Conceptualizing Sorrow and Hope
The Discourse of Han in South Korea
During a period of political turmoil and rapid industrialization in postwar South Korea, a discourse dealing with suffering emerged centered on an emotion concept called han. South Korean writers, scholars, and artists have described han for decades as a collective, accumulated feeling of unresolved pain and resentment that runs in the blood of Koreans, and as a sociocultural feature that is untranslatable and unique to Koreans. This emotion concept has been at the root of essentialist as well as critical understandings of what constitutes Korean culture and identity and has been the focus of many works in fields ranging from folk studies and literary analysis to theology and psychiatry. With the rise of minjung (“the people”) movement in the 1970s, han developed not only as an object of ideological theories but also as the subject of a discourse intent on articulating grievance and hope, as a concept both reflecting and shaping perceptions of past, present, and future.
The purpose of this article is to gain insight into the layers of meaning that have been attributed to han by prominent figures of the South Korean minjung movement of the 1970s and 1980s—particularly poet Ko Ŭn and sociologists Han Wansang and Kim Sŏnggi—and to assess the significance of a discourse of suffering in a particular historical moment through the analysis of two texts from a 1988 monograph collection titled The Story of Han.
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