Han (cultural)

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Revised Romanization han
McCune–Reischauer han

Han or Haan [ha̠n][1][self-published source] is a theorized culture-bound syndrome in Hanja that denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds, the overcoming of which is beyond the nation's own capabilities. 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."[2]


Han is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character (hèn), which in modern Chinese means "hatred", "dislike", "animosity", "bitterness", "rancor", or "resentment".


Some scholars theorize the concept of Han evolved from Korea's history of having been invaded such as in the Japanese occupation of 1910–45.[1] Others attribute han to class system structures, such as the distinction between the elite Yangban class and the peasants.[citation needed] Han permeates Korean cultural expression, for example, in Korean shamanism and Pansori.

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.[3]

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.[4]

The term derives from the Chinese term, hen (恨), a concept of deep hatred and resentment towards an aggressor who had forsaken the victim, a feeling of anguish and ultimate failure due to animosity that could only be relieved through revenge, which may seem like an impossible task. The hanja for Han is 恨.

Context and usage[edit]

Han is a difficult concept which requires an understanding of the context in which it is used, as explained in 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. 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.[5]

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.[5]

Han in popular culture[edit]

The 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."[6] Han connotes both despair at recognition of past injustice and acceptance of such matters as part of the Korean experience.

Korean American scholar Elaine Kim has written on han in relation to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.[7]

The television show The West Wing also made reference to the trait in Episode 5.4 (entitled "Han"). The episode concludes with a visiting North Korean pianist teaching Bartlet, the President of the United States, the word while requesting asylum in the United States. Lamenting his choice to deny the musician asylum, the President realizes his own personal understanding of the esoteric concept; "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 second episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown ("Los Angeles", airing April 21, 2013), the opening lines of the Wikipedia definition of Han is read and explained to Anthony over a traditional meal at the house of a Korean-American graffiti artist David Choe.


Although the modern Chinese cognate 恨 means more simply hatred, animosity, or resentment; the classical definition of 恨 is often translated as 'regret' or 'unfulfilled vengeance', which more closely correlates with the Korean sentiment of 'Han'.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Kim, Luke I. C. (2012). Beyond the Battle Line: The Korean War and My Life. Xlibris Corporation. p. 234. ISBN 146535218X. 
  2. ^ Yoo, Boo-wong (1988). Korean Pentecostalism: Its History and Theology. New York: Verlag Peter Lang. p. 221. ISBN 3-8204-1664-1. 
  3. ^ Kimura, Kan (2004). 朝鮮半島をどう見るか (Chōsen hantō wo dō miruka) (in Japanese). Tokyo: Shueisha. p. 99. ISBN 978-4-08-720241-0. 
  4. ^ Seo-Young, Chu Seo-young (2008). "Science Fiction and Postmemory Han in Contemporary Korean American Literature". MELUS: 97–121. 
  5. ^ a b Bannon, David (2008-01-03). "Unique Korean Cultural Concepts in Interpersonal Relations". Translation Journal 12(1). Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  6. ^ Yoo, p.222.
  7. ^ Kim, Elaine (1993). Robert Gooding-Williams, ed. "Home Is Where the Han Is: A Korean American Perspective on the Los Angeles Upheavals". Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising. Routledge: 215–35. 
  8. ^ Gu Hanyu Da Cidian