There is an eerie similarity between the revolution of 1956 and the student revolution of Gwangju in 1980. in Han Kang’s Noble creatures, she searches for the answer to the question: what happens to person when bereaved of their dignity.

The novel

Han Kang explores the events of May 1980, Gwangju and what happened to the people there from several viewpoints. It’s not a chronicle of the revolution but rather that of human suffering; she doesn’t go into much detail as to why people were marching in the streets, nor why they were being shot at by the soldiers. She tells the story of what happened after they’ve fallen, what happened  to their bodies; and how the bystanders coped with what they had witnessed.

She paints physical pain rather objectively. The book starts straightaway with the victims’ bodies being collected as others are attempting to bury them with a certain level of respect and dignity.  The detailed descriptions are quite graphic; whether it be the wounds, the corpses’ faces or smell.

Interestingly enough, the first time I read this book was around the same time I had my first pathology practice in dissection; so it’s left even more of a mark on me than it would have otherwise. I was about to tell someone about the lesson, someone not in medical school, but they couldn’t keep listening to what I was trying to tell them. It really shocked me, because I’m the one who has to stand there, see and experience human dissection firsthand; they only had to hear about it from me.

The same probably applies to this book and its contents as well. Many people probably won’t be able to get through it because of its detailed graphic descriptions, but how does reading through them compare to experiencing these atrocities first-hand? I consider it to be extremely important that these descriptions are put out there because only when we fully understand the circumstances, can we truly empathise with someone or comprehend the severity of an event such as this.

Noble creatures

The author borrowed the title from the Korean constitution which is mentioned several times in the novel; although noble creatures are always being harmed by other noble creatures in the name of the state. There is a study mentioned in the story that says that morally, masses are always more extreme than the individual itself. Crueler or nobler – these qualities are heightened in a group.

The rebels here were empowered by their conscience which gave them an overwhelming momentum – one that far exceeded realistic expectations.

They stayed there, practically children, to die at the county office as though there was nothing else they could do, as if honour demanded it of them. But can it really be expected of someone to die for a principal?


“The moments, when it seemed as though we’d all wonderfully overcame our usual selves, our soft skin touched each others’, as though we’d restrung and restarted the world’s heart, and patched up the wounds where blood was still pouring. This had such an impact on me, and has stayed with me ever since. Professor, have you ever faced such a terrifyingly intense feeling that you felt like you’d just been through an alchemic change, like you’d been cleansed and you suddenly became moral, head to toe? It’s an amazing moment, the blinding purity of conscience.

Han Kang

Born in 1970, she was 9 at the time of the rebellion. Her family had moved from Gwangju to Seoul the previous year. A family with three sons moved into their previous home: the youngest of the three, Tongho was still in secondary school, when he died on the courtyard in front of the county office.

For the author, the rebellion became an alternate life she could have lived herself. She felt close to the boy, who, perhaps, was doing his own homework before the move, much like she did; but, for some reason, he had to die this young. How do these things happen? And why? Why this boy, and not her?

It’s easy to imagine the bond, the wound the death of strangers left on her. The face of a wounded girl. The covered coffins. Life would be very difficult if every horrible thing touched everyone on this deep a level; but, perhaps, it would be a better world to live in.


1956 & 1980

Although much fewer people were affected by the Korean student rebellion, there are clear similarities between the two. Both started out at universities, both ended up being fought by guns, the raging optimism of participants, and the retribution that followed. In both cases, oppressed masses fought for basic human rights, only to be inhumanely punished.

It is also interesting to note that for Han Kang, the events in Gwangju seems as sensitive as the events of 1956 are for us. It still hasn’t been quite that long, so it’s not difficult to imagine the places and people living through all that, not to mention the possible personal connections. We’ve heard and read about the people that died here, some even younger than us. This poses the inescapable.