As a Korean American who grew up around people who had never heard of my motherland, I feel like I’m living in an alternate universe these days. Korean culture is now everywhere: The Korean boy band BTS plays on the speakers at Target, Korean dramas fill up Netflix queues, and Korean skin care is its own category at Sephora. I’ve even found Korean BBQ chicken wings at a restaurant in rural Michigan.

But beyond these marketable aspects of the “Korean wave,” there’s a lesser-known word that is just as key to Korean culture—and my life—as kimchi and K-pop: han (한). One cannot fully understand Koreans without understanding han, so people say; yet at the same time, it is notoriously difficult to translate.

Broadly defined, han is a deep sorrow, resentment, and rage, felt in the collective and wrought by enduring oppression. Han hearkens to history and is relentlessly present from generation to generation. It is tinged with a haunting vengeance and a sense of incompleteness, a potent concoction that can lead even to death by hwabyeong, the Korean “anger syndrome.”

Han is what grips Steven Yeun in Beef. It’s what drifts through the lines of Korean adoptee and transnational Korean poets. It’s the only way to fully describe the intense emotions of families separated by the DMZ—the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea—families like my own.

As a Christian, my experiences of han have sometimes felt at odds with my faith. What can such a dark and weighty word have to do with a gospel of hope, joy, and love?

It turns out, a lot.

A history of han

According to Korean American scholar Michael D. Shin of Cambridge University, han is a fairly modern concept. It doesn’t show up in classical Korean literature, which tends to be jaunty and satirical, or in the earliest Korean-English dictionaries.

Han, derived from the Chinese character hen (恨; resentment, hatred, or regret), would become an established part of Korean culture only in the early 20th century during the Japanese occupation of Korea. In the following years, the Korean War deepened the sense of han as the country was divided in two and left in shambles.

By the 1980s, han was cemented as a self-identifying trait for South Koreans amid the country’s miraculous transformation into a world-class metropolis—a change that was fraught with internal political upheavals. South Korean poet and activist Ko Un wrote then, “We cannot deny that we were born from the womb of han and raised in the bosom of han.” If you are Korean, people have said, han runs through your veins.

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Other scholars of Korean descent, however, have more recently called the concept of han into question, especially regarding its usage within South Korea today. Minsoo Kang, professor of history at the University of Missouri–St Louis, writes that since the late 1990s, han has declined in cultural importance within the nation, “now to the point of irrelevance” as a “retrograde notion from the past,” especially among younger generations.

And what if han is not actually uniquely Korean but something that can be experienced in other cultures as well? Korean American theologian Andrew Sung Park, for example, has argued that, just as Koreans have han, Vietnamese have han, Mongolians have horosul, and Indians have upanaha.

Despite these arguments, scholars like Sandra So Hee Chi Kim have maintained that han is still an important concept to understand because it “carries within it a history of unmitigated collective traumas in Korea, which have created a very specific social and national imaginary in Korea and Korean diasporas.”

In other words, it is a word for the unspeakable grief of Korean historical memory—a grief that unites in the way it pounds in the hearts of a common people, yearning to feel whole.

It reminds me of another people who felt this way: the Israelites of the Old Testament.

God and han

Caught between larger kingdoms, whether Egypt and Mesopotamia or Assyria and Babylon, ancient Israel knew what it felt like to face loss after loss. Like Korea, Israel had a North and a South, saw brother turned against brother, and knew the trauma of generations of captivity and oppression.

Israel also knew how to cry out to God in distress, like the first Korean Christians did.

Although han would become a cultural fixture only in later decades, its first appearance in Korean history was at a revival in Pyongyang in 1907. This was when Christianity began to flourish on the Korean peninsula, says Shin, the Cambridge scholar.

The history of han, it turns out, is entwined with the history of Korean Christianity.

To the outsider, the revivals in 1907 were terrifying. American missionary William Blair called the days-long prayer meetings “the Korean Pentecost,” during which the people shouted and wailed and prayed out loud in unison for hours on end. “The effect was indescribable—not confusion, but a vast harmony of sound and spirit, a mingling together of souls moved by an irresistible impulse of prayer,” said Blair. It was “the like of which I had never seen before, nor wish to see again unless in God’s sight it is absolutely necessary.”

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Something about Christianity unbottled the raw han of the Koreans and brought it thundering into the presence of God. Today, over a century later, Korea is home to the world’s largest evangelical megachurch—Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul—and is one of the top missionary-sending nations. Maybe han, remarks Shin, is why Koreans took so well to Christianity.

It’s not hard to guess why. In the torrential cries of the Koreans at the turn of the century, living under threat of colonization, we can hear the similar cries of the Israelites.

In his book Old Testament Theology, John Kessler writes that psalms of individual and communal lament—not praise—are the most frequent type in the Psalter. The Israelites’ faith “was not a faith unable to embrace both the reality of a relationship with Yahweh and the experience of horrible distress at the same time,” he says.

Addressed to God, these psalms cover a wide breadth of situations: when falsely accused, in times of sickness or distress, in expressions of sin and guilt, and in times of communal crisis like exile and conquest. The psalms are “imprecatory,” calling for revenge against enemies. They are willing to even blame God for various situations, holding him responsible for the people’s sufferings.

It seems safe to say that the Israelites knew something akin to han too.

“You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations,” cry the Sons of Korah in Psalm 44, and in their words I hear the cries of my own elders, who were not allowed to speak their native tongue under Japanese colonial rule and whose families were later torn asunder, caught between the proxy battles of warring nations and ideologies. “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (vv. 11, 22).

Like han, communal psalms of lament are not just individual expressions of pain during hard times; they are choruses of sorrow sung by an entire community, knit together with a common history and uttered in the present throes of an unresolved despair.

Korean han, as it has come to be understood today, often directs turbulent emotions toward other people and systems or simply into the void. But han that is healed and sanctified becomes a means to envision and call for a better world. In other words, han can become prayer.

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From han to lament

In the summer of 2005, I found myself standing on the Chinese side of the Tumen River, looking across to North Korea, my grandfather’s homeland, which he left as a child fleeing the Korean War with only his mother, never to see the rest of his family again. The river was far shallower than I’d imagined, the other side much closer than I could have thought, yet the country and its people—perhaps still my people—were impossibly far.

Later that evening, our team, which consisted mainly of young Korean Americans and Korean Canadians who, like me, have complicated connections to the North, broke down in tears as we prayed out loud in unison.

We lamented over the river, where we knew refugees regularly crossed into China for a life of hardship and poverty. We grieved the family members we would never know and the intense persecution experienced today by our North Korean family in Christ. We cried out in our han for the wounds of our parents and grandparents, for the rift between two nations that we could not heal.

We prayed with our han, and it took us to the Cross.

Today, amid news upon news of other regions’ generational enmities and sorrows—Israel and Palestine, Ukraine and Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan—my han becomes a small bridge into mourning alongside the world. When han becomes prayer, our collective sorrow reaches beyond ethnic boundaries to touch the wounds of the nations.

What’s even more astonishing is that the Spirit also laments within us; we become, writes N. T. Wright, “small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.” Maybe this is part of the blessing that Jesus promises to those who mourn in Matthew 5:4: When we grieve, God is with us.

“Who then are the mourners?” asks theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff in Lament for a Son:

The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. … They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. … They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries.

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Both Wright and Wolterstorff articulate what our communal grief as believers can look like when cupped in the hands of God. He can transform broken, despondent bearers of han into mourners whom he calls blessed, whom he anoints even with hope.

Whether han is uniquely Korean or not, in Christ, all of us are called to learn how to collectively lament before the face of God: to become aching visionaries loved by an aching God (Isa. 53:3).

Each time I encounter han in Korean art, media, or culture or feel it stirring inside my own heart, I remember its origins at a Christian revival. I remember that in Christ, our deepest sorrows and pains can sweep us into the presence of God. The mourners cannot heal the sorrows of the world, but we can go to the one who will—and is even now so doing.

Sara Kyoungah White is a copy editor for Christianity Today.

[ This article is also available in 한국어. ]