Pursuing Han

June 23, 2012 | By | Reply More

Written by Sandra K. Webster, Senior Lecturer ’00-01

A graduate student introduced me to han early in my time at Korea University. He was struggling to explain his complex psychology research project in English but could not find the words. He told me he was experiencing han but he couldn’t tell me what it was. The word han was not in the lexicon of cross-cultural emotions and it intrigued me.

I soon discovered that Korean professors of my generation would not discuss han with me. They simply said, “We don’t talk about han.” I turned to Korean students who gave me a basic understanding of the Korean national emotion, han, through a series of writing assignments, speaking exercises and group discussions culminating in an experiment. This psychological research into the meaning of the emotion led to a deeper understanding and appreciation for Korean arts.

Han can be described as the experience of holding a painful emotion deep in one’s heart while not expressing the pain directly. If not resolved, han can lead to psychosomatic illness and other psychological problems. Indirect sublimation of han, however, can both reduce the pain and build character. According to the students, the creation or experience of art representing deep experience and sublime expression of the complex emotion is an appropriate form of sublimation.

Korean pottery (for example Koryo celadon and Punch’ong stoneware) is justifiably famous for its subtle beauty and superb craftsmanship. As a psychologist and potter, I feel a kinship with the makers of Korean ceramics, as if my own spirit is compatible with the people who used their craft and art to express such sublime sentiments. Indeed, it was Korean pottery that prompted me to study in Korea.

Korean students were eloquent in their written and spoken descriptions of han. They described the Chinese character for han — which has a vertical line that represents a splinter in the heart — and they differentiated this term han from the homophonic terms meaning the Korean people, the number one and the Han River.

The students explained that han resulted from injustice, some terrible situation that was neither caused by nor under the control of the person experiencing han. They linked han to Korea’s division into North and South, about its history of foreign domination and about the hierarchical nature of Korean society. The students also described the key features of han; it is experienced but not expressed, it is understood as a Korean national trait and its resolution builds positive character. When I lined them up to get a picture of the facial expression of han, these very polite Korean students laughed at me. I hadn’t read their essays at that point, nor heard their discussions: Han is not expressed on the face.

The quantitative study of the emotion was an experiment assessing the ways Korean students and their parents perceived it. My graduate students and I presented a description of han, altering the age (25 vs. 50) and gender of the person experiencing it.  The experiment measured emotion words used to describe the experience, perceived consequences and methods of resolving han.

We found that han was perceived to be strongest for the middle-age man and the young woman depicted. We also found many positive perceived outcomes of han, and reiterated the strong connection to the Korean arts as a means of resolving han, ranging from traditional Korean musical styles such as Pansori to modern Korean movies.

My deepest interest as a scientist is what han tells us about the general nature of emotion. What are the dimensions of feeling? How are complex emotions experienced, expressed and resolved? My continuing research has produced consistent evidence for three dimensions of emotion using the emotion label ratings given for the han scenarios by South Korean and American samples. The strongest dimension is the pleasure-pain dimension, commonly called the valence of the emotion. Han is perceived as mostly painful. The second dimension is arousal, and han situations tend to produce high arousal. The final dimension is dominance-subordination. This dimension is often neglected in emotion research using only Western participants. Han is perceived as a subordinate emotion in that it is reactive and disconnected from a sense of personal agency.

Over the past 10 years I’ve conducted a series of experiments on the dimensions of emotions attempting to elicit han-like emotion memories in American students by varying the agent of a negative situation and the outcome of that situation. Han is a deep emotion experienced because of a negative outcome to the self caused through no personal agency, which makes it very different from guilt or shame. The results of this research have supported the importance of the dominance-subordination dimension in understanding basic emotional processes, even in Western samples. It has not produced evidence for the positive benefits of han through sublimation in American samples. American college students, in general, don’t seem to understand the concept of sublimation or of personal growth through conscious, prolonged suffering. Han has positive as well as negative consequences for Koreans through its indirect expression. [1] Direct investigation alone cannot work well because one of the key characteristics of han is that it is not directly expressed. This is why my colleagues in South Korea could not talk with me about it.

Han should be implicitly understood by those in the group, and not discussed, especially with outsiders. The students could speak and write about the general experience of han because of their relationship to a professor. Vertical communication of sensitive information is more acceptable. The Korea students could not demonstrate a facial expression for han. Han is not expressed on the face; it is most often expressed by making or observing artistic presentations.

Being aware of the importance of han for Korean arts allowed me to see its expression in poetry, songs, drama and visual arts. It was most clear for me in the sublime work of modern Korean potters. The perfect melding of form, function, decoration and color in a vessel made of clay, especially of the soil of one’s homeland, can express deep emotion through the visual and kinesthetic senses.

As a potter I also tried to indirectly express han in my own work. Through a class at the National Museum of Art in Seoul I discovered the strength, malleability and smoothness of Korean clay. It is a metaphor for the Korean people, strong, resilient and adaptable. Decoration of the clay form is as important as the materials in Korean pottery. The decorations, congruent with the forms, add to the its emotional expression. As I learned through a Korean folk dancing class, Korean art has the superficial appearance of being spontaneous, but that spontaneity is possible only because of the many hours of training, highly developed skills and a very clearly defined cultural lexicon for expression of emotions through non-verbal means.

As I’ve studied emotion over the last decade I’ve come to a deep appreciation of han. It made me curious about another Korean emotion I have not had the opportunity to study through a psychological research program. One consequence of han is that when properly resolved it can strengthen connections between persons and the rest of their group (present and past). Jeong, or a strong feeling of “we”-ness, may be directly related to han.

In my pottery I’ve attempted to express jeong through a series of bowls. These bowls are decorated with a chain of people, arm in arm, as I witnessed the South Korean school girls on the streets of Seoul. Because the people form a closed, complete circle there is a unity of the group; no one is on the end. The group surrounds the bowl and holds it up on the outside. The same pattern of interlocked friends is also on the inside of the bowl where they can share in receiving whatever contents are placed inside. I hope this series communicates — subtly under the celadon glaze — the strength of human connection in groups with a shared history, purpose and future.

As an American I am free to express han, or at least the academic research into it, in ways that are difficult for my South Korean colleagues. When I presented the results in Korea, some members of the audience cried. They told me: “You tell us who we are.”

I’ve been pursuing han since I was first introduced to it 11 years ago. Because of this, my understanding of art, life and people has been made richer. Han, like the Korean people, is not an emotion to be understood or experienced quickly. Its resolution, with patience, perseverance and deep contemplation, is essential to understand both the human experience of emotion and artistic expression.

Sandra K. Webster was a 2000 Fulbright Lecturer in Psychology at Korea University and Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul.


[1] Choi, S.-C., & Kim, K. (2003). A conceptual exploration of the Korean self in comparison with the Western self. In K.-S. Yang, Hwang, Kwang- Kuo, Pederson, Paul B. & Diabo, Ikuo (Ed.), Progress in Asian social psychology (pp. 29-42). Westport, CN: Praeger.

Category: Senior Lecturer/Scholar, Volume 5

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *