Han (cultural)

Han is a concept in Korean culture, attributed by some as a national cultural trait. Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of overwhelming odds. 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.


Some scholars theorize the concept of Han evolved from Korea's history of having been invaded and occupied by other neighboring nations, such as the Khitans, the Manchu/Jurchens, the Mongols, and the Japanese. Others attribute han to class system strictures, such as the distinction between the elite Yangban class and the peasants.

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. Han permeates Korean cultural expression, for example, in Korean shamanism and Pansori.

Han in popular culture

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. Han connotes both despair at recognition of past injustice and acceptance of such matters as part of the Korean experience.

The Television show The West Wing also referenced the trait in Episode 5.4 (entitled "Han"). The episode concludes with Bartlet, the President of the United States, realizing 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."

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