Gestures in Korean Dramas: The Shaky Fist Clench

I was recently asked (by an Adjumma ūüėČ in the USA¬†) about the meanings of some gestures in Korean dramas such as fist clenching. Actually, for a while now I’ve been meaning to do some posts on all these common scenes and gestures that crop up (and what I think they mean.) Just after I read this question, I was watching Heo Jun and guess what? I saw the classic Fist Clench. RIght on cue. :)

The fist clench is a gesture that pops up in K-drama all the time. I could probably find an example in any drama but since I’m watching Heo Jun at the moment, here he is demonstrating the pose:


Heo Jun (MBC 2000) 

To me this gesture can sometimes feel a bit over-dramatic, like a bonus gesture just in case we didn’t already work out that our character is ANGRY. But there are times when a character can’t show his true feelings, so let’s take a closer look at this gesture and how it’s used.

Name: The Shaky Fist Clench

Action: The fist is clenched tightly and trembles. It’s held close to the body. The character’s facial expression remains neutral or possibly reveals mild annoyance.

When it occurs: When the character feels angry, frustrated, or humiliated. Other characters do not see this action. So far I have identified 3 types of fist clench:

1. THE FLASHBACK FIST CLENCH: done when the character is alone and thinking about a past humiliating event. It suggests inner resolve to make a change.

2. THE SUBORDINATE’S FIST CLENCH: done when the character is in front of superiors and needs to hide his true feelings due to his social status.

3. THE BADDIE FIST CLENCH: done when the baddie needs to hide his true feelings to hide his guilt.

Meaning: The last straw. The shaky fist clench suggests the character is barely able to contain his emotions – it’s as though he wants to reach out and punch someone and he is not pepared to put up with the situation for much longer.


In the above fist clench scene, Heo Jun is thinking back over the day’s events: after working as hard as he could for Dr Yoo at the clinic for 3 years washing blood stained towels and collecting water at dawn etc etc., he made (what he thinks) is a small mistake. But he was not forgiven and he feels he has been ruthlessly and unfairly thrown out of the clinic (and even told NEVER to return). We know he feels like this because he asks out loud what he did that was so bad for him to be treated like this, when all along he had only tried to do his best.

We know he feels angry because of the clenched fist.¬†His face doesn’t show any strong emotion. He looks annoyed or deep in thought. But it’s the clenched fist that adds oomph to the scene and tells us what is really bubbling under the surface. The fact that his feelings are not clear on his face suggest to me that there is a deeper feeling and inner resolve to do something about this. In other words he is not prepared to put up with this situation. We don’t know what he plans to do, he probably doesn’t know himself.


The clenched fist can also be done by a character when he is not at liberty to show his true feelings in public due to his status within the social hierarchy.

For example a servant being unfairly treated or humiliated by¬†his arrogant yangban master¬†would have to keep his face expressionless. (Otherwise he could be severely punished.) But a clenched fist might suggest that after the umpteenth humiliation, the servant is coming to the end of his tether and something is going to happen …

An aristocrat could do a fist clench too in front of his superior for the same reason as above.


Another reason for the surreptitious fist clench is to show us what the (usually aristocrat) baddie is thinking.

For example an ambitious baddie scholar-official at the royal court may clench his fist in anger and frustration in front of other officials when he realises that his dastardly plan (to kill ¬†the king or prime minister etc) is on the verge of being uncovered. He can’t show his emotions on his face because that would suggest guilt and he needs to act innocent in front of the others. But underneath he is FUMING.


So the Fist Clench is a dramatic device used to show us, the audience, that the character in question has reached breaking point or is unable to show his anger in public for various reasons. It’s a gesture only meant for us, other characters are not privy to it. :)




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