Han, or haan, [ha̠n] is a concept of an emotion, variously described as some form of grief or resentment, among others, that has been said to be a characteristic of Korean culture.
The idea of han and its association with Korean identity are relatively recent, originating during the Japanese occupation of Korea from Japanese colonial stereotypes and the characterization of Korean art and culture as "sorrowful" by Yanagi Sōetsu. Yanagi's theory, called the "beauty of sorrow", has received criticism in both Korea and, more recently, Japan, and has been criticized as "under-theorized" and "prejudiced". Han, as a specifically Korean characteristic, did not originally exist prior to the Japanese occupation, but was adopted and popularized by Koreans in the 20th century due to its propagation by scholars, the circumstances of Korea's turbulent modern history, and the political promotion of ethnic-national solidarity through a sense of "shared suffering".
Han is derived from the Chinese character 恨, which means resentment, hatred, or regret.
According to the Translation Journal, "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." The film director Im Kwon-Taek has said that Koreans have different interpretations of han. The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong described 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". The novelist Pak Kyongni described han as both sadness and hope.
As a national phenomenon or specifically Korean characteristic, han did not exist in ancient Korea but was an idea anachronistically imposed on Koreans during the Japanese colonial period.— Korean Han and the Postcolonial Afterlives of "The Beauty of Sorrow"
The concept of han originated from Yanagi Sōetsu's theory of the "beauty of sorrow" (悲哀の美) and Japanese colonial stereotypes of Korea and its people. Following the March First Movement, an independence movement that ended with the death of about 7,000 Koreans at the hands of the Japanese police and military, the Japanese art critic Yanagi Sōetsu wrote articles in 1919 and 1920, expressing sympathy for the Korean people and appreciation for Korean art. In his 1920 article, Yanagi said "The long, harsh and painful history of Korea is expressed in the hidden loneliness and sadness of their art. It always has a sad beauty and loneliness that brings you to tears. When I look at it, I can not control the emotion that fills my heart. Where else can I find such beauty of sadness." The characterization of colonial Korea as sad and stagnant was common in Imperial Japan. To justify the colonization of Korea, the Japanese propagated an image of Koreans as an inferior, uncivilized people, who were incapable of being independent and prone to being invaded and oppressed. Yanagi said that Korean history was characterized by instability, invasion, and subservience; the "sadness" of Korean history was said to be manifested in Korean art, which, according to Yanagi, embodied the "beauty of sorrow". Yanagi's views of Korea mirrored those of contemporary Japanese colonial politics.
Yanagi Sōetsu was an influential figure in colonial Korea, and was accepted as a true friend by contemporary Koreans; he sought to preserve the traditional art of Korea, held fund-raising lectures and concerts for humanitarian aid, and spoke out in defense of Korean people and cultural heritage. Moderate Korean nationalists, who had a non-confrontational approach toward Japanese authority, supported Yanagi, and the Dong-a Ilbo actively promoted and sponsored him. Yanagi was admired by prominent figures in the fields of history, art, and media, who had a profound influence on the formation of modern Korean concepts of traditional art, aesthetics, and history. The concept of han, based on the "beauty of sorrow", was propagated by Korean scholars and writers, continuing Yanagi's legacy, and gradually spread to the entire education system. According to Jeong Il-seong, who authored a book about Yanagi Sōetsu, the passage of modern Korean history, going from the Japanese occupation to independence to national division to civil war then to the "dark" period of military dictatorships, influenced figures in art and culture to adopt the concept of han.
Ethnic nationalism’s processes took the colonial origin of "the beauty of sorrow" and produced han as an ethnonational, biologistic badge of Korean uniqueness.— Korean Han and the Postcolonial Afterlives of "The Beauty of Sorrow"
Sandra So Hee Chi Kim's article on han notes that "the term han itself emerged as a significant ideological concept during the 1970s" and "[s]ome contend that it was during the Park Chung Hee regime that the idea of han transformed from a personal sense of sorrow and resentment to a broader, national experience of unrelenting suffering and injustice". Han was used politically to promote "Korean uniqueness" and ethnic-national solidarity through a sense of "shared suffering". Han acquired a biologistic aspect, as seen in descriptions of han by the poet Ko Un, "[w]e Koreans were born from the womb of Han and brought up in the womb of Han", and the film critic Ahn Byung-Sup, "[h]an is an inherent characteristic of the Korean character ... [i]t becomes part of the blood and breath of a person". During the authoritarian regime of Park Chung Hee, the idea of han, and thus resentment and suffering, as a national characteristic of the Korean people may have been an ideological state apparatus to indoctrinate the working class into accepting the hardships of rapid industrialization and economic inequality; the idea of sadness being an inherent Korean trait had served a similar purpose during the Japanese occupation to naturalize the suffering of the colonized Koreans. Sunghee Choi, an art education scholar, has pointed out that her inculcation of han in education started as early as elementary school.
Criticism of the "Beauty of Sorrow"
Yanagi Sōetsu's theory of the "beauty of sorrow" has received criticism in both Korea and, more recently, Japan. It has been described as prejudiced, imperialistic, orientalist, sentimentalist, colonialist, and under-theorized. Yanagi's interpretation of Korean history and art has been disputed. The "beauty of sorrow" was criticized by Koreans as early as 1922. In 1974, the poet Choe Harim published an influential article that established the "aesthetics of colonialism" and accused Yanagi's theory of imperialism, colonialism, sentimentalism, and a "superficial interpretation of Korean history".
Mari Nakami notes that Yanagi did not profess to be an expert or intend for his theory to be an "objective observation" or a "scientifically approached scholarly study", but rather "an expression of the human heart". Furthermore, Nakami argues that the "beauty of sorrow" was not the only perspective Yanagi had of Korean art; he expressed admiration and praise for Korean art, such as the Seokguram, and believed that most Japanese national art was Korean in origin or an imitation of Korean art. Yanagi gradually changed his theory of Korean art from the "beauty of sorrow" to the "beauty of health", the "beauty of naturalness", and the "beauty of unity".
Despite receiving criticism for his theory, Yanagi Sōetsu has oft been praised for his humanism and preservation of traditional Korean art. In 1984, he was posthumously awarded the Bogwan Order of Cultural Merit, the first to be awarded to a non-Korean.
In popular culture
In American media, han has been referenced in Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, "Koreatown, Los Angeles", and The West Wing, "Han". In "Han", Josiah Bartlet, the president of the United States, says, "There's a Korean word, Han. I looked it up. 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."
In the Korean diaspora
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.
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