Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
by Alex Lo
by Alex Lo

The ‘han’ in us all

  • There’s a uniquely Korean word – not to be confused with the Chinese word Han – for rage and regret that I find liberating and illuminating, and considerably expands my moral horizons

Germans have a very useful word for an unseemly but almost universal human characteristic, Schadenfreude, which means enjoying other people’s pain or suffering. Koreans, I learned last week, have a word for the thirst for revenge, han, which, supposedly, only the native Koreans feel when they experience the full depths of rage and which, some argue, is untranslatable into other languages.

By learning this one word, I feel I have a better appreciation of the many highly disturbing Korean thrillers that have hit world cinema in the past two decades. They are all exploring different manifestations of han. Unsurprisingly, most of them are revoltingly but compellingly violent. Take that, Quentin Tarantino.

As Suh Nam-dong, a Korean Christian minjung theologian, explains the meanings of han: “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.”

Here’s how Canadian-Korean writer Eunice Kim describes it: “Han is a potent form of Korean rage – a type of anger so severe and all-consuming that some believe you can die from it.

“When I dug a little deeper, I was surprised to discover that han is not just a word, but an inherent part of being Korean. Some say it runs in our blood and is embedded in our DNA.”

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I doubt han is so uniquely Korean; I think many people have felt it from time to time. It can explode into individual acts of violence or a communal conflagration, especially among young people. You see it in Thailand, Lebanon, India, Belarus and the United States today. I think Hong Kong experienced it last year, but we don’t recognise it because (1) unlike Koreans, we don’t have a word for it; and (2) many Hong Kong people have refused to acknowledge the collective violence, unless it was committed by local police.

I watched Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film, Burning, last week, which is far less bloody but no less disturbing than most other Korean han movies. It was what led me to look into the meanings of the word. Its main character might have only killed one person, or not at all. But the han he feels – something is deeply wrong but he doesn’t know what, so there is a rage and a thirst to know, to correct and punish in order to find resolution and satisfaction. Yet, the elusive answer is never forthcoming.

Han is corrupting and exhausting to the soul and body, yet those who experience it can rarely find peace or rest, even or especially if they act out in violence, vigilantism or vandalism. So, it’s a good thing that, individually, most of us rarely do act out. But collectively or communally, when there is an explosion of social grievances felt, widespread and sustained unrest can be the result.

It may be a fight for democracy, anger over a fare increase, an unfair court judgment or brutal police killing; or in Hong Kong, a cancelled extradition bill. But they are only trigger points; they may start a prolonged unrest, riot, revolution … or nothing at all. Everyone and his dog will offer their explanations of what has happened and why. Social scientists are no more enlightening than taxi drivers. No one can predict them, but everyone pretends to know why afterwards.

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Lee said his film was based on two short stories of the same title, Barn Burning, by contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and a much older one by William Faulkner.

“I wanted the combination of these two stories to discuss the ambiguities of the world we live in and how there seems to be no answer to the questions that we have today – especially for young people,” he said.

“I feel like young people these days have realised that there’s something wrong in this world, but it’s very difficult to figure out exactly what is causing the problems and what lies underneath.”

The film’s plot is mostly based on Murakami’s story of ambiguities, but the sense of a metaphysical demand for justice, to right or prevent a wrong, is more explicit in Faulkner’s.

I think Lee is exactly right. We have all felt, especially when we are young, that there is something wrong about the world, something essential or important is out of order, and needs to be put right again. And young people are always right in this regard, because there is always something seriously wrong in this world that would justify resistance and violence.

But what should older people do? Follow the young rebels, lead them, ignore them, exploit them or oppose them and put them in their place or in jail?

I don’t want to put them in jail or otherwise ruin their careers and future. But I seriously don’t want to follow or encourage them either. Young people see absolutes and think they have the answer for you. I have no answer.