Arirang: The Layers of a Much Loved Song

//I wrote this as a response to “Song of Ariran” by Kim San and Nym Wales, a reading assigned from my Modern Korean history class. It was about the life of a Korean rebel who before the age of fifteen, lived in Tokyo, Manchuria, and Shanghai chasing after Korea’s independence among exiles and diaspora. It was the most personal response (because it was a free form reaction) and the most intimate response among the history major responses. Fair enough, because I am a Korean American, and these events can be traced back within my family history…

I knew before reading this piece that Arirang was in fact a sad song. It is a song that today is immediately linked to Korea. There are remakes of the song, but more along the lines of pop music, rap songs, or dance covers, rather than the original remakes that landed people in jail for the revolutionary lyrics. I originally knew Arirang from it’s version talking about lovers; reading this piece expanded my connotation of the song.


For some reason, I have a tendency to get emotional when I listen to Arirang, and this began before I knew the meaning of the lyrics. Something about the melody was yearning, raw, and powerful, never failing to draw tears from my eyes (which is ironic considering I never lived in Korea and don’t know all of its culture). Perhaps is it part of the inner Korean crying out, the blood of my ancestors? I’m not sure.

Even as I read the chapter about Korean Independence, as the excitement of the possibility of Korean Independence caught like a flame even within the young narrator, I became emotional again. Part of it was because it was inspiring to see the untarnished hope and part of it was because I knew that the March First movements would be fruitless. And yet, something within the words still struck something inside of me.


And then as I read about the struggles of the narrator, as he bounced from country to country, trying to do his best to help Korea to liberty. I was frustrated and yet inspired as I read of his trials and stubborn perseverance for the day of freedom. And yet, in the first chapter, he talks of Korea as the country he was born into, as if he didn’t have a choice and by default had to fight for its freedom. This being said, did it then imply that if he had a choice, he’d rather be from somewhere else, perhaps Russia that he looked so fondly of, where they fought and won their freedom?


Flowing under all this, I also saw the strands of the concept of han, a Korean term for quiet anger against the universe: for its location between China and Japan, for the fact that it was colonized, for everything that went wrong. I don’t fully understand it, but my parents said it was like a mentality that the universe owed Korea something for all of the events it sent its way. It was this han that pushed Korea beyond its difficulties, I read once in a book. And finally seeing the original lyrics of Arirang and reading of the strained yet sturdy perseverance Korea had as it strove for independence, I think I understand han a little more than before.


And yet, here I am as the child of two Korean immigrants in a world where Korea is the new cool and where people from countries that looked down on Korea now want to learn about it because of its flashy pop culture. The Korea that people consume so easily on their computers is not presented with the viscosity of han or the stories like that of the narrator. It’s almost ironic, then, that the song Arirang has become such a symbol for Korea and bloomed from a place of sadness rather than the chic persona Korea exudes today.


It’s been more than a month since I last posted on this blog, and when I finally do, it’s a response from one of my university courses. Ah, well.

I’ve been busy recently and hands down, this semester I’m the busiest I’ve ever been, with becoming a small group leader at my church, getting involved with an International Student ministry/organization, and taking all upper level classes and first level Chinese. But I’m also enjoying this semester the most, because I’m being challenged like never before and meeting so many new people and expanding my world, little by little.

People are just so fascinating~

Thanks for reading and keep checking for more posts to come 🙂



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