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How the Korean Social Emotions, Han (恨) and Jeong (情) Transformed Bong-ha Village into a Sacred Place for Democracy

Hyejung Chang
Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina
hyejunc@clemson.edu  

Keywords: spirituality, philosophy, ethics, empathy, love, transcendence, social healing, genius loci.

Introduction

In many cases, sacred spaces are associated with religious leaders’ birth or death sites and cultural or politically heroic figures or the sites of historically significant and tragic events. Such spaces stimulate the mindful journey of our authentic selfhood and provide a direct reference to the meanings of being as the betweenness of life and death.1 Sacred spaces often evoke an existential awareness of our inevitable demise and a genuine sense of life—”being a whole, being towards death.”2 Such existential spaces also enable us to grieve and remember the humble yet fulfilling lives, sacrifices, and sufferings of those who died as martyrs to their faith and principles. They are felt over time and activated by people who share their emotions, which transcend to a more extensive and profound communication realm. 

The paper asserts that the genuine power of sacred space remains in this one unity: it unites people within a place. Sacred spaces are not born by default or designed by architects but are formed, transformed, and enriched through social emotions over time, of people, by people, and by people; they can be genuinely transcendent, democratic, emancipatory, and thus healing. It illuminates Bong-ha Village (a small town in the southern province of Korea), which became a sacred place for democracy in Korea. It is the birth and death site of the 16th president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, the nation’s most loved, admired President in history.3 He lived a life full of vicissitudes fighting for justice, social equity, free speech, and democracy until he died tragically in 2009. 

Figure 1: Roh’s public funeral at Seoul Square Park. Hundreds of thousands of supporters and citizens gathered to pay their respects in memorial shrines nationwide.

Roh’s sudden and mysterious death fueled massive waves of mourners and worshipers, with over five million voluntarily attendees at his funerals in his hometown, Bong-ha. This traumatic event weighed with overwhelming emotions, such as anger, sadness, and a deep sense of injustice, eventually inspiring Bong-Ha Village’s formation. The village has grown so fast out of the lost and found hope; arguably, it has become a sacred place for democracy today. Bong-ha Village still carries untold theories and stories behind his death that linger profoundly in the wounded hearts of the Korean people. Nevertheless, this paper asks only one essential and hard question: What truly transforms Bong-Ha Village into a sacred place for democracy? 

The author proposes a hypothetical explanation of this dramatic transformation of Bong-ha with two (HeideggerMartin 1962)driving forces of democracy: 1) media of democracy—people, especially people’s ‘e-motions’ (collective energy in motion) and 2) modes of democracy—representation and participation. It argues that Korean social emotions “Jeong (情) and Han (恨)”4 catalyze the interpersonal and social solidity to energize the public in motion through participation and representation, which bring out such transcendent, empathetic, and spiritual experiences as remembrance, resonance, and reverence to ground the sacred quality of place, i.e., genius loci.

Roh Moo-hyun and Bongha Village

Roh was born into a poor farming family, grew up with self-education, and became a competent and successful human rights lawyer. Opposing the autocratic regime in South Korea, he participated in the pro-democracy movement in 1987 against Chun Doo-hwan, who was the 11th president and notorious dictator (1980-1988) and murdered thousands of citizens in protest against a military coup d’état in Gwangju, called the Gwangju June pro-democracy struggle in 1980. His public role grew out with the iconic image of him captured during a parliamentary hearing in 1989 when he fought against the former dictator, Chun Doo-Hwan.

As a person, Roh is an authentic, compassionate, humble man who speaks from the heart; he is an eloquent and soulful speaker but with courage and hope as a public figure. Fearlessly and fiercely, he fought for justice and hope, defying the deep-seated political, cultural, and religious biases, social discrimination, and the abuse of power for decades of modernization. Roh was also a visionary reformer striving for the well-being and wealth of the nation. Roh’s immense popularity gained from the 1989 parliamentary hearing helped him become a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party and win the 2002 election.5

Due to his charisma, charm, and political success, his opponents from the rival party, the mainstream media, and corrupt demagogues continuously attacked his family, inflicting unjust public shame and blame on him, and politically and psychologically tortured him with allegations during and after his presidential term (2003-2008), until he died tragically in 2009. The social networks and corporate news media control had continuously inflamed the masses with public blame, mockery, and humiliation of Roh and his family, even after he retired in 2008, reporting that he committed suicide out of shame and guilt.6 However, his untimely death provoked Korean citizens to realize how the jealousy and biases of corrupt politicians and societal manipulation by the corporate news media had blinded the public, and such baseless accusations could fabricate the public perception of reality and truth.

Figure 2: A public and informal conversation at his home place, Bong-ha. Roh was often called out by his supporters and visitors for greeting after he retired in 200. As a Bong-ha resident and an environmental activist, he strived to transform Bong-ha into a sustainable farming community.

(source: Roh Moo-hyun Foundation)

Bongha was originally a farming village seated on the foot of Bonghwasan mountain, producing sweet persimmons and rice. His name, “Roh Moo-hyun,” and his hometown and his birthplace became a popular place for almost a million visitors per year. Trees, air, water, stones, soil, and personal household items became significant and sacred to visitors. People take soil and stones from his birthplace, believing his soul is alive therein. With the increasing population and visitors, Bong-ha Village has gradually and incrementally changed with various programs and facilities to fulfill cultural, educational, and eco-tourist needs and activities around his burial site.

Roh’s legacy profoundly influenced the Korean people. He has become a guardian of justice and is deeply admired and remembered as the cause of participatory grassroots democracy. He was also an environmental activist and a visionary leader who loved the nation, nature, and ordinary, hardworking, and authentic people. The place evokes a powerful sensation when one is there, especially for those who know and love Roh dearly, including the author. Bong-ha Village has formed its unique identity. It represents the conscious citizens engaged in social healing through participation, with a hope to realize the unrealized dream. His famous saying resonates, ‘The last bastion of democracy is the organizing power (energy) of awake(ned) citizens.’7 

Korean social emotions: Jeong (情) and Han (恨)

The study of emotions has been suppressed in traditional Western philosophical and psychological traditions and discussions. However, emotions are a distinct and universal language we all experience, know, use, and share. Similar words are “affect, feeling, sensation, sentiment, passion, joy, sorrow, pity, fear, horror.”8 The Korean notion of Jeong (情) (qing in Chinese) has no equivalent word in English. This affective and civil compassion with moral equality is “embodied and relational affective experience…in an ethical-political subjectivity formation.”9 Jeong is “not a static sentiment or mental state but referencing the relatively immediate experience not yet filtered through rational deliberation.”10 Jeong is an individual, social, political, and moral emotion rooted in Korean Confucian, Buddhist, and folk traditions.

Han (恨) is a unique Korean experience of pain “expressed through diverse reactions as sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, resentment, hatred, and the will to revenge.” It is the critical wound of the heart, frustrated hope, the collapsed feeling of pain, resentful bitterness, and letting go.11 Han expresses “psychosomatic repression, as well as by social, political, economic, and cultural oppression.”12 Han reverberates in the souls of survivors of sin, violence, wrongdoing, and abuse; therefore, Han and sin must be understood and treated together as balancing and oscillating between the opposing extremes of being compassionate or cruel, being pleased or angry, being happy or unhappy, being afraid or brave; be joyful or resentful, be proud or shameful, love or hate, like or dislike, or hope or despair. Han is the felt reality, both passive vs. active and negative vs. positive.13 Han resides in the depth of human suffering, as frequently described in Korean culture, literature, art, and film. Like Jeong, Han has no equivalence in English. 

Figure 3: Roh’s charm and charisma is from his ethics of care and empathy: “suppressing the strong, supporting the weak” (source: Roh Moo-hyun Foundation) 

Both Han (恨) and Jeong (情) share a Chinse character, Sim (心)—’heartminding.’ (without hyphen) Sim is an emotional and cognitive core of embodied experience that “does not depend upon any mind/body substance or reason/emotion dualistic binary and is the faculty that when properly attuned with ‘reverential attention.’”14  Sim (心) makes a word together with Seong (性)— ‘nature.’ Seong is “not as a fixed metaphysical…or transcendental entity but as a way of referring to the nature-culture eventful process of becoming more fully human.”15 

Bong-ha, as a sacred place, naturally offers the social function of emotional charge, display, and release through individual or collective expressions—healing. It became a genuinely and collectively therapeutic space (socially, not necessarily physically) that binds the wounded hearts and the awake(ned) souls together to express and participate in the whole spirit of Jeong and Han toward psychological, social, ethical, political, and cultural healing. Through interpersonal perception and expression of social emotions attached to a place, the tragic site becomes a sacred place that transcends like-hearted people to a more extensive and profound realm of communication, i.e., spirituality. 

Figure 4: A photo of Rob enjoying a peaceful time with his granddaughter at Bong-ha village before his death became an iconic image of Roh (source: Roh Moo-hyun Foundation)

Dual modes of democracy: participation and representation

Participation is the mode of democracy that engages a public process through shared governance and communicative action. Democracy is based on the public who govern us.16 When communication occurs, this public (social and political) sphere transacts with these communication parties, objects, and participants, transforming their relationships. Participation makes people’s power visible. Power gets people to comply with whoever controls a public discourse. Bong-Ha village shows that the most potent form of citizen involvement is embedded within the structures of everyday life, not restricted to institutionalized politics.17

Everything that has the peculiarity to characterize is capable of representation. Great art is influential because it represents the unimagined in more communicative ways. This representational (symbolic) communication makes participation truly powerful. Representation embodies higher virtues and power (such as excellence, highness, fame, dignity, and honor) rather than a status attribute. “There is no representation that would be a ‘private’ matter.”18  Representation is an artistic and political process that has the power to transform reality. It can loosen up language and, correspondingly, our thinking to fire the imagination, open questions, and not settle them.19

Figure 4: Citizens’ participation and communicative actions transform Bong-ha village into a sacred space, an empathetically shared space. It represents Roh’s life and death, our selfhood (source: Roh Moo-hyun Foundation)

The emancipatory function of empathy: remembrance, resonance, and reverence

Remembrance is the capacity to engage with the presence of the past and construct shared meanings afresh via remembering.20 Places can incorporate our collective memories into the public realm as material evidence. Remembrance appeals to our shared humanity that transcends from the individual to our communal and cultural life and involves a sense of suffering from losing what we cherished. An experience of ruins particularly represents deeper feelings of life connected with death, fear, hope, love, and sadness.21

Resonance is the sympathetic reverberation with an inner being to draw out a poetic sense of place. It immediately engages people and creates an intense experience of sharing.22 When a place resonates with its residents, it begins to ‘feel’ sympathetic and symbiotic with the totality of its presence. This synesthetic feeling is communal, visceral, spontaneous, spatial, and authentic but hard to describe in articulate language.23 It intensifies the social and political function of the place. 

Reverence is the love and gratitude for the value of something noble, exalted, and truthful. It is the empowering love to feel the ‘right’ degree of respect. 24When a person is touched by the humane dignity of a neighborhood or the play of light in a sacred place, s/he encounters a moment of inarticulate awe and reverence.25 Opportunities for memorial ceremonies or funerals, or for the periodic re-enactment of communal rituals, generate a more profound love of place and nature, the shared meanings of life and death, and their continued relevance to the community.


  1.  Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962)
  2.  Heidegger, Being and Time, 236-267.
  3.  Haesik Park 2015, “Koreans’ most favored president.” DongaIlbo March 12, 2015, https://www.donga.com/news/Politics/article/all/20150312/70087665/2
  4.  Iljoon Park, “Korean Social Emotions: Han (한 恨), Heung (흥 興), and Jeong (정 情).” In Emotions in Korean Philosophy and Religion, eds. Edward Y.J. Chung and Jea Sophia Oh (Palgrave McMillian, 2022), 235-255.
  5.  Jonathan Watts, “World’s First Internet President Logs on,” The Guardian, February 24, 2003, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2003/feb/24/newmedia.koreanews
  6.  Choe Sang-hun “Despair Overwhelmed Former South Korean Leader Embroiled in Scandal”. The New York Times, May 23, 2009.
  7.  Moo-hyun Roh, “Citizens’ Power Transforming Korean Policy,” Roh Moo-hyun Foundation, June 16, 2007, https://archives.knowhow.or.kr/m/president/story/view/969.
  8.  This paper uses the words “emotion” and “feeling” interchangeably. Emotion is “a very intense feeling, which can involve a physical and mental response and implies outward expression.” In contrast, a feeling can be “almost any subjective reaction…characterized by an emotional response.”Christine A. Lindberg, ed., The Oxford American Thesaurus of Current English (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 224.
  9.  Joseph E. Harroff, “Thinking Through the Emotions with Korean Confucianism.” In Emotions in Korean Philosophy and Religion, eds. Edward Y.J. Chung and Jea Sophia Oh (Palgrave McMillian, 2022), 187-211.
  10.  Harroff, “Thinking Through the Emotions with Korean Confucianism,” 199.
  11.  Andrew Sung Park, The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993).
  12.  Park,The Wounded Heart of God,10.
  13.  Andrew Sung Park, “The Structure of Han,” In The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 31-44.
  14.  Joseph E. Harroff, “Thinking Through the Emotions with Korean Confucianism: Philosophical Translation and the Four-Seven Debate,” In Emotions in Korean Philosophy and Religion, eds. Edward Y.J. Chung and Jea Sophia Oh (Palgrave McMillian, 2022),198.
  15.  Harroff, “Thinking Through the Emotions with Korean Confucianism,”198
  16.  Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Trans. Thomas Burger, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989).
  17.  N. John Habraken, The Appearance of the Form (Austin: Awater Press, 2000).
  18.  Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. 7.
  19.  Anthony Weston, “Before Environmental Ethics” In Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence, eds. Richard G. Botzler and Susan J. Armstrong (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 63-71.
  20.  Edward Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
  21.  Robert Ginsberg, “Aesthetics in Hiroshima: The Architecture of Remembrance.” In Philosophy and Architecture, ed. Michael H. Mitas (Atlanta: Rodopi,1994). 1994), 221–234.
  22.  Fahrye Hazer Sancar City, “Music and Place Attachment: Beloved Istanbul.” Journal of Urban Design, 8, no. 3 (2003): 269–291. 
  23.  Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. I (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967) and “Symbols and the Evolution of Mind” In Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol II,1972).
  24.  Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  25.  Pauline Von Bosnsforff, “Urban Richness and the Art of Building,” In Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics, ed. Arnold Berleant (Burlington: Ashgate. 2002), 89–102.
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