Han (한), a Korean Cultural Trait

Han–a Korean feeling of sorrow, oppression, unavenged injustice, and isolation–is hard to truly explain. There really isn’t an American equivalent; and given the difference in our countries histories that’s not really surprising. But han is something just about every Korean knows and understands.

To Koreans, han has a very complex meaning. So when translating the word, the context in which han is mentioned is important being that there is really is no one definition for it. It’s sorrow, regret, grief, resentment, a dull ache of the soul. Yet han is passive; not seeking revenge but instead waiting patiently and hoping that the injustice will be righted.

So where has han come from? Some believe its from the nation’s history of being invaded. Others say the strict class system in Korea’s past is responsible. Regardless of where han originated, it’s place in the Korean consciousness is now firm.

Wikipedia includes a reference to han made in an episode (season 5, episode 92) of The West Wing. The episode includes a North Korean pianist who wants to defect. At the end of the episode President Bartlet, says of han: “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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