Han is frequently translated as sorrow, spite, rancor, regret, resentment or grief, among many other attempts to explain a concept that has no English equivalent. Han is an inherent characteristic of the Korean character and as such finds expression, implied or explicit, in nearly every aspect of Korean life and culture.
Han is sorrow caused by heavy suffering, injustice or persecution, a dull lingering ache in the soul. It is a blend of lifelong sorrow and resentment, neither more powerful than the other. Han is imbued with resignation, bitter acceptance and a grim determination to wait until vengeance can at last be achieved.
Han is passive. It yearns for vengeance, but does not seek it. Han is held close to the heart, hoping and patient but never aggressive. It becomes part of the blood and breath of a person. There is a sense of lamentation and even of reproach toward the destiny that led to such misery.
The concept of Han is seen as unique to Korean culture but I don't necessarily agree. I've seen Han, or aspects of Han, in many other cultures that ascribe to something similar... some of these cultures have a history of oppression and in others, Han could be derived perhaps from different circumstances or reasons. One such group are the Iranians.
Mohammed Asad described in poignant detail the malaise and melancholy that plague the Iranian people as a result of generational mourning from one era to the next over the deaths of the Prophet Mohammed's (saw) grandsons, Hassan and Hussain (ra). In this way, I think that Han either is, or can become, genetic in a sense - learned behaviour over many generations... until it becomes so ingrained in the sub-consciousness of a nation, that even when far removed from the country and all cultural aspects of it, the individual cannot escape the stench of inexplicable emotions inherited from eras gone by - a sense of loss with no purpose or meaning, and lacking in understanding too.
Sometimes I wonder if I too, suffer from some aspect of Han, unbeknownst to me. It would certainly explain the sporadic restlessness and unfounded yearning for something, someplace, that I have yet to become acquainted with... a longing and yearning for that which I do not know and have no prior knowledge of.
In the grander scheme of things, I'm inclined to think that this sort of general discontent is a waste of time and good energy. I don't advocate or endorse that martyr mentality...or any kind of defeatist attitude. But what do I know? I'm sure there is more to Han that can be explained in passing. As Bruce Lee once said, "Sorrow's are our best educators. A man can see further through a tear than a telescope".