Jeong and Han, a look at the Korean psyche.
Maybe the title isn’t really accurate. Even though the world has many different cultures and cultural norms, one thing that all humans have in common is our range of emotions. Some sources claim that han and jeong are specifically Korean feelings, and for the most part, I agree, but not because Koreans feel in different ways than other kinds of people do, simply that the Korean language has specific words for these feelings. Being someone who has lived in both Korea and outside of it, and kind of being Korean and kind of not, I can say that I myself have always had these feelings, but I only learned the words to express them recently. Afterall, what are emotions other than words we assign to chemical concentrations in the brain. What is the difference between happy, content, elated, pleased, and feeling good? The differences may be minor, but there is a difference. So is the case with jeong and han.
So what is jeong?
Jeong (정,情) is, according to certain translations, a feeling of affection or attachment. The best short explanation I have ever heard about it is “Korean connection feeling”, but that translation already assumes that you know what it is. Jeong, as I understand it, is a feeling of deep connection with something to the point that it is a part of you, and it is inseparable from you. You can feel jeong for other people (like your parents, siblings, friends, lovers, spouses, or coworkers), things (like your house, your car, or a 1980’s era Spider-Man action figure with removable clothes made by Mattel that your brother took a hammer to years after you stopped playing with it), animals (like your dog, cat, or cow), and places (like your hometown or home country.) I suppose you could call it a level of comfort and familiarity, but even that isn’t enough to truly embody what it is. No translation or explanation can do justice to jeong, so I’ll try to explain with examples. Couples who appear as if they hate each other often stay together because they have jeong. When you move to a more modern apartment, you have a sense of loss because you’ve got jeong with your old house. You can even have jeong with your old shoes, even though you know you need to buy new ones.
I think I understand.. what exactly is Han then?
Well, to put it briefly, han (한, 恨) is similar to jeong, but in some ways it is the exact opposite.
Similar and opposite are totally different! That’s impossible.
Well let me explain. Han is defined in the dictionary as deep resentment, sorrow, or regret. But of course, that alone isn’t enough to explain it. What’s missing is the level of familiarity. So, I’d have to say that it’s almost impossible to have han if there is no jeong. Say a thief comes by and steals your TV. Yea, you’d feel pissed, but it doesn’t create any han because you don’t know the thief and you really don’t care about what happens to him, you don’t really hate him, you hate what he did. On the other hand, if you give your son $500 so he can pay his rent and buy school supplies, and he blows it all on beer, it creates han. You love your son. You are angry at him for spending your money foolishly. At the same time, he knows that he disappointed you and that disappointment might cause a little resentment.
Another example that most Americans will get is the relationship between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (or at least their fan bases) The Yankees and Red Sox have an intense hatred for each other, but at the same time, they know each other so well and have a mutual respect. Red Sox fans probably know just as much about the Yankees as they do about their own team, and vice versa. Another example of han could be characterized by the relationship between Korea and Japan. Casual observers would simply say that Koreans “hate” Japan for historical reasons. But if you were to ask a Korean what some stereotypes of Japanese are, they’d tell you that Japanese are well organized, very clean, follow rules well, hardworking, diligent, polite, and kind. That, if anything, is not hate. It is respect. And that’s why han is so hard to describe. It is an intense loathing for something to the point that if it didn’t exist, your very identity would be totally different.
Can you explain it in any different ways?
I don’t want to use any cliché but the yin and yang symbol is a perfect graphical representation of han and jeong. All han must have at least some jeong in it. All jeong must also have some han.
Why does jeong need han?
You can’t develop any kind of connection with someone or something, without knowing its good and bad points. You have to accept those bad points and sometimes you will resent them. Perhaps you feel comfortable in your old car, but it will rust after a while. Perhaps you love your wife but she has an annoying habit that drives you nuts. That is why all jeong comes with han. All han, by definition must come with jeong.
I wrote this article in an attempt to explain emotions that Koreans identify as uniquely Korean feelings, but I hope that after reading it, we realize that these are universal feelings, and most languages simply don’t have the words to adequately describe them.
If you are Korean and think my interpretation of jeong and han are wrong, then by all means tell me in a comment about how you would describe both feelings. If there’s something I overlooked, then I’d be happy to learn more.
Edit: I appreciate the fact that Koreans and Americans think differently (group mindset vs individual mindset) I still feel however that jeong and han are feelings that can be felt by all.