The Role of Han in Korean Christianity
The skyline of Seoul, South Korea is a view dotted by red neon crosses that mark the numerous churches in the city. Just as these crosses blaze at the horizon, the spirit of evangelization passionately manifests in the hearts of Korean believers. In fact, South Korea sends more missionaries into the world than any country but the U.S.
Despite the fact that Korean culture is indelibly linked to these two countries, Christianity has somehow taken root in Korea where it has not in China or Japan. This anomaly may be inherently related to Korea’s cultural concepts that originate from its history of both internal and external oppression, especially a concept known as han. While han is a difficult concept to characterize at first glance, it plays an important role in the past and future development of Christianity in Korea.
Han is a uniquely Korean concept that is described by Korean theologian Suh Nam Dong as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.”[i] In practice, han is untranslatable, and can be most simply viewed as an emotional state that combines grief, anger, and resentment at injustice. Methodist theologian Andrew Sung Park compares it to a black hole, where “suffering reaches the point of saturation, it implodes and collapses into a condensed feeling of pain. This collapsed feeling of sadness, despair, and bitterness is han.”[ii] As one of the more distinctive aspects of Korean culture, han permeates everything, from the nature of domestic films and literature to national reactions against tragedies, such as the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, in which over 200 high school students died. The outpouring of grief and anger towards this tragedy marks the national state of mind that subscribes to the concept of han—bitterness and resentment at the preventability of the accident, and grief and devastation at the lives lost.
To better understand the roots of han in Korean culture, an outsider must look at the country’s history of oppression, especially the Japanese colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Still fresh in the national mindset, the Japanese occupation of Korea signified a loss of national identity and dignity as Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and the Japanese language, while being treated as second-class citizens in their own country. It was during this time that Christianity, which was first introduced to Korea through the diplomat Yi Gwang Jeong, became popular as Korean Christians joined the independence movement against the occupation.[iii] The signing of a declaration of independence by their leaders and their resistance against worship of the Japanese emperor allied the Christian cause with Korean nationalism in the eyes of many Koreans.[iv]
The Japanese occupation of Korea in the 20th century is a more modern example of what many Koreans consider to be a 5,000-year struggle under the oppression from Korea’s neighbors, a rigid social structure, and political turmoil. Heroes lauded in Korean history books and literature consist of those who stood against such oppression, such as General Yi Sun Sin, who defeated hundreds of ships in the Japanese navy with only twelve of his own, and Hong Gil Dong, a folk tale hero akin to Robin Hood, who fought the corruption of the upper classes and eventually established his own utopian Korea.[v] A history of pain and suffering is deeply rooted in the national identity, and subsequently, so is a cultural inclination towards relief from misfortune and receiving material blessings.
Korea’s traditional religious background, which consists of Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, focuses on this overwhelming desire for good fortune—from praying to the spirits of ancestors for longevity and good luck, to praying at a Buddhist temple for aid with a child’s exam scores or job interview. In “Christianity and Korean Culture: The Reasons for the Success of Christianity in Korea,” Jung Han Kim attributes the spiritual roots of Korea to a syncretistic, shamanistic, and blessings-oriented religion; indeed, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism in Korea all contain elements derived from Korean Shamanism.[vi] When Christianity began to take root along with the beginnings of modernization in Korea, the situation was no different—elements of Shamanism were added to make Christianity another blessings-oriented faith. The core message became one of individual success and national prosperity that came with accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. This message is still prevalent, as recently evidenced by the faith of blessing preached by Cho Yong Gi at the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which is presently one of the largest churches in the world.[vii]
Beyond its ability to synchronize with the blessings-oriented philosophy of Korean culture, Christianity also ensured its growth by addressing Korea’s history of oppression and the concept of han. Thus, it is not surprising that Korean Christianity is sometimes seen as a cultural identity instead of a religious belief; the growth of the religion is directly tied to one of the more traumatic experiences in the nation’s history, making Christianity an essential part of a period that is now a fundamental component of Korean culture. Unlike Rome with Catholicism and Germany with Protestantism, the root of Christian growth in Korea is not spiritual but cultural. Christianity was able to speak to the indignant suffering that is engrained in the concept of han by making itself one of the key figures in the struggle against Japanese oppression.
Han eventually became an essential part of a uniquely Korean branch of theology called minjung shinhak, also known as “the people’s theology.” Developed in the 1970s, minjung theology was defined by its authors as “a development of the political hermeneutics of the Gospel in terms of the Korean reality.”[viii] At the time of the theology’s conception, South Korea witnessed several military regimes that were criticized for their dictatorial methods of government and violence against student activists. For Koreans, the Christian concept of the individual became important during the struggle for human rights and democracy at this time; thus, minjung theology spoke to the people suffering under the oppressors, and stems primarily from the social and political injustices suffered by the Korean people, rather than the Bible. Minjung theologian Suh Nam Dong observed that “God works through history… History itself is God,” which implied that God was present in the nation’s history before Christianity was introduced to Korea.[ix] This brand of theology is not for export; it instead interlinks Korea’s cultural roots with Christianity, so that the painful national history that is an essential part of every Korean’s identity can find a place within an outside religion and reconcile its foreign nature with what is fundamental to Korean culture.
Korea’s aptitude towards condensed grief and anger is one that often festers as a grudge, whether the offense is personal or national. Though it is easy to view Christianity as a balm of sorts for this phenomenon, its relationship to han and, through it, to the Korean people, is actually more complex. Han is not only a festering wound to be healed, but also a look into the nature of sin. Andrew Sung Park writes that han can been seen as the latter, an often unrecognized partner to sin.[x] Where Western theology largely pays attention to sinners and their actions and struggles, Korean theology focuses on the victims of the sin who must experience some form of han. By understanding han, one also understands the completely devastating nature of sin in what it leaves behind—a black hole. After all, despite being a uniquely Korean concept, han is a universal phenomenon; accounts from residents of Japanese internment camps in the 1940s, victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and former slaves in the United States all indicate an unspeakable amount of suffering that stems purely from the sins of others. The extent of this suffering is han—it is hard to articulate and hard to define, and yet it is felt by anyone who has a personal or cultural history of oppression.
The fact that han is so essential to Korean culture allows Korean Christians to develop a high level of awareness of the devastating effects of sin—not only on other human beings, but also on God himself. Park discusses the idea of divine han, where God is also capable of suffering in the way Koreans and other cultures of oppression have suffered.[xi] The image of a suffering God is prevalent in the Old Testament, notably when he is depicted as a woman in labor as he bemoans Babylonian rule over Israel: “For a long time, I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in travail, I will gasp and pant.”[xii] But perhaps the most prominent image of a suffering God is as Jesus Christ on the cross—it is the ultimate suffering for all the sins of humanity.
Coming to realize that God also suffers with han can allow Korean Christians to transcend the blessings-oriented, Shamanistic element of Korean Christianity and understand a more complete and spiritual faith. The growth of Korean Christianity to modern times has been reliant on a traumatic past that subscribes to a Shamanistic type of faith which evolved from the feeling of han. Yet through this same emotion, Korean Christians must be able to move past a blessings-oriented, religious culture that stems from han, and instead link han to a realization of sin and their own spiritual journeys. Han in and of itself is a toxic emotion that needs to be resolved—by bringing han to light, juxtaposed against sin, the suffering of victims comes to the forefront with divine forgiveness. In this way, the history of oppression that has defined Korean culture can be resolved with a realization of God as savior and healer, rather than as an indifferent source of material blessings that do nothing for an entire nation’s sense of emotional anguish.
While the millennia of oppression experienced by Koreans has created a form of suffering that is hard to articulate, Korea is distinct as a beacon of faith in East Asia. Korea found God in one of its most crucial cultural concepts, and through him, may find a path not only to relief but also to redemption. Understanding han as a second part to sin is crucial in Korea’s evolution from maintaining a foundation of blessings-oriented Shamanism to truly seeking resolution for its history of oppression.
i. Boo-wong Yoo, Korean Pentecostalism: Its History and Theology (New York: Verlag Peter Lang, 1988), 221.
ii. Andrew Sung Park, The Wounded Heart of God (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1993), 17.
iii. Han-sik Kim, “The Influence of Christianity,” Korean Journal 23, no. 12 (1983): 5.
iv. Colin Whittaker, Korea Miracle (Eastbourne, Sussex: Kingsway, 1998), 63.
v. Yi Sun-sin, Nanjung Ilgi: War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, ed. Pow Key Sohn (Republic of Korea: Yonsei University Press, 1977), 312.
vi. Jung Han Kim, “Christianity and Korean culture: The reasons for the success of Christianity in Korea,” Exchange 33, no. 2 (2004): 132-152.
vii. Wonsuk Ma, “David Yonggi Cho’s Theology of Blessing: Basis, Legitimacy and Limitations,” Evangelical Review of Theology 35, no. 2 (2011): 140- 159.
viii. David Kwang-Sun Suh, “A Biographical Sketch of an Asian Theological Consultation,” in Minjung Theology, ed. Commission on Theological Concerns of the Christian Conference of Asia (Singapore: The Christian Conference of Asia, 1983), 17.
ix. Yeong Mee Lee, “A Political Reception of the Bible: Korean Minjung Theological Interpretation of the Bible,” SBL Forum, n.p.
x. Park, 69-85.
xi. Park, 111-127.
xii. Isaiah 42:14 (ESV).
Joyce Lee ’19 is from Valencia, California. She is a Government major and a Chinese minor.Tags: Andrew Sung Park, Buddhism, Cho Yong Gi, Confucianism, forgiveness, government, history, Jung Han Kim, Korea, minjung shinhak, politics, Shamanism, suffering, Suh Nam Dong, Taoism, Yi Gwang Jeong