Unifying Principles

Recently, a friend of mine handed me a book by scholar Chang-Hee Son entitled,”Haan of Minjung Theology and Han of Han Philosophy: In the Paradigm of Process Philosophy and Metaphysics of Relatedness.”

This book has shifted the course of my research in the most profound of ways. I came here to investigate what I initially referred to as the “national Korean psyche.” I was fascinated by the dissonance between what is known as North and what is known as South, how these articulations of Koreanness were embodied and expressed through traditional (read: pre-division) music and dance forms, how they diverged and converged and what this all meant in terms of prospects for national unification. This is all still in the mix of things. But upon further research and in the time that I have spent living here (6 months now), my search for understanding has made it clear that one cannot truly understand the ‘psyche’ in nationalistic or otherwise political terms. At least not only in these terms, and certainly not as a preliminary notion. To understand the psyche - or the soul, mind, and spirit – of the Korean people, one needs to look more deeply, expansively, and metaphysically. This is what I have been getting at all along, but my particular lens has just been adjusted so that I may see  in deeper vision, and more particularly, in stereoscopic vision, which I will explain here.

Haan and Han are two aspects and levels of the Korean psyche that can be understood to be articulations of the Korean pathos and ethos, respectively. The former is psychological in nature. It is most often understood as suffering, loss and unrequited longing, resentment for injustices one has had to endure. Though it should be noted that there are several different forms and gradations of haan, not all of them dark, or negative. The dark haan of longing, resentment, or grief can be transformed into positive energy and action, as in Minjung (roughly translates as “the people” in a socio-cultural and spiritual sense) movement and Minjung Theology. The latter is an indigenous philosophy of unity and harmony, and has lived in the Korean mind, forming Korean identity, since virtually the inception of civilization on this particular piece of Eastern land. Philosophical Han speaks to unifying humankind and the universe, and tracing the articulations of man living in harmony with nature and the cosmos through the balance of Yin and Yang, as well as the Five Elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) and the five directions (East, West, North, South, and Center). It is the essence of the Korean mind and identity, whereas Haan is the expression of the Korean heart. Both of these phenomena have different manifestations within Korean culture, and hold within them different understandings of the psyche and meanings embedded within sociocultural phenomena.

I have referenced haan before on this blog, and intend to clarify the differences between it and the philosophical Han, for they are spelled the same in hangeul, but are very different entities. I take the spellings from Son’s book, as it helps to clarify between the two.

Psychological haan could be thought of as akin to the blues in Black America. (And actually, Kim San mentions in “Song of Ariran” how the independence fighters during occupation had a fondness for the music of American blues musicians as well as Black Christian hymnals.) Haan can be experienced on the individual and collective level, the latter being the result of political and social injustices imposed upon a group of people, which was widely felt under the various postwar regimes of south Korea. Psychological haan is hardship and suffering that accumulates over time, and is felt in a world of separations and dualisms. It is a state of disunity, opposition, and the longing to overcome such disparities. This collective suffering found hope in what is known as Minjung Theology – an integration of Christianity into the Korean context. The belief in Christ gave hope that there could be resolution to one’s haan, and so it gave meaning to one’s suffering. It has given Korean a collective voice from which to form solidarity amongst the socially and economically oppressed, and practical means by which to attain resolution. It can be argued how successful this has been, but regardless, it has been an empowering and organizing force amongst Korea’s Minjung. (Minjung can be applied to any group of people, anywhere in the world, that suffers hardships from unjust political, social, and economic rule.)

Philosophical Han, on the other hand, is characterized by nonorientability, or a lack of boundaries and dualisms. As can be understood in the Korean language, Koreans do not differentiate between ‘you’ and ‘me.’ Instead it’s ‘us’ and ‘we.’ The immediate separations between ‘self’ and ‘other’ the Westerners take for granted, is not the natural state of relationship in the Korean mind. There is a familial connotation in all of this that I really love and appreciate.

Further,  in Son’s treatise, Han can be understood as another articulation of process philosophy, or the ontology of becoming, which in essence states that the nature of being is change and transformation. Everything is always in the process of becoming. To better define this in terms of philosophical Han, we can think of the idea of concrescence, which has both biological and philosophical meanings, but essentially is a concept of novel togetherness; that disparate things can join together and begin a new process of growth and becoming. (Indeed this can also be thought of in terms of process philosophy. I am concurrently wondering about the potentialities of Deleuzian applications to Han philosophy within the particular context of my work.) Philosophical Han looks to overcome dualisms, and to unify and harmonize all the elements of the Universe to grow in a dynamic process of change and transformation. Pretty great, huh?

So what does this mean for Korea?

In my previous post I wrote of colonization, one of the major upheavals within Korea in its modern history. This period of strife was followed by national division and civil war, and since then Korea has never been the same. Indeed, Son worded it in terms of haan and han: that after national division, there was “no more han, only haan.” National unity was lost to ideological battles, torn between north and south, self/other, you/me, us/them, etc. Son and other scholars go on to argue that in tandem with this, the embrace of Christianity for the Minjung Theologians, though empowering and organizing, has also worked to the disadvantage of the cause of national unity, as it usurps the indigenous way of thinking (Han) and gives primary acknowledgement to the perception of the world through the dualistic view of Western thought. (BTW, this is not to discredit Christianity in any way, and Son himself is a devout Christian. This view is a critical statement of Western society’s dualistic thinking that has trumped indigenous Korean thought, which is oriented toward nondualism and unity.)

Sang-Yil Kim, Han scholar wrote:

Both forms of Han come from the native Korean mind, but the Haan of Minjung Theology is created from dualistic disharmonious feelings, whereas the Han of Hanism promotes the nondualistic harmonious feelings. It is my understanding that the former Haan entails unresolved resentment while the latter Han entails resolved love. So Haan can be resolved through Han: Haan and Han should be united together.

Indeed, Koreans have the philosophical and spiritual tools needed to rethink the division between north and south. Clearly there are very real issues concerning the economic, social and political difficulties a unified Korean nation would hypothetically face, and yet wouldn’t it be valuable to be able to understand these issues in terms of the spiritual?

Can we understand unification within the context of humanity in a dynamic process of becoming, a concrescense of change and transformation?

Are we, particularly those in power, capable as human beings to do this yet?

A new set of questions as I continue my work…

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02 2010

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