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Korean Han and the Postcolonial Afterlives of "The Beauty of Sorrow"


In this article, I depart from the typical discussion of the Korean sociocultural concept of han as a collective feeling of unresolved resentment, pain, grief, and anger that runs in the blood of all Koreans. Scholars, artists, writers, and critics frequently characterize han as “the Korean ethos” and the soul of Korean art, literature, and film. It is said to be unique to Koreans and incomprehensible to Westerners. I argue, however, that its contemporary biologisticoriented meaning emerged first during the Japanese colonial period as a colonial stereotype, and that tracing the afterlife of han gives us a postcolonial understanding of its deployment in culture. I examine how hanoriginated under the contradictions of coloniality, how it evolved from a colonial construct to its adoption into Korean ethnonationalism, and how it travels into a completely new context through the Korean diaspora. Rather than dismissing han as nothing more than a social construct, I instead define han as an affect that encapsulates the grief of historical memory—the memory of past collective trauma—and that renders itself racialized/ethnicized and attached to nation.