Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Han 한

I have often been fascinated by non western emotional states and how they can shine a light onto how humanity relates to its emotions. I think it demonstrates that emotions are not entirely innate but also reflections of the society we live in, and that knowing this we can change both ourselves and the society we live in.

Being a melancholic fool by nature, one that has taken my interest for a while is the Korean concept of Han (한). A complex intermingling of historical, collective and personal sorrow an acceptance of a bitter present and a hope of a better future. There are also some suggestions of resentment and a sense of unresolved vengeance.

It is sometimes described as both unique to and an essential component of Koreans' emotional lives.

A Korean colleague put it quite simply:

Han = a collective sense of bonding based on suffering and hardship

The bonding aspect here is important as it binds a people together, in a non-market based sense of identity. It is a collective feeling and i think an interesting bridge for us between the psychological interior of emotions inside our heads/hearts and the social aspect of emotions and responses to social situations.

The Korean poet Ko Eun described it thus:
"We Koreans were born from the womb of Han and brought up in the womb of Han."

Probably the most well known reference to it in Western culture is the episode of series 5 the West Wing entitled 'Han'. It describes the plight of a North Korean pianist who is asked not to defect (which he wanted to do) in order to preserve the hopes of nuclear non proliferation talks with the two countries.

President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) describes it thus:
"There is no literal English translation. It's a state of mind. Of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there's hope."{The West Wing: 5.4}

There is a good description from the Korean-English translator David Bannon:

"The term han cannot simply be translated as "resentment" for every book, article or poem. The phrasing must match the usage—a tricky thing with all words, especially so with a term that has vastly complex meaning to Koreans.

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. (Dong-A 1982: 1975). 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. (Ahn 1987)."n

Banno goes on to cite a good example from Korean literature:

"The inevitability of fate frequently fuels han in the arts. Korean television and films are informed by han, as are older forms of tragedy, such as P'ansori performance songs and folk tales. For example, poetess Yi Ok Bong (?-1592) described how she had visited her lover so often in dreams that if her spirit were corporeal, the pebbles on the path to his house would be worn to sand. (Kim 1990: 222). Yi uses the term han in the second line, which has been translated: "This wife's resentment is great." "Resentment" implies anger and frustration, certainly part of han, but the line fails to express the sorrow and resignation of the original. Another translator chose "I am sad" for the same line and still another, "my longing deepens." (Lee 1998: 85). This poem demonstrates the importance of context and usage. In the complete poem, insert each of the three previous translations at the end of the second line and the problem becomes clear:

Are you well these days? 

Moonlight brushing the curtain pains my heart.

If dreams leave footprints

the pebbles at your door are almost worn to sand. "

As a basic rule, however, one must always go beyond western interpretations of non-western concepts and listen to the creators of the concept itself, the Korean people. This is not to say David Bannon is wrong of course!

In 1994 in Paris, the late and hugely respected Korean writer Park Kyong-Ni (박경리) spoke in greater detail about Han and her comments challenge the notion of Han containing resentment.

    "If we lived in paradise, there would be no tears, no separation, no hunger, no waiting, no suffering, no oppression, no war, no death. We would no longer need either hope or despair. We would lose those hopes so dear to us all. We Koreans call these hopes Han. It is not an easy word to understand. It has generally been understood as a sort of resentment. But I think it means both sadness and hope at the same time. You can think of Han as the core of life, the pathway leading from birth to death. Literature, it seems to me, is an act of Han and a representation of it.

    'Han is a characteristic feeling of the Korean people. But it has come to be seen as a decadent feeling, because of the 36-year Japanese occupation. It is understood simply as sorrow, or resignation, or a sigh. Some have compared it to the Japanese word ourami, meaning hate or vengeance, but that s quite absurd. This nonsense is the result perhaps of the identity of the Chinese character or it may be a kind of left-over from the Japanese occupation. The Japanese word ourami evokes images of the sword and the seeds of militarism, and is a characteristic feeling of the Japanese, for whom vengeance is a virtue. Therefore the Japanese word ourami is completely different from the Korean word Han. As I have already said, Han is an expression of the complex feeling which embraces both sadness and hope. The sadness stems from the effort by which we accept the original contradiction facing all living things, and hope comes from the will to overcome the contradiction."

Is it unique to Korea? Possibly but not necessarily so. And Han has much to teach us about a response to suffering, not least if we appreciate Park Kyong-Ni's point about Han not being imbued with vengeance.

Can emotions like Han teach us how to break the cycles of violence in history?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Han = a collective sense of bonding based on suffering and hardship= Being a Scotland supporter ; )

  3. i would agree city slacker if you'd add 'occasionally daring to hope before having it taken away from you...'

  4. It's not exclusively Korean. I would think that most, relatively experienced, Goenka- &/or Brach-method vipassana meditators know the combo. I'm certainly no stranger to mixed (Western-appraised) "positive" =and= "negative" affective states.

    The Cartesian, dualistic, Western mind dichotomizes affective experience, as you know. The (disciplined) Brahman, dialecticalistic, Eastern mind can contain pluralism by simply accepting that two ("Western supposedly") diverse affective experiences =are= in fact (empirically) existing at the same time. (Well, why =not=? Though it's experienced as "novel" in the West.)

    My guess is that even moderately "evolved" Westerners are still so socialized, normalized and cult-urally conditioned to verbally-constructed, non-experiential rationalism and/or rule-bound, "scientific" (rather than Eastern "experiential") empiricism that word-ruled minds cannot get past the secondary / verbal representations to the primary / sensory =experience=.

    Citing references (as I feel I must on my own blog, Sigh.Ko.Blah.Grr): Steven Hayes, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Zindel Segal, Ron and Dan Siegel (at Harvard & UCLA, respectively), Pavel Somov, Marsha Linehan (at U. of Washington), Eckhart Tolle, John Teasdale, Matt McKay, Tara Brach, S. N. Goenka, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Thich Naht Han, Georg Gurdjieff, Richard Alpert, Fritz & Laura Perls.

  5. Being a Korean-American, I believe that Han describes a state that is unique to the culture. I believe in a sort of collective unconscious that is unique to Koreans, with the memories of past generations passed onto new generations. Being smack dab right between China and Japan, Korea as a small nation has had more than its fair share of invasions and thus sorrows. It is this unconscious memory that makes han particularly unique to Koreans... Certainly the description of han may resonant with you but it's part of the Korean experience. Btw, I do think the Scottish have their version of "han" but it seems the Scots' han is more fiery ;)

  6. In my many conversations with English speaking Koreans, I have come to understand Korea's indigenous culture is marked by han much in the same way as that of Jewish culture. These two living cultures have many things in common, however, the first has never been completely exiled from its land (i.e. earth) regardless of the threats to its survival and Judaism has remained relatively intact in exile, while Korea's indigenous shamanism has been fundamentally infused / diluted / disarmed by the influx of Buddhism, Confucianism and most recently Christianity. Further, Jewish religious tradition -- from the literary traditions (e.g. Kethubim) through popular practice of codified prayerbooks -- includes "suffering" as a vehicle through which an individual and the community interact with God as well as with each other and the outside world.

  7. If you cannot let go you cannot live.

  8. great post lauren, thank you for adding that by the way... he said two years later!