm it’s achieved writ massive.

The historical past of han is as problematic as that of ‘hysteria’, which begs the query of why anybody conscious of its previous would wish to persist in its use, even by a redefinition that rejects its imperialist, racist, ethnonationalist and sexist legacy. Ever since Japanese propagandists invented the notion of Koreans as a folks outlined by their important sorrow, so many individuals have connected so many disparate meanings to it that it has develop into a confused mishmash of concepts, in the identical method that ‘hysteria’ turned a meaningless time period signifying any particular person, often a lady, who shows excessive emotional behaviour.

Some folks insist that han is a uniquely Korean concept that solely Koreans can actually grasp. But it’s about as helpful at explaining every thing Korean because the time period ‘rugged individualism’ is at explaining every thing American or the ‘Samurai’ is in capturing all that’s Japanese. It’s true that every one the calamities and traumas of the fashionable period have supplied Koreans with a terrific properly of highly effective emotional experiences from which to attract. However intense emotionality is hardly distinctive to Korean narratives, and the notion of a selected form of sorrow/remorse/frustration/rage that solely Koreans can really feel is absurd.

The important thing to understanding the success of Korean fashionable tradition lies, then, in its hybrid nature

So if han is an concept that’s too imprecise and incoherent to clarify the spirit of recent Korean movies and TV reveals, what accounts for his or her international reputation? The attraction, I imagine, lies in a hybrid strategy to cultural creation at which South Koreans have develop into notably adept whereas striving for home wealth and respect overseas.

When the Korean Warfare resulted in 1953, South Korea – a small nation with no precious pure assets to talk of – was one of many poorest nations on the earth, with city and industrial centres flattened by bombs and folks traumatised by division and conflict. From that dire scenario, the one method the nation may hope to attain a measure of prosperity was by fast industrialisation and participation in international commerce. The endeavour started in earnest within the Sixties, underneath corporatist dictatorships and upon the backs of the labouring class. To start with, South Korea did make low cost and tacky items for export however, by the Eighties, the nation’s trade moved on to extra refined merchandise corresponding to electronics, vehicles and ships, after which later semiconductors, cellphones and high-end cosmetics. After reaching wealth and democracy within the late Eighties, there was a concerted effort to export Korean cultural merchandise.

Through the Nineteen Nineties, a generally heard phrase associated to the enterprise was ‘What’s most Korean is most international’, that means that the important thing to efficiently introducing Korean tradition overseas was not by slavish imitation of overseas artwork however providing what was authentically Korean.

It turned out that the method was solely half proper. The supposedly quintessential Korean movie and home blockbuster Seopyeonje did not garner a lot curiosity overseas.

The success of Korean fashionable tradition thereafter lay in providing narratives of native curiosity to audiences overseas. That was completed by emphasising common themes corresponding to love throughout forbidden boundaries or frustration at social inequity, and presenting them by the mastery of cutting-edge filming and narrative methods. So Parasite and Squid Sport are about class battle in up to date South Korea, however their creators’ familiarity with the conventions of Western media allowed them to inform the tales in ways in which audiences of any capitalist nation may comprehend and even determine with. Likewise, the movies The Host (2006) and Practice to Busan (2016) efficiently replicated the Western style of the monster or zombie film however in Korean settings and that includes Korean themes.

Within the case of Practice to Busan, about folks on a prepare attempting to outlive a zombie outbreak, the critique of selfishness and lack of neighborhood is crystal clear. Worldwide viewers not solely loved the narrative but in addition the novelty of a overseas setting. Western viewers responded to the thought of survival primarily based on a way of neighborhood, moderately than needing a person to prevail. In different phrases, what made these movies enticing to non-Koreans was not the mere replication of the Western style conventions however the mixing of Korean aesthetics with Western ones. It might be onerous to argue that their reputation with American viewers had something to do with feelings related to han.

The important thing to understanding the success of Korean fashionable tradition lies, then, in its hybrid nature, of that includes Korean and Western in addition to worldwide components, making a fascinating impact of being acquainted but in addition novel/alien/overseas on the similar time. South Koreans have confirmed to be notably adept at this strategy as a result of discovering a spot for his or her nation’s items within the international market by adaptation was one thing that they’ve needed to do from the start of its effort to attain home prosperity and worldwide respect.

Just lately, a lot of Korean American writers have written fantastically about what han has meant to them, particularly within the development of their id as Korean Individuals. However they’ve largely prevented the troubling historic origins and the problematic makes use of the time period has had up to now. I invite folks to contemplate the complete story in order that they will make knowledgeable selections about whether or not the time period is price preserving as something aside from a historic artefact that’s greatest left in the previous.


Victoria Joy
I am an independent lady, working hard to share my ideas from my experiences to the whole world. I want people to be happier and to understand that your life is very very important. Walk with me and experience the beauty this world can offer by following simple logical steps.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments