“Korea has a lot of han.” This is usually the explanation, when foreigners wonder why Koreans seem to have a particular preference for movies and dramas with tragic endings over the Hollywood sugar-coated happy ending. This is probably also the reason why the classic movie “Love Story” from 1970 was such a big hit in Korea.
But what is han? Han is a sino-Korean word represented by the Chinese character 恨 and written in Korean as 한. The Korean word for Korea is Hanguk, written in Korean as 한국 and in Chinese characters as 韓國. However, since the two words sound similar, Korea is sometimes called Hanguk (恨國) as a satirical pun, meaning the land of han. So, what does it mean? Han means sorrow, resentment, and regret.
Korea has a very sad history. Through centuries, the country has been dominated by both China and Japan, and as a consequence, the Korean people has suffered a lot. Most recently, Korea was under Japanese rule until 1945. During this time, Koreans were forced to take Japanese names, and the Korean language was prohibited. Adding insult to injury, an estimated 200,000 young Korean women were taken as slaves by the Japanese troops in Korea and abroad during the Japanese rule. Then came the Korean war, where the country was brutally split into North and South, in many cases separating people from their families and loved ones.
Although this is a long time ago, these memories remain in the hearts of the Koreans. While Korea today is an extremely modern and rich country, you can often feel a strong contrast between the new and modern Seoul and the old Seoul, which still bears marks from years of adversity. Because of all the oppression suffered by the country and its people, sad songs and movie endings may seem more appealing, since they are often closer to real life.
Not far from where I live, there’s an old Korean grandmother sitting on the sidewalk from dawn till dusk, selling fruit and vegetables in the burning sun. I usually buy something from her when I pass by her. Her face shows traces of hardship. There’s no doubt that her Korea is a lot different from mine. When I look into her eyes I can feel her han. But, despite the hardship she must have suffered, she proudly sits there day after day, earning whatever money she can selling her goods. Koreans don’t take pity from anyone. They realize that life is hard, but grit their teeth and just keep fighting. “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” I’ve really come to admire this trait, and I’ll strive to follow their example.
Do young Koreans also harbor a lot of han? It’s hard to imagine since Korea is known in the rest of Asia and the world for its vibrant pop culture, catchy happy-go-lucky pop songs, and beautiful people. However, after coming to Korea and spending increasingly more time with Koreans, I’ve realized that the music that many Koreans listen to is actually a lot different from the more export-oriented K-pop that fans outside of Korea love so much. My Korean best friend told me last time we met, after complaining that love was indeed a complicated matter, that young Koreans have a strong preference for sad love songs and sad love stories. While we were talking about this, a song was playing in the coffee shop, and he started singing along (like he usually does – although I’ve banned him from singing Wham’s “Last Christmas”). He then asked me if I understood. I started listening carefully to the lyrics, and was very surprised. The song was called “I don’t love you” (널 사랑하지 않아) and it may just be the saddest love song I have ever heard. It’s performed by the Korean RnB group Urban Zakapa (어반 자카파), and it’s just so beautiful and captivating, that I simply have to share it with you here on the blog. I’ll include two versions: One with the lyrics in both Korean and English, and the original music video. Feel free to enjoy, sing along, or cry. No matter which option you choose, they may all help in releasing your inner han.