All those fans/followers of Korean drama and films must have heard of the Korean word 정– ‘Jeong’, at least once. The Korean-English translation dictionary defines it as, ‘attachment’, ‘affection’ or ‘a Korean kind of love’. However, these may be aspects of jeong. These definitions are much too simplified to fully portray the meaning. On the other hand, if you search ‘정’ in a Korean dictionary, it notes jeong as ‘A feeling about someone or something when you spent a long time together‘. The beauty of it however doesn’t end there.
It is, broadly speaking, positive emotions that perfuse all aspects of Korean life. Well, we can try simplifying it to be called love, but that wouldn’t be doing justice. Oddly enough, it’s really hard to define Korean words if they are for feelings or emotions. Be it anger, love, or sadness. However, emotions are nothing but words we assign to chemical concentrations in the brain. What is the difference between happy, content, elated, pleased, and feeling good? The differences may be minor, but there is still a difference. So is the case with ‘jeong‘
“Jeong is difficult to define. One Korean-English dictionary defines it as, ‘feeling, love, sentiment, passion, human nature, sympathy, heart.’ Although it is complicated to introduce a clear definition of jeong. It seems to include all of the above as well as more basic feelings, such as attachment, bond, affection, or even bondage.”
– Dr. Christopher K. Chung and Dr. Samson Cho
More than just love
Unlike other emotions, such as depression, anger, and anxiety, jeong is not entirely definable even in the Korean language. It is ambiguous and amorphous. Interestingly, it affects the individual’s ego boundary. An individual’s “cell membrane” becomes more permeable. So to speak, thinning the ego boundary. The manifestation of jeong in a social structure and values is primarily through loyalty and commitment. All this without validation, logic, or reason.
Korea is a land where interdependency and collectivism are highly valued rather than autonomy, independence, privacy, and individualism. I know its’ difficult for the Westerns to fathom. But that emphasis on collectivism makes jeong so special. It is more of an abstract concept that defines a state of being. A great many factors influence jeong. It is so integrated into their culture that it influences their decision-making and social structures.
Going further, a Korean culture-specific “we-ness” (woori) develops. Grammatically we all know ‘we’ to be a plural of ‘I’. However, for the Koreans “we” or “woori” is not just a plural pronoun. Rather it is another singular form of collective “I”. The I’s are bonded to one another by jeong, becoming woori. The strongest, most essential bond among Koreans is this we-ness. It is mediated by the emotional glue of jeong.
I vs. We
The development of woori imparts a significantly different self-image and world view than that of Western “I-ness”. Woori has strong nuances of relatedness, friendliness, affection, commonality, homogeneousness, and ultimately belonging. In other words, this we-ness is characterized as unconditional, non-contractual, non-pragmatic and unrealistic. “We-ness” becomes the only source of developing an identity of “self”. It is also considered the primary means of protection from the hardships of life. Thus, in Korean culture, belonging becomes the first priority in Maslow’s triangle of priorities. Belonging provides them a sense of security. It also often provides them easier access to fulfilling physiological needs.
For those who aren’t sure what Maslow’s triangle of priorities is all about…
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the best-known theories of motivation. Maslow believed that people have an inborn desire to be self-actualized. That is, to be all they can be. In order to achieve these ultimate goals, a number of more basic needs must be met. Such as the need for food, safety, love, and self-esteem.
Maslow’s hierarchy is most often displayed as a pyramid. The lowest levels of the pyramid are made up of the most basic needs. While the most complex needs are at the top of the pyramid.
There is more than Jeong
Now we see it evidently. Jeong is an essential component of the relational mode in Korea. The warmer and more tender the jeong-based relationship, the more bitter and profound the agony of ‘Haan’. The word haan means trying to express an emotion. It means a complex emotional cluster often translated as ‘resentful sorrow’.
Haan arises when jeong is broken and loyalty is betrayed. If there were no trust, loyalty, or commitment, there would be no betrayal. Betrayal thus becomes the intense psychological trauma of haan. It not only arises from interpersonal jeong violation but also from perceived violations during man-made disasters.
In an attempt to research more, I came across this great representation of haan and jeong. The author used his creative mind by drawing similarities of the yin and yang symbol with haan and jeong.
All haan must have at least some jeong in it. All jeong must also have some haan.
Simply put, maybe you love your wife unconditionally, but she likely has an annoying habit that drives you nuts. That is why all jeong comes with haan. All haan, by definition, must come with jeong.
(PS: If there’s anything I’ve overlooked, I’d be happy to learn about it. This article is written in an attempt to explain the emotions and psyche of Koreans.)
Source: Significance of “Jeong” in Korean Culture and Psychotherapy by Christopher K. Chung, M.D. & Samson Cho, M.D. Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
Next shark: Korea Has a Unique Kind of Love That is Extremely Difficult to Explain to Foreigners.