Excellent article by Gord Sellar about the supposed uniqueness of 정 in Korean culture, with a few mentions of 한 and 화병.
But as much as I liked the article, I found myself shaking my head its description of 한 (han), because to me "victimhood" was never not what 한 was, or at least, not the best way of summing up 한.
As I understand it, 한 is loss and sorrow, made all the more tragic because it is a sorrow so profound and so deeply existential that it can never be truly pacified. It is linked to the Animist tradition of seeing humans as mere vehicles for primal forces of longing and hate that transcend death, living on in nature, passed down through generations. It is also influenced by the Buddhist concepts of karma and the idea that peace can never be had until one fully renounces the world.
While this particular way of framing 한 may be culture-specific, stories of ghosts—souls stuck in a limbo between life and death because of unfinished business, regrets, or vengeance—are universal. And the canon of Western literature is positively lousy with stories of lasting grudges and sorrows tainting entire dynasties: Wuthering Heights, for one, and possibly the entire body of Faulkner's work.
So I have long been puzzled when Koreans assert that 한 is not just a word that stands for a culture-specific way of communicating an emotion that all cultures have an experience of, but a characteristic, even a defining one, of some collective Korean psyche. I do not see why Koreans should have intellectual property rights to 한, when Jews—along with Romani and Irish and countless other ethnic groups—also suffered, not only the Holocaust, but hundreds of years of pogroms and libel and discrimination. It is notable that for this history, the Jewish nurtured a belief that the world owed them recompense for their suffering, that recompense being the Palestinian territory they seized to build their Zion. And very much like the Jewish, Koreans embrace their suffering and turn pent-up frustrations into a form of social credit that bestows carte blanche for violent unprovoked outbursts, passive-aggressive complaining, and generally making everyone else's lives miserable.
They call this sublimated aggression 화병 (hwabyung), and the phenomenon makes an appearance in the DSM (along with Fan Death). Many Koreans take this as official endorsement—by the American medical establishment, no less—of Korean specialness. This is doubtful, as the section of the DSM-IV dealing with "culturally-bound syndromes" encompasses all cultures, and along these lines, I see no reason to consider 화병 any different from the Malay mengamok, or school shootings in the United States. The only difference is that few Americans attempt to excuse school shooters because "they were repressed" in the same way that the destructive effects of 화병 are handwaved.
Consider what would have happened if Germans had clung to their Dolchstoßlegende—their own post-World-War-I persecution complex—and thereafter preferred to stew over the razing of Berlin, the firebombing of Dresden, and you may get a decent picture of what the narrative of 한 and 화병 that currently enjoys wide currency has always looked like, at least to me.
The comparison would incense many a Korean. I can already hear it: "But the Germans clearly brought it on themselves, therefore they deserved it! We were innocent!"This kind of reply is disingenuous, and it ignores the reality that Korean collabos were actively involved in the process of occupying Korea, as well as the fact that many Koreans weren't really gung-ho nationalists: vicious Japanese soldiers or tyrannical noble landlords, it was all the same to them. And before anyone starts to blather about how much
This all the while textbooks at the time were portraying the Japanese as rapacious vandals determined to steal our territory and culture—because Korean culture is so indisputably superior to others that everyone wants to steal it. And not surprisingly, to this day the discourse overwhelmingly focuses on how unfair it all is, how every powerful nation in the world is part of a conspiracy to screw Korea (with Japan in the lead), how Koreans shouldn't have to prove anything because it's patently obvious how wrong the Japanese are, and anyone who does not fully subscribe to this conviction is not worth humoring. It so happens that "anyone not worth humoring" also happens to include any international courts that may arbitrate on the matter.As may be expected, this refusal to "condescend" to debate—along with the "독도밀약" and the tacit concession to Japanese claims by former president Lee Myung-Bak's administration—immensely hurts any reasoned and earnest efforts to advance the Korean case.
Which is perfectly fine by politicians like Park and Lee, who peddle the myth of persecution to wounded Koreans, pretending to stand for their collective anger and frustrations, and using the gains got for their own ends: most of the compensation meant for Korean victims of Japanese occupation went to infrastructure projects which benefited Park, his political allies... and the Japanese companies that were hired for the purpose.And yet the same powerful Koreans who enthusiastically colluded with the Japanese have now become our politicians, the chaebol, and the heads of the powerful media conglomerates. Just last year, Koreans elected Park's daughter, who milks her association to her tyrant father for all it's worth, to the very presidency. If the Germans—who, by the way, have acknowledged their own civic irresponsibility in enabling the Nazi rise to power—were "deserving" of their own misfortune, what exonerates the average Korean who voted for Park Geun-Hye because "she's the big thing these days", "she's an orphan!", or because "my old man told me to"? (All quoted directly from people around me. I wish I were making these up.)
Simply put, so many things—like kimchi, and 한—have been appropriated to define a "Koreanness" that, pardon the analogy, I've never seen in the wild. What was once an indescribably expressive word rich in cultural associations has now been turned into a one-dimensional narrative of martyrdom, just as Koreans have grown so accustomed to polemics that their true history, in all its ambiguity and complexity, is mostly lost to them. And, quite frankly, if the definition of 한 is limited to being the end result of persecution, then how does making it part of a national identity—as the Jewish did—do anything but perpetuate the cycle of ignorance, violence, and exploitation?