Human Acts by Han Kang is not an easy read. It stares atrocity in the face, at the birth of a now vibrant democracy. The book poses questions pertaining to the fundimental truths of what it means to be human. Overall, this is one Korean book you won’t want to pass up on reading.
Behind the Book
Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel?
– Human Acts Pg. 149
I think that this is the driving question behind Human Acts. Novelist and poet, Han Kang was born in Gwangju in 1972. At the age of 9, her father, writer Han Seung-won, moved the family to Seoul.
Before they moved they sold their Hanok (Korean traditional house) to a man and his family. This man had a son that had also been one of Han Seung-won’s students when he had been a middle school teacher in Gwangju. This son would make an imprint on a very young Han Kang. A boy, she never knew, would one day become an integral part of her novel Human Acts.
She Was Compelled to Write the Book
In 2009, when a protest in Yongsan-gu, Seoul turned violent and resulted in the deaths of five protesters and one police officer in a fire, Han Kang was watching the event unfold on her television.
According to her, the words that slipped from her mouth were, “but that’s Gwangju. (pg 216)”. It was at this moment that the boy who had moved into her family home back in 1980, returned to her. She knew that she had to write this book. Human Acts was published in 2014. It was originally published from November 2013 to January 2014 in serial form on a blog called Window, run by Chengbi publishing house.
President Park Chung Hee came to power through a military coup in 1961 and ruled Korea under an authoritarian regime. He was the father of Korea’s industrialization. However, Korea’s economic growth came at the cost of many human lives.
Oppression Under Park’s Yushin Government
He was popular at first, but by the 1970s his popularity was waning. In 1972 he declared Martial Law and introduced The Yushin Constitution in order to maintain his power. Under the Yushin Constitution, every aspect of citizens’ lives was affected and spies were introduced to community organizations to weed out dissidents. Everything from hair and skirt length to media, and where people could travel within the country was regulated.
Dissent was quickly and rapidly repressed, the opposition was curbed (crushed really), and unions were aggressively discouraged. The media and press were also under the control of the President and his government along with the arts. According to Kim (2013) “The Presidential Truth Commission was created in 2000 to investigate the causes of deaths suspected to have been carried out directly and indirectly by government agents… so far 13,348 victims have applied…334 deaths and 1,744 injuries…7,328 convictions (with fabricated evidence), 3,670 (unjust) dismissals, and 600 university expulsions” (p. 34) were found to have been sponsored by the Yushin government during Park’s rule.
Choi’s Short Reign
In October of 1979, Park was assassinated by his friend and director of his own security services. Choi Kyu-hah became the acting President after the assassination. Choi had said that he was going to move the country toward a more democratic rule, and rewrite the constitution to remove the very unpopular Yushin Constitution. However, this would never take place.
Chun Doo-Hwan “The Butcher”
In December of 1979, Major General Chun Doo-hwan, who was very close to Park Chung-hee staged a coup. And so, Choi’s rule ended less than 2 months after it began. This short period between Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, when martial law was lifted, is sometimes referred to as Korean spring.
Chun Doo-hwan forced Choi to make him head of the Korean Central Intelligence (KCIA). Then, he redeclared martial law. Many student and labor uprisings took place during this tumultuous political period. In response, under Chun’s direction, paratroopers and soldiers, many of whom had recently fought in the war in Vietnam, were sent to these places and ordered to brutally end the protests. According to Han Kang, “There were soldiers who were especially cruel (p. 214).”
In autumn of 1979, when the democratic uprising in the southern cities of Busan and Masan was being suppressed, President Park Chung-hee’s (former) chief bodyguard Cha Ji-cheol said to him (Chun Doo-Hwan): The Cambodian government’s killed another 2 million of theirs. There’s nothing stopping us from doing the same.
– Human Acts Pg. 214
After the massacre in Gwangju, Choi was forced to formally resign as president. Chun Doo-hwan then resigned as head of the KCIA and became president, a dictator really. In the book, he is referred to as Chun Doo-hwan THE BUTCHER.
The Gwangju Uprising
In some places, it is referred to as the uprising and in others as the massacre, all depending on what part of that week in May one is referring to. It started as a demonstration on May 18, 1980, in response to the strict martial law that closed down the university.
Students came in the morning to protest and demand the reopening of the school. This was not unusual during this time in Korea, particularly in the southern regions. Factory workers, builders, and laborers had no protections and worked back-breaking hours. Multiple human rights violations took place. There was no freedom of expression or even the freedom to education.
During this time, people all over Korea had been protesting martial law. You can say it is a part of Korean history to protest. When the army arrived, they began shooting. Some reports say beatings and rapes took place as well. The city of Gwangju was so shocked and horrified at what the Korean military had done to their youth, soon the entire city rose up against the regime in protest of the brutality. But, there was more brutality to come.
Little Han Kang
Han Kang did not know of these events until she was twelve. However, she would overhear the hushed voices of adults speaking of a boy. Itboy that had lived in their house, the boy that had been a student. There were whispers of other things – a girl, a man beaten, a woman shot. There were also times when men would come into their house and ransack the place. Who were these men?
Her mother would shoo young Han Kang and her brother out of the rooms. At the age of 12, she found a photo album. In this photo album were photos from the uprising. It contained terrible photos of young people, just teenagers beaten to death and shot to death. These photos had seared into her young mind. She would recall the boy her parents had talked about. Was this boy here in this photo album? Did he suffer a similar fate?
Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there.
– Pg. 207 Human Acts
Fiction and Fact in Human Acts
Human Acts is fiction. The characters are not real people.
The book employs literary devices, poetic language, and figurative language to weave the tale of Dong-ho and the other characters together through varying points of view, distances, experiences, and years.
It is fiction, yet it is based on a real event, a real time period, and a real location. The home where Dong-ho, Jeong-mi, and Jeong-dae lived was real. The university gymnasium where the bodies were buried under cement was real. Woods that would become a mass grave was real. And, the Provincial Office where the civilian militia had their final hold out was also real.
Dong-ho was inspired by a real boy of the same name.
The Structure of Human Acts
Human Acts is told from seven different perspectives. It is divided into chapters that move through time in chronological order. The central character or the binding character is a young boy named Dong-ho. We first meet Dong-ho in chapter one, titled, The Boy, 1980.
In each subsequent chapter, we get a perspective of what happened during the May Uprising, particularly May 27th. This was when the uprising was brutally crushed, and citizens were either killed or arrested.
The following chapters give varying viewpoints on what happened in the years after 1980, and up until 2013. The characters weave us through their experiences of arrests, torture, trauma, the continuing oppression, loss, and the ghosts of the violence. All the while, they try to remember and simultaneously forget what happened and what they lost.
Characters in Human Acts
Dong-ho, Jeong-dae, Eun-Sook, Seon-ju, a prisoner, Dong-ho’s mother, and Han Kang, are characters that have their own chapter. Jin-su is an essential character, but he does not have his own chapter.
There are also characters that are talked about but never appear in the novel like Jeong-mi, the sister of Jeong-dae. The prisoner is never given a name, and a few times there is an “interviewer” of some kind of professor or a researcher. We never “see” the characters, nor do they have dialogue. However, the characters speak to them. In a way, we the readers, become those listeners. I
n the final chapter “The Writer. 2013” The book switches to non-fiction and the voice of Han Kang the author speaks directly to the reader.
Perspectives in Human Acts
The seven chapters are all told from the perspective of a different character: a boy, a ghost, a prisoner, an editor, a factory worker, a mother, and a writer. The narrative changes perspective from chapter to chapter. Some are told in the first-person point of view while others are told from the second-person point of view.
The Disembodied Soul of the Second-Person POV
Suddenly it occurs to you you wonder: when the body dies, what happens to the soul? How long does it linger by the side of its former self?
-The Boy, 1980 P. 13
Sometimes this use of “you” feels like the reader is being called “you” in an attempt to bring the reader closer to the events. But, many times it creates a distance like a reader is floating above the events It is as if “you”, the reader, are watching a memory.
Han Kang makes use of this second perspective in her book, The Vegetarian, as well. However, I find it to be more powerful and effective in Human Acts. While I read the first chapter many times, I ask myself – who is being addressed? Is it herself, her memories, or us?
Han Kang brings up the question of souls and what happens to a person’s soul when they die. If a person dies from violence is that soul ripped from the body or does it stay trapped? She brings this up more in the first couple of chapters. However, I got a sense that this disembodied soul lingers throughout the book through her use of the second POV.
Division of POV
Some of the chapters are also subdivided, like chapter 3. “The Editor. 1985” is divided between “Slaps” and the title of a play, and chapter 5, “The Factory Girl. 2002” is divided between the headings, “You Remember”, ”Up Rising”, and “Now”.
Within these subheadings Han Kang makes use of the past and present, sometimes switching POV in the same chapter.
The seven chapters are linear in time beginning from 1980 up to 2013. But, the individual chapters flow back through time. Each chapter reveals what happened on that day, what lead up to it, what was happening in Korea prior to the Gwangju uprising. They even give a glimpse into a union factory protest that had taken place in Seoul earlier in the year.
We also learn what happened to some of the survivors from Gwangju, their experience in prison, and their life after prison. This flowing back and forth can make the book a bit difficult to follow. As a result, I found myself flipping back to early pages to check for a connection. If you want the most out of the book, you do have to work for it a bit. Personally, I liked this. It was like I was discovering the writer’s method of telling the story. I was impressed with how well everything was interwoven and connected.
The second chapter is told from the perspective of a ghost. This is the most fictional and poetic section of the book. It is also the most visceral when it comes to the body, and what happens to the body in death, especially in a violent death. In the first chapter the words, “the bodies” are repeated several times. And then, in chapter two, we have more and more bodies. As horrible as this chapter is, there is also something very beautiful about it.
It was as that strange, vivid night was drawing to a close, as the faint blue light of dawn had begun to seep into the sky’s black ink, that I suddenly thought of you Dong-ho. Yes, you’d been there with me, that day.
– Pg. 53 Jeong-dae
Cruelty Only Ghosts and Soilders Know
This idea of souls still being connected to their bodies, and hovering above wondering what it was that had happened to them, and why they were there, really stuck with me. There was an agony to it. It presented an unnecessary humiliation, and degradation. The book really emphasized how little worth the people of Gwangju had to the soldiers and to their own government that was supposed to represent them in their country. It also felt incredibly lonely. They were shadows dancing near each other but never touching.
If I could escape the sight of our bodies, that festering flesh now fused into a single mass, like the rotting carcass of some many-legged monster.
During the actual uprising, bodies were put into mass graves, or beaten so savagely that they couldn’t be identified. People did not know if their loved ones were alive and away in some prison. Or, if they were buried in the ground somewhere. Even now, many don’t have answers. In this chapter Han Kang creates a story of what happened to the bodies, something that only the ghosts and the soldiers would know.
The book touches on grief, violence, brutality, injustice, guilt, rebellion, and the body. This violence against the body comes up in The Vegetarian too.
In fact, when I read The Vegetarian I made note of the mention of one of the characters had been a survivor of the Gwangju massacre. Han Kang does not hold back in her description of the soldiers’ brutality. There is no kind character that comes forward. You won’t find sense of remorse or empathy for the people. It is repeated at least two times, they wouldn’t shoot a child who has his hands up. Yet, that is exactly what they do.
Surrender, have you got that? Go out with your hands up. There’s no way they’ll harm a kid with his hands up.
–Pg. 118 Jin-su
Final Thoughts On Human Acts
Many of the people who died in Gwangju were young, no older than 24. Some of them were very, very young. The real Dong-ho, the boy that Han Kang searched for, was only 15, and still in middle school.
I feel, after reading this book, that Human Acts was about Han Kang trying to make sense of such horror. But, she also to ensure that no one forgets what happened so that those children’s lost lives wouldn’t have been in vain.
The massacre wasn’t officially memorialized until 1997. No one knows the actual number of people dead. And, even today, it remains controversial. What nation wants to admit that they would so brutally kill their own citizens? Unfortunately, this happens all the time around the world. Han asks herself and asks us – are humans innately cruel? Can we not help ourselves because why else would we do what we do? Why do we inflict such harm? She asks this same question in The Vegetarian.
I do recommend the book. However, it isn’t an easy read.
Not only the subject matter, but the style can be difficult to navigate as well. Plus, if you are not familiar with this part of Korean history, as I was not, you can miss a lot of essential information that Koreans would know. For example, the presidential assassination and the multiple movements taking place during that time were essential in this book. In order to fully understand the book, I needed to do further research.
It isn’t light reading and at times it is disturbing. Nevertheless, Han Kang’s language and Deborah Smith’s translation of it is poetic. It is somehow calming even in its most graphic of depictions.
There is so much love and respect for Gwangju, you can feel how much this event pained her. It also opens up this part of Korea that not many people know about and it really, for me at least, helps me to understand a lot of Korea today. It helps explain why some things are the way they are.
South Korea’s Republic is not that old and in a very short time, this country has gone through some enormous highs and lows. Today, I think they are on the brink of a cultural explosion. This is very exciting especially when you think of the amount of oppression that many people experienced just 30- 40 years ago. Sometimes knowing the pain helps to appreciate the joy. With this book, you can get a little closer to understanding that people fought and died for future generations to be able to have a life. A beautiful life.
Where to Purchase Human Acts
Human Acts can be found at Kyobo or my favorite book store Itaewon Foreign Bookstore:
Aladdin Used Bookstore: There are many stores in Seoul, you can try to find a branch near you by following the link.
Itaewon Foreign Bookstore: South Korea, Seoul, Yongsan-gu, Noksapyeong-daero, 208 1 층
Learn More About Gwangju
If you are interested in learning more about the Gwangju Uprising or what was happening in Korea during this time I suggest listening to this radio program from KBOO aired in 2018.
There is also a movie The Taxi Driver that is about a taxi driver and a foreign reporter in Gwangju during the uprising. I have yet to see the film, but it is the 12th highest-grossing film in Korean film history.
Kang, Han. Human Acts. Portobello Books, 2016. Translated by Deborah Smith.
Kim, H.J. (2013). What is Transitional Justice and Why is ts Relevant to South Korea. Social Science Korea Human Rights Brief, 1 (4), 28 – 34. Retrieved from sskhumanrights.org