Han Yong-un (Han Yu-cheon, Manhae)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Han Yong-un (Han Yu-cheon, Manhae)

Han Yong-un (Han Yu-cheon, Manhae) (1879-1944) Korean theologian and modernist poet

A freedom fighter and religious progressive, Han Yong-un, who wrote under the pseudonym Manhae (Ten thousand seas), followed the shift of his ideals from revolution to the priesthood. A native of South Korea, he was born at Hongsong in Gyeongsang Province, southwest of Seoul. A member of the minor gentry, he read Cao Xueqin's court novel The DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1791) and other classics of Chinese imperialism and learned a Confucian code of conduct from his father. Although he joined the Tonghak Revolt of 1894 at age 15, he fled the political backlash against Japanese aggression to study Buddhist scripture. He became a Buddhist monk in 1905, the same year Korea became a Japanese protectorate. Five years later, Japan's 35-year occupation began.

Han's travels to Kyoto and Tokyo in 1908 influenced his decision to adapt Chinese Buddhism to Western philosophy and Korean tastes with a visionary treatise, Choson pulgyo yusin-non (The restoration of Korean Buddhism, 1910), which predicts the death of Buddhism and Korea itself without immediate action to preserve liberty. Unlike the monks preferring hermitism and withdrawal from society, he insisted that all people alert themselves to threat and strengthen their faculties with an understanding of history. In fealty to the divine, he encouraged training in Buddhist principles without losing sight of the needs of ordinary citizens. Among his radical demands was the abolition of outworn ritual, of celibacy for monks, and of superstition. On the positive side, he foresaw “Minjung Buddhism” (the people's Buddhism)—a true enlightenment through guerrilla resistance of Japanese colonizers, restoration of normal peasant morals and institutions, and the creation of a free Korean state. In a line from his collected works, he identifies with the exuberant individual: “Coming in and out anywhere I please, crying and laughing cannot make any trace on my cheeks. In the ocean of suffering I want to make the lotus flower bloom in the fire” (Han 1999, 236).

On March 1, 1919, as his nation began its revolt against Japanese rule, Han codrafted and edited the Korean Declaration of Independence, an activist document that cost him three years in prison. Upon his release in 1922, he channeled his fervor into public oratory and essays. Influenced by Bengali author RABINDRANATH TAGORE, Han produced 163 poems in sijo (three-line stanzas of 14-16 syllables) and free verse in vernacular Korean. His 88 poems in Nim ui ch’immuk (Love’s Silence, 1926) allegorize Korea as the beloved and press Koreans to embrace passive resistance and to rally for national independence. Refuting the orthodox Buddhist concept of disengagement, in “The Master's Sermon,” he declares that tight bonds of love of nation are truly liberating. In “Your Touch,” he pictures dynamic patriotism as a flame burning the heart, consuming cares, and satisfying longings.

The Manhae Prize, initiated in 1973 by the literary quarterly Changjak gwa bipyeong (Creation and criticism), preserves Han's ideals.


Han Yong-un. Love’s Silence & Other Poems. Translated by Jaihiun Kim and Ronald B. Hatch. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 1999.

Yu, Beongcheon. Han Yong-un & Yi Kwang-su: Two Pioneers of Modern Korean Literature. Chicago: Wen State University Press, 1992.