What are ARIRANG and HAN?

When I sing Arirang, I always feel at ease. It's like I carry my own home wherever I go. -Jazz vocalist NA, Yun Seon

I have mentioned both the traditional song Arirang (unofficial national anthem of Korea, North or South) and the idea of Han (feelings of unsolvable pain, loss or guilt) before in this blog. Why these two Korean words together? 

Han, first.

However, this blog just can't do it: the printed word alone does not bring the non-Korean reader anywhere close to the understanding of Han that a Korean will share with this concept. Who in the readership has had their country repeatedly invaded and colonized by foreign imperial forces? (Probably none.) Who among us has truly had their head forced underwater continually (and for generations) and by ever-ready forces of class hierarchy, or race, or gender (Perhaps a few.)

Han is a most difficult concept to explain in this antiseptic blog setting. So I must ask forgiveness; to translate Han (like key words of any language) robs it of its culturally embedded meaning. This is not a put-down of my readers, but I doubt the long- and out-standing sorrow, rancor, regret, grief, persecution, injustice, lamentation, and reproach that is Han has made personal visits to many of our lives. I speak of such feelings that so marinate in the active and passive recipes of oppressive life until they become the very breath, blood and soul-ache of a person, a family, a clan, or even a nation. Han is the collective trauma that one wakes up with every morning, that gets no resolution in the waking hours, nor does its visitation in one's dreams bring relief. 

Even though rooted in the historical, han has modern and universal applications. Han is experienced by the anyone marginalized, by the single parent struggling to support children, by the bullied student, by the worker with an unfair boss.

Occasionally there are reprieves of joy, release and lightness of being. But these are not as frequent as the daily assignments of Han

From such a cultural crucible, one can only imagine the effect that the psychological landscape of Han has made upon the arts: painting, dance, music, and songs. To resolve, sublimate and "untie" Han is a task of such arts. To name something with art is hope to endure. It is a mercy in the ever-present shadow. To accompany Han with artistic expressions is to share Han collectively. To share means to survive.

Thus, Arirang, the second term of this blog.

Let's first listen to it, one of four versions:

1. Jazz musician George Winston

2. Yuna Kim the figure skater competing to the song

3. Simple and traditional

4. If you view only one link, THIS is it! This video gives history, context and a sense of the layers of meaning attached to Airirang.

Lyrics are diverse and thus many interpretations abound. Here is one:
Here is the score of the most popular version today.

A movie called "Arirang" from 1926 is now thought to be irretrievably lost. It concerned a freedom fighter from the 1919 rebellion against Japan in Korea (Japan was the colonizing, imperial power in Korea from 1905 - 1945). This commemorative stamp is from that movie.

For good reasons the song Arirang was selected in 2012 by UNESCO as is an "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" from South Korea, and in 2014 as the same Cultural Heritage from North Korea. The UNESCO video from the North Korean citation is well worth the time.

This blog will have more on Han soon, in relation to the group of so-called "Comfort Women" created within South Korea. Until then, know of my thanks for your reading.


  1. Thanks, Marc. This is an intriguing pairing -- Han and Arirang. I look forward to reading more about "han." Andrew Sung Park's work on "han" is cited by Susan Thisthethwaite and Rita Nakashima Brock, and it seems to elicit a depth of suffering and pain that other words don't.... Seems appropriate as we think about the influence of Elie Wiesel, may he rest in peace. Thanks for the wonderful explanations of "Arirang." -

  2. It is beautiful, Marc, thank you. I watched and listened and tried to absorb the last link.

  3. Thank you, Marc. You've triggered reflections on what songs, stories, and practices each of us brings, or could bring, into conversation with experiences of "Han." And, Kathy reminds us of one, Wiesel, who brought powerful stories--and practices of painful remembrance--into creative tension with pain he knew so well.

  4. Most interesting blog, Nephew. Enjoyed the link to Arirang. Martha and I were in the International Chorale of Dunedin last year, and we performed Arirang multiple times in various venues. Blessings on you!......UJ

  5. Most interesting blog, Nephew. Enjoyed the link to Arirang. Martha and I were in the International Chorale of Dunedin last year, and we performed Arirang multiple times in various venues. Blessings on you!......UJ

  6. I've fallen in love with this song, Marc!