For most of his life, record store owner Kim Ji-yun has battled against a feeling he has trouble describing; a mystery of the soul, a puzzle that many say helps define their culture — the ineffable sadness of being Korean.
The concept is known as han. And for the nearly 50 million South Koreans it’s as amorphous a notion as love or hate: intensely personal, yet carried around collectively, a national torch, a badge of suffering tempered by a sense of resiliency.
“As a Korean, it’s embedded in your DNA,” said the ponytailed Kim, 46, pensively stroking his thin beard. “It goes far beyond everyday emotions like happiness or anger. It’s a blockage, something that’s tangled up and cannot be untied.”
Ask anyone here to describe han and their first reaction is often a bemused smile, followed by contemplative silence. The idea, many insist, is far more easily experienced than explained.
South Korean poets, novelists and filmmakers have sought to capture the concept for which there is no English equivalent. The word “han” has a number of meanings in Korean; it’s a common surname and the name of a major river that passes through Seoul. But it’s the cultural use of the word, developed through ancient folklore, that has long had many here reeling.
Scholars have called it an all-encompassing sense of bitterness, a mixture of angst, endurance and a yearning for revenge that tests a person’s soul, a condition marked by deep sorrow and a sense of incompleteness that can have fatal consequences. To die because of han, experts say, is to die of hwabyeong, or anger.
But han has also been described as a sense of hope, an ability to silently endure hardship and suffering in a relatively small nation with a long history of being invaded by more powerful neighbors.
Although there is little agreement among them on a precise definition, scholars acknowledge that han is central to the Korean character. For outsiders, grasping the notion is key to fathoming the Koreans themselves.
It’s why many older people wail at funerals, lashing out at fate for the theft of a loved one. Han is also why many South Koreans are quick to bitterly protest against their own leaders or those of another nation. Conversely, it’s also key to the acceptance shown by many South Koreans during a past marked by excruciating poverty.
In 2009, a Seoul newspaper columnist argued that han “can trigger the Korean heart to display an incredibly intense outburst of feelings and actions.”
“Korea will forgive even the gravest sins,” he wrote, “kill even for the smallest slights, or lament endlessly over a past han that one has endured or was subjected to, all depending on the shifting reminders of han.”
Debbie Lee is one South Korean who says she feels the immense weight of her han. She works for the Danish Embassy here, for employers whose culture has coined a word for a notion that seems the opposite of han.
Hygge is described by the Danish as a sense of tranquility, the absence of anything irritating or emotionally overwhelming. Lee believes her own culture could do with a little bit of hygge.
“We may already have it, we just don’t have a word for it,” she said. “Like the Danes, we Koreans also try to socialize and relax with our family and friends. I guess we should also try to put a name to the feeling. It might make our lives more balanced.”
For many, however, han continues to connote unresolved tensions. Korean American scholar Elaine Kim uses the word to describe the reaction of Korean victims of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
“The discussions were all about whites and blacks; Korean losses were shunted to the side,” said Kim, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley. “For those who didn’t speak English, there was no way to get their voice heard. The injustice was they weren’t responsible for the problem and they couldn’t solve it. As I see it, that’s the definition of han.”
Han has seen even more recent crossover use in American culture, scholars say.
In the TV series “The West Wing,” U.S. President Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) voiced his own understanding of the notion. “There is no literal English translation,” he says. “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.”
Some South Koreans say the role of han now diminished.
“Our lives have improved dramatically over the last generation, so it has less meaning,” Kim Young-sook, a grandmother of four, said as she shopped in one of the nation’s most exclusive department stores. “I’m very happy these days. I no longer let han rule my life.”
As he marked prices on a shipment of used vinyl records, music store owner Kim expressed a very un-han-like idea: a wish to one day be rid of his own han.
“I hope it can go away,” he sighed. “But the Korean people just don’t seem to have the capacity to banish what haunts them. For now, it’s just a hope.”
Ethan Kim in The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.