Han, 한 ((Korean), 恨 (Chinese)
Han is a slippery and subtle term that, depending on context, denotes everything from “resentment” and “lamentation” to “unfulfilled desire” and “resignation.” Han can be vaguely defined as the deep-rooted sadness, bitterness, and longing sparked by prolonged injustices and oppression. Various scholars have identified the sociopolitical sources of Korean han to include: a long history of foreign invasions by the Chinese, the Japanese, and the West; patriarchal Confucian traditions that have silenced and enslaved women for hundreds of years; the inhumane treatment and exploitation of the subaltern class under the feudal caste system as well as during the full-throttle modernization process; and the gross violations of civil rights by successive authoritarian military regimes (1961-1992) in the postcolonial period. It is widely believed that han is uniquely Korean, a concept that almost, if not completely, escapes translatability in other cultural lexicons. Im Kwon-taek—a household name in South Korea and a director whose oeuvre brims with han-centric films that aestheticize Korean history, tradition, and culture in melodramatic modes—concisely sums up this position: “Han is not a concept that Koreans can agree on. I can’t even count the number of books that have been written about han….
However, han is a specific emotion that has profound links to the history of the Korean people, and as such, might be a difficult concept for non-Koreans to grasp fully.” The overlooked transnational valency of the concept becomes salient once we examine the etymological roots of this monosyllabic Sino-Korean character. According to a Chinese-English dictionary, “han is hen (‘hate’) in Chinese, kon (‘to bear a grudge’) in Japanese, horosul (‘sorrowfulness’) in Mongolian, korsocuka (‘hatred,’ ‘grief’), and hân (‘frustration’) in Vietnamese.” The Korean concept han also bears a striking resemblance to Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment, which refers to a particular type of anger and resentment that results from sustained periods of subordination and oppression. The French term ressentiment is central to Nietzsche’s conceptualization of morality. In his landmark philosophical treatise on the historical evolution of Judeo-Christian moral values, On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche defines ressentiment as a process by which the powerless and oppressed cope with pain through emotion and imaginary revenge. Nietzsche identified the ancient Jews as people of ressentiment par excellence.
The existence of similar concepts throughout East and Southeast Asia as well as in Western philosophy challenges the local claim that han is uniquely Korean and thus untranslatable to non-Koreans.
Hye Seung Chung
Works Cited and Consulted
James, David E. and Kyung Hyun Kim, Ed., Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University press, 2002)
Lee, Jae Hoon, The Exploration of the Inner Wounds-Han (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, Ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, Trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Park, Andrew Sung, The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993)
Sapiro, Michael, The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990)
Son, Chang Hee, Haan of Minjung Theology and Han of Han Philosophy: In the Paradigm of Process Philosophy and Metaphysics of Relatedness (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000)
Author Citation Information: Chung, Hye Seung, "Han", ODIP: The Online Dictionary of Intercultural Philosophy (2020), Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (ed.), URL = <https://www.odiphilosophy.com/korea>.
Mu-Gyo or Muism (巫敎) (Korean)
Mu-Gyo or Muism (巫敎) indicates Korean indigenous religion, often called Korean shamanism. Mu-gyo has been regarded as a religion of low level and identified as a superstitious belief system. It gave way to Buddhism and Confucianism in traditional societies while serving people of lower status, especially women. Mu-gyo has been and is still a religion of women, a religion for women, and a religion by women in Korea. Religious activities are performed by individual shamans, mostly female, and the holy orders are transmitted through special spiritual rituals or through hereditary lines. Mu-gyo has been transformed in accordance with social changes and infiltrated with other religions. Many religions practiced in Korea have Mu-gyo tinges, whether they like them or not. It is believed that Muism constitutes the unconscious level of Korean culture.
Author Citation Information: Kim, Heisook, “Mu-Gyo,” ODIP: The Online Dictionary of Intercultural Philosophy (2012), Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (ed.), URL = <>.
Ouri 우리 [oo-rie] “Presubjective self” in Korean
Ouri is a Korean word that is equivalent to the first-person plural pronouns in Western languages. Ouri is used in the contexts where it means ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our,’ but when it is used as ‘our,’ some of the contexts where ‘our’ is used in Korean are idiosyncratic, such as ‘our husband’ or ‘our wife’ referring to the spouse of the speaker in a situation where the interlocuter does not share the spouse with the speaker. It is simply a common way of saying ‘my husband’ or ‘my wife’ in Korean. In fact, ‘my spouse’ is hardly said in everyday life, both in written and spoken forms. This linguistic practice could be interpreted to represent the collective culture of Korean society in comparison to the more individualistic culture of the West.
As much as this kind of intercultural comparison is a cliché, it also reflects some truth about the difference between cultures. However, beyond these cultural and historical differences, there is an element represented in this expression that is related to a way of our self-understanding that is universal, and more than just an indicator of some characteristics of a certain culture. The linguistic practice of saying ‘ouri husband’ represents pre-subjective self as ‘we.’ When the self is ‘we,’ the self-ness of the self is not dependent on the self-representation of the self because of the irreducible distinction between self and other within the ‘we.’ A self can be aware of a relation without reflection on its self-ness based on the self-objectifying or self-representing system of the ‘I,’ the subject. Pre-subjective self refers to the fundamental-ontological condition of the self that is necessarily in relation with others.
Hye Young Kim
Kim, Hye Young: We as Self: Ouri, Intersubjectivity, and Presubjectivity. Lanham: Lexington, 2020.
Author Citation Information: <Kim, Hye Young, “Ouri,” ODIP: The Online Dictionary of Intercultural Philosophy (2021), Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (ed.), URL = <>.
Shin-Myung (神明) (Korean)
Shin-Myung (神明) is pronounced as shen ming in Chinese and shin myung in Korean. Shin means spirit or god and Myung means clear understanding. Thus Shin-Myung together means spiritual understanding of the sacred who could intuitively penetrate the surface of phenomena and reaching the inner truth of nature. The concept originates from Taoism and appears in Chuang Tzu as ‘spirit’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘nature’. Being incorporated with Korean indigenous shaman culture, it now means extraordinary or trans-natural power of emotion by which one experiences a supernatural spirit. It also signifies a high state of joyfulness.
Author Citation Information: Kim, Heisook, “Shin-Myung,” ODIP: The Online Dictionary of Intercultural Philosophy (2012), Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (ed.), URL = <>.