Sunday, October 28, 2007


When I was learning the Japanese language one of the peripheral if intended consequences was gaining an understanding of the culture which sat behind it. Singular words such as tatemae and honne speak to a far greater psychology and collective experience than a simple dictionary definition can provide. Understanding that, while I have served other masters from time to time, I fundamentally gravitate towards a ronin existence - and this is before I got exiled by my government - allows me to stick a label on my subconscious motivations and understand the potential consequences; the realities of which are far removed from any romanticised notions.

In truth I've barely scratched the surface of the Korean language and the only word I've encountered so far similarly loaded with meaning is 기분 ('kibun'), which a dictionary will tell you translates as 'feelings/mood/humor' but which in reality means much more. Like tatemae and honne, it can explain a lot to a confused Westerner about why people here sometimes behave the way they do.

I had quite a number of Japanese friends to help me with my studies, and I soaked up everything I could about Japan, but I was hardly surrounded by material, and it was tough. I watched NHK news which used to broadcast its news programme unscrambled in Europe, and I read the Asahi and Yomiuri Shimbun web sites regularly. My language studies eventually stalled with a vocabulary of around 1,400 words - but I did learn a lot about Japanese politics.

When I came to Korea, I had the opposite of my Japanese experience - the quantity of material was overwhelming, and it was all I could do to make sense of that between trying to juggle my virtual life on the London Stock Exchange and running around Korea in a generally confused or bemused state. I had little time to take an interest in what was happening in wider Korean society beyond my own sphere of existence, but it would also be true to say that part of me was afraid to know; Korea can often project an image of being angry - angry at Japan, angry at China, angry at Americans, angry at the rest of the world, angry at foreign teachers, angry at history itself, which to be fair often hasn't really dealt the Korean people a good hand, although with no apparent statute of limitations on things that go back hundreds of years one wonders how justice can ever be seen to be done. There are times when ignorance is bliss, and I didn't want too many of my comfortable illusions about my temporary home shattered by the reality of the hatred that is out there bubbling away under the surface.

As I have slowly got my bearings though the time came when I had to start taking an interest in wider Korean society and developments, and in a sense, no study of the language - something which I've been taking more seriously of late - can be complete without this understanding. To this end I now read the English-language newspapers here every day and bookmark the stories I find interesting using, which should help me to build up a better picture of this society.

The Korea Herald has recently started a thirty part series on huge topic of social change in Korea. Here are parts one and two. Amongst other things part two discusses the 'psychology of han', which I think bears quoting here, because it speaks to so much of the Korean experience:

"The psychology of 'han': One aspect of the human element that cannot be omitted in the discussion of Korean behavior relative to modernization and economic growth is the psychologically motivating factors. Outstanding and unique in Korea is the psychology of han. This word cannot be literally translated into English, but it involves a sense of frustration, remorse, and revenge which are caused by certain unjustified deeds. When such feelings are accumulated in the psyche, one has to release the tension in some way, and, if unleashed in a negative way, this can cause "frost even in the middle of summer," especially for women, as the old saying goes. Channeled in a positive direction, this psychic force can lead to very productive results. The Korean nation has historically accumulated a strong sense of han, owing to so much bashing by powerful neighbors. Yet we have retained a unitary national identity so relentlessly that when this han feeling was directed into the positive channels of economic growth and modernization, it was able to lead to miraculous development in a short period of time, and has played a central role in restoring Koreans` national pride."

- Korea Herald, 2007-10-26

Korean tags: 신문, 언어, 공부, 기분, 심리학


Anonymous said...

Korean "Han" is often interpreted by Westerners as frustration and poisenous anger created by chronic victimization. This notion is encouraged by Koreans in order to reap the benefits of sympathy.

Yet, in reality "Han" is an emotional product of the Korean psychological pride system inculcated by its collectivist culture. This pride is independent of any victimization. Korean grievance against predations from outsiders only aggravates this angry angst, but is not the cause.

The cause of Korean Han is the Korean psychological pride system: Korean tribal solidarity is based on an over-idealization of self coupled with devaluation of the other.

A Korean inwardly bubbles forth with self-pride despite any false veneer of low self-esteem. Life in general, therefore, is a Korean's mortal enemy ... due to life's tendency to contradict everyone's sense of self-importance.

Korean "Han", therefore, is a rage reaction against life daring not to affirm a sense of grandiosity.

The result is a pervasive murmurring low-level rage that seeks confrontation as a catharsis. If one can't find confrontation, one will seek it. Korean identity is forged through hatred of another. This hate emphasizes identity by affirming what one is NOT. Validation of Korean identity is affirmed in symbolic ways: such as the defeat of another. The most favorite form of symbolic murder is through Korean soccer game victory, yet economic prowess is another symbol used to affirm Korea's godhood.

Globalism seeks to harness this self-important rage for its own ends. It tells Koreans that in this new international system ... there will be winners and losers. A Korean will follow the globalism agenda in a desperate attempt to prove he is a winner.

Anonymous said...

The comments posited by "anonymous" are interesting... insofar as a Korean might ask if "anonymous" is Korean him/herself.

I ask this because the insights into the Korean behaviours which result from "han" are profoundly accurate from my point of view and based on my experiences as a Korean-Canadian. This "Han" thing, which I have only recently been able to name, has reared its ugly head in our family more recently through a family divorce. I have witnessed and been victim of the "inward bubbles" of self-pride as a cover of "low self-esteem"... whereupon life does indeed become the "Korean's mortal enemy", as astutely stated by "anonymous."

However, I believe that it is a mistake to attribute this psychological behaviour to a need of the Korean to "reap the benefits of sympathy." This may be one of the results the Korean identifies as comforting, but not necessarily what the Korean deliberately seeks.

Where does the Han come from? Let's start with that question? How can "anonymous" flippantly dismiss the "frustration... created by a chronic victimization" that the Koreans have faced? The psychological behaviour of the Han does indeed come from something - from a history of spiritualism (shamanism, tribalism), to an introduction of culture by the benevolent Chinese scholars who impressed their education on the Koreans instead of letting them develop a culture of their own, followed by years cultural affluence and success, only to be followed by years of self-worthlessness, years of oppression and colonization, separation of brothers and sisters, a nation and, a psyche torn apart by the political greed of others.

If after the shocking intrusion of others on the Korean Shamanistic community, in tune with answers derived of their own relationships with nature, the only way for Koreans to deal with the aftermath of Japanese Colonization, World War Two and the Korean War, the result is this Korean Psychological pride system which stands out as rather fierce in contrast to their naive past, one might also gain a better understanding of why the collectivist culture of these peoples are inflected with frustration and anger, aggravated by outsiders.

As I said, the Korean does not deliberately seek the benefits of sympathy, but I think this would be a good place to start. An analogy I might use to illustrate this is if a married couple fights, their business of anger is only exacerbated over the years if the original issue is ignored rather than addressed and discussed for the purpose of apologetic affirmation of each person's point of view.

The Koreans are a prideful collectivist culture - yes. They look out for one another, and take care of one another. To have outsiders come and try to tear that apart does not make outsiders any more appealing. Conversely, it makes this intrinsically spiritual and quiet community turn inwards even further and learn to fear the outside world - manifested in fierce pride, xenophobic fear, and at the most crucial moments, in anger with outsiders and among themselves - a result of feelings of failure to their community.

Therefore, I completely disagree with "anonymous" that Korean Han is "based on an over-idealization of the self coupled with the devaluation of the other" and that it is simply a way to "reap the benefits of sympathy" and " is a rage against life daring not to affirm as sense of grandiosity."

I completely agree that Korean Han is a "psychological pride system inculcated by its collectivist culture." But one must reach further back into the history and psyche of the the Korean people to fully understand why years of neglect by those who have invaded their way of life have resulted in this deep emotional scar that cannot be healed until some repatriation or attempts at further psychological education has been made. I don't like it, and certainly, there are better ways to deal with your sorrows in a more productive manner, but this is the reality. And this is why we see Koreans take on small victories such as the soccer game victory of 2002 to mean something more symbolically than what it is.

One one final note, please do not think that the hardiness of the Korean people, to harness the Han in an economically productive way indicates in any way that this repatriation needs not be addressed. This success only further indicates the spiritual beliefs of a Shamanistic and ascetic culture that finds inner strength for the betterment of their community, to be further manipulated for their hard work, as the Chinese workers were when they desperately decided they could work diligently on the Canadian Railway to send money back home to their community. But that is another story.

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