Lost Names
& the Liberation from Han
Cover of the book "Lost Names" by Richard E. Kim
Photograph of Richard E. Kim
The Question
According to Richard E. Kim,
One of the most important elements in Korean literature of the past and even the present — from the point of view of understanding Korean literature psychologically and philosophically — is the concept of Han [/] (Lost Names, xiii).
Yet he goes on to say that “what I have been trying to find in and through my writing is nothing less than the ways and means — psychological and philosophical — to destroy the Korean version of Han (Lost Names, xiv). Present at least three examples of how Kim “liberate[s] himself and his characters from the iron grip, from the centuries-old clutch of Han.” (Lost Names, xiv) How do these examples, together with the author’s discussion of han in the “Preface to the Fortieth Anniversary Edition” (especially pages xiii-xxiii), the Author’s Note on pages 197-8, and Kathy Masalki’s interview with Richard E. Kim, demonstrate the historical value of Lost Names — despite the fact that the main character is actually fictional.
Image of the Chinese character for han
The Oppressive Weight of Han
Wikipedia Logo

Defining Han

Han, or haan, is a concept of an emotion, variously described as some form of grief or resentment, among others, that is said to be an essential element of Korean identity by some, and a modern post-colonial identity by others. ... The contemporary concept of han, that it is a national characteristic of the Korean people, is a modern phenomenon that originated during the Japanese occupation of Korea from Japanese colonial stereotypes and the characterization of Korean art and culture as “sorrowful” in Yanagi Soetsu’s theory of the “beauty of sorrow”. The idea that han is a specifically Korean characteristic was adopted and popularized by Koreans in the 20th century. A central aspect of han today is loss of identity. ...

Definitions and characteristics

Han is derived from the Chinese character , which means resentment, hatred, or regret.

Definitions and characteristics of han are highly subjective. ... [The concept is ] thought by many to be essentially Korean, and by many others to be the product of modern, post-colonial efforts to create a ‘Korean’ essence.”[4]

Essentialist view

  • Kim Yol-kyu defined han as “the collective trauma and the memories of sufferings imposed upon [the Korean people] in the name of oppression over the course of the nation’s five thousand-odd years of history”.[5] Kim said that the meaning of han is ambiguous.[6] Kim Yol-kyu provided examples of stories, poems, and songs in which some form of han is depicted.[6]
  • The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong described han 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”.[7]
  • Jon Huer describes han as a generational feeling of “having been ‘wronged’ by a superior agent”, such as fate or the government; he says that the accumulated han in Korea is enormous because of a long history of suffering from invasion, poverty, and international indifference.[8]
  • According to John M. Glionna, han is “intensely personal, yet carried around collectively, a national torch, a badge of suffering tempered by a sense of resiliency”.[9]

Modern view

  • Michael D. Shin describes han: “In fact, it’s modern. It’s a term that captures something of the modern experience of Koreans.” Shin says that defining han in terms of emotions is highly subjective; almost any negative emotion can be called “han”. He argues that the central aspect of han is loss of identity, and defines han as “the complex of emotions that result from the traumatic loss of collective identity”. Han is most commonly associated with divided families: families who were separated during the Korean War. According to Shin, all Koreans may experience han, or a “constant feeling of being less than whole”, because of not having a collective identity as a result of the continued division of Korea. Furthermore, new generations of Koreans seemingly inherit it because of growing up in a divided country.[10]
"Lost Names" cover with the word "EXAMPLES" at the top

Photograph of Richard E. KimNow, what I would like to do is to share with you one Korean writer’s will and effort to liberate himself and his characters from the iron grip, from the centuries-old clutch of Han. For what I have been trying to find in and through my writing is nothing less than the ways and means — psychological and philosophical — to destroy the Korean version of Han. But why, one may ask.

I am of that generation of Koreans who have experienced the Japanese domination of Korea, the Soviet occupation of North Korea, and the American occupation of South Korea with the resultant division of the country, and I am one of that generation who fought in the bloody Korean War, of the generation that experienced in a very short period of time a heartbreaking, bone-crunching tyranny of inexorable History, a generation that was asked to sacrifice most and that willingly sacrificed most.

And — having experience all that, having suffered through all that, and having survived to testify to the sacrifices, destruction, and unfulfilling aspirations of those of my generation both dead and alive — I found Han not to my liking, not worthy of my own and my generation’s battle hymn, and not acceptable as my final dirge. More than that, I found that Han had inhibited our will and spirit to wrestle our political freedom from the foreign powers and to explore and develop our own destiny.

Han — I realized — had made Koreans pliant before foreign powers and domination, subservient to foreign interests, and obsessed, masochistically and degradingly, with a petty, private, and baser instinct for only one’s survival.

Map of Korea divided into North and South with their respective flags

Surrounded by foreign interests, which were urging on and forcing on us an outmoded concept and practice of dialectical materialism on the one hand and, on the other, a quaint, outmoded political, economic liberalism rooted in alien soils of materialistic pursuit of an illusory happiness on earth, and equally alien, imported religions with conflicting promises of salvation, Koreans, with their ingrained sense of Han as a way of viewing the world and understanding their place in that world, have become in the past powerless and susceptible to accepting either consciously or unconsciously their roles as victims. It goes without saying, then, that Han in Korea has helped produce many a Korean flunkey and servant of foreign interests.

Scene from the movie "The Age of Shadows"

I found Han, therefore, degrading and repugnant. It has — you see — a smell of defeat and a stench of death — in the not yet completed confrontation and conflict between my own and others’ small histories with a small h, and History with a capital H. (Lost Names, xiv-xv)

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." William Shakespeare

What is the significance
of the title “Lost Names”?

Photograph of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.
Retrieving the Lost
Certainly, what I am in search of in and through my writing are things lost to me personally and to Koreans in general by extension. To engage in remembrance of things lost is not only to remember and recall things lost but also to retrieve that which has been lost from the innermost niche of our souls (Lost Names, xiv-xv).

We had in the past lost a lot. We had lost our land to the Japanese; we had lost, because of that foreign domination, our country, which is to say a home to us, something much more than a mere nation-state. And, above all, we had lost even our names to the Japanese, who had forced us to adopt Japanese names. I would ask you to consider that extraordinary, historically unprecedented chapter in all histories of colonial experiences: a symbolic and quite ritualistic effort on the part of the colonizers, the oppressors, to alter the identity and destroy the self-respect of the colonized, the oppressed.

Photograph of Koreans in traditional dress

It was a brazen attempt by the imperial colonizers to erase and obliterate our history and, in the last analysis, our memories, our individual and collective memories. But, of course, it did not work out quite like that, and we have retrieved our names and all that goes with them — but still, we have a lot more that is lost to us, and we have a lot more to retrieve (Lost Names, xvi).

The proof of life — that is precisely what I am after, what I am in search of, in my remembrance of things lost. That — the proof of life — not of death — is what I am trying to retrieve from among the ruins and shambles of the twisted, distorted, stunted histories of our people in our recent past — to see a light, a glimmer, however faint, of the proof of life in the ashen twilight years of our past lives — so that that proof of life, of the living, will triumph over the withering negation of life, the dead ....
Picture of sunflower with the words "Insert life affirming quote here"
And — a reward for my remembrance of things lost may be not merely to cry out “Never again,” though I suppose one must begin somewhere, but to come to terms with one’s past, with one’s things lost, and to come to peace with oneself and, ultimately, I suppose, with the enigmas of the world — an affirmation of life — yes, as Joseph Conrad would exclaim — a moral victory (Lost Names, xvii).
typewriter with the paper forming a hand that is typing its own words

Is Lost Names an Autobiography?

Photograph of Richard E. Kim with the words "Click for Richard E. Kim Interview"
Richard E. Kim
10 Facts (Modified from koreasociety.org)

  1. Richard Kim grew up in northern Korea prior to and during World War II.
  2. He was from an upper-middle class Christian family.
  3. His family was politically conscious. His father spent years in a Japanese prison because of political activity.
  4. Kim points out that there were both “good” and “bad” Koreans as well as “good” and “bad” Japanese.
  5. The scene where the rubber balls are flattened is autobiographical.
  6. The beating at school is a real incident.
  7. Kim joined the military during the Korean War.
  8. After the war was over, he moved to the United States in 1954.
  9. His immediate family, including his grandparents, were very fortunate: they fled to the South as refugees. His relatives who stayed in North Korea, especially those on his mother’s side, died. Eventually, the rest of his family emigrated to the United States.
  10. Kim was very close to his father and regarded him to be “almost a saint.”
Photograph of Richard E. KimI wrote the book as a work of fiction — and there is no question that it is fiction if one examines its literary techniques. But most readers seem to view it as an autobiography, a memoir. In short, they seem to accept that the young boy, the first-person narrator, is the author himself and that Lost Names is therefore a “real” story. Perhaps I should have included a disclaimer: all the characters and events described in this book are real, but everything else is fiction. ... However, in the last analysis, I do believe there is neither pure “nonfiction” autobiography or memoir, nor pure “fiction” fiction. Let readers, then take Lost Names for whatever they would like it to be. (Lost Names, 197-8)
Map of Korea divided into North and South with their respective flags
Photograph of a woman carrying her child with an American tank in the background
How might the Korean War have
shaped Kim’s Perspective on Han?

Image of a Shinto priest and his wife
Why does the narrator save the Japanese priest and his wife at the end of the book?