I am currently learning how to play the 단소 (danso), which is a Korean traditional end-blown flute. It seems like it would be easy because there are only six holes, however it’s really difficult to play because you have to perfectly control both the amount of air you exhale and also the placement, i.e. where the air is sent, and the “모음” (moeum) which is the compactness of the air. Even once you master the technical skills it is still difficult to play because it requires a specific kind of “vibration and expression,” as the Sapgyo music teacher likes to call it, called 시김사 (shigimsa). Shigimsa consists of vibrations on held notes and bending pitches, and when done correctly it is very moving and melancholy. This shigimsa, which is present in almost all Korean music, is supposed to evoke “한” (han).
Han is the Korean cultural trait of sadness. It is the feeling of inevitability. It is the feeling of intense sorrow and unresolved injustice. For almost all of Korea’s history it has been overshadowed or controlled by a greater Asian power (first China in a mostly hands-off but still ever present sense, and then totally controlled by Japan) and it has constantly been at war with itself (first during the Warring Kingdoms period and now with North Korea). Even today when Korea is recognized as one of the budding powers of the world it is still divided. Han is the feeling of always being controlled by another power and being isolated. Some argue that this colonial imperialism led to the development of Han. Others argue that it was the class distinction between the upper and the lower class. Whatever it may be, Han is one of the things that unites all Koreans, this feeling of intense sorrow, despair, and inevitability.
As a non-Korean it’s difficult for me to do shigimsa. I’ve known sorrow (haven’t we all) but I wouldn’t presume to understand or know Han. This has especially hit home with the most recent North Korean incident.
I’m doing fine. The shooting was at Yeonpyeong Island, which is a small island in the Western Sea (i.e. the Yellow sea, which is the sea to the east of China) off the west coast of Korea. This island is in disputed waters, there have been arguments over whether the island belongs to North or South Korea with it tentatively resolved to South Korea (though North Korea doesn’t seem to recognize that). The island is relatively close to the DMZ and to Seoul. The island has about 1,000 South Korean marines about 1,600 civilians (mostly fishermen) who also live on the island, many of whom fled to Incheon on their fishing boats. Two marines were killed, more people were injured, and the shooting lasted for a little more than an hour, with South Korea returning fire.
People are trying to figure out why North Korea led a seemingly random attack on Yeonpyeong-do. The most convincing arguments that I’ve heard are that either Kim Jong Il’s son (Kim Jong Un) wants to show off his strength, or that this is North Korea’s responding to the world’s reaction to the news that they have a uranium enrichment facility (which could potentially lead to nuclear weapons in the next decade or so).
However as depressing as this is, attacks by North Korea are life as normal. I forget all the time that there is a hostile neighbor just north of me. People were worried on Tuesday but no one stopped what they were doing. I didn’t even find out about the attack until after it had happened because my students were participating in Yesan County’s English competition. I found out by having my student tell me “get out of the country as soon as you can” (the next day she apologized for being melodramatic and making me worry). I have not talked about it with a single teacher, and I briefly talked about it with my homestay family. Life has gone on pretty much like normal. The only major change I can see is that the won’s value has dropped, but it also dropped after the Cheonan incident (when North Korea sunk South Korea’s warship) and it rose back up after that. The only time I have talked about it at school was when one of my classes brought the attack up specifically so that they could tell me not to worry, because they didn’t want me to be scared. When I asked the students how they felt they all responded “sad” with the exception of one who said “angry.” However it wasn’t “sad” and “angry” in the sense that we’re used to, it was frustration, and feeling trapped. The students that I teach live in a generation that has never known a unified Korea. This broken Korea was a byproduct of Japanese imperialism and foreign powers trying to control another facet of the world. Most of the Koreans I talk to want a unified Korea, and see the North Koreans as their brothers and sisters, so this forced separation is incredibly painful Korea’s modern history is incredibly sad, and I can see why one of the defining characteristics of a Korean is Han.
“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. (Ahn 1987).” (read the whole article on Korean interpersonal communication here )
This is why I’ll never be able to fully play the danso. No matter how much I study, or practice, Han is not one of my defining characteristics.
Below is a video with pictures of Korea/Koreans and a danso playing with shigimsa:
Here is the New York Philharmonic playing Arirang in North Korea. This song has been sung for more than 600 years, there are multiple versions of it, and each country claims it as their song.