Hanja: Chinese Characters In Korean
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While learning Korean you might have heard about something called Hanja, but never actually seen it. So you might be wondering what Hanja are. And perhaps you might wonder why quite a few influential Korean language bloggers are adamant in convincing you to learn Hanja, the Chinese characters in Korean. In this article we will answer these two questions: “What Are Hanja” and “Why learn Hanja”.

What Are Hanja

The first important question we need to address is: “What are Hanja?” Hanja (KR: 한자, Hanja: 漢字) is the name for the Chinese characters that Koreans once used to write the Korean. In the long, long ago, Hangeul didn’t exist. However, that doesn’t mean Koreans never wrote something down prior to the invention for that Korean writing system. In the pre-Hangeul era, Koreans wrote with Chinese characters to write things down, though it was more involved than ‘just’ using the characters[1]. However, the characters they used, are the Hanja you hear so much about.

Now as you can imagine, writing Korean with Chinese characters was rather difficult. Those characters were meant to be used for Chinese, not Korean and as a consequence, very few people in Korea could actually read and write. Eventually, King Sejong the Great would instruct his people to develop a writing system just for Korean so more people would be able to write and read Korean. Hangeul would eventually replace Hanja, yet the influence of Hanja would never disappear from the Korean language. Moreover, these Chinese characters never completely disappeared. You can still find them in modern Korea to this very day.

Sino-Korean Vocabulary

Despite Hangeul replacing Hanja as the primary way to write Korean, Hanja never stopped influencing the Korean language.  Furthermore, due to its long history, these Chinese characters influenced the language forever. Its most noticeable influence you can find in the Korean vocabulary. Many, many words today still are derived from these characters. These are the Sino-Korean words or 한자어 (Hanja: 漢字語). They are the reason why many advice Korean language learners to eventually spend some time on these Chinese characters

Hanja Today

As mentioned, Hanja never truly disappeared from Korea. You can still find these Chinese characters, but not as the primary script. Its use has evolved with the advent of Hangeul.

Print Media

One important area which still heavily relies on the characters is print media and the news. You see the Sino-Korean vocabulary, while rich and sometimes literary, has one big problem: homonyms. Many Sino-Koreans words are written the same in Hangeul, but they can have wildly different meanings. That can cause issues. However, you can solve it by writing them in Hanja. Doing this will take away any potential misunderstanding (assuming the reader knows the characters). However, print media and the news are not the only ones still relying on Hanja.

Another use for Hanja that you will often see news agency use is using a single, well-known character as a shorthand. If you ever watched Korean news, you might have noticed that certain headlines contain single characters like 美, 北 and 日. These refer to the US (KR: 미국, Hanja: 美), North Korea (KR: 북한, Hanja: 北韓) and Japan (KR: 일본, Hanja: 日本) respectively. They use the first characters of these country’s name in Korean as a shorthand. They do this because most, if not all, Koreans know what these characters mean when used in that manner.

Academics

Yet another important area that uses Hanja today is academics. Plenty of academic fields require students to know a tremendous amount of these Chinese characters. These fields are not only Korean language related, but also all science fields. This is of course due to the fact many of the words used in science are Sino-Korean. And, as mentioned earlier, there are many homonyms in Sino-Korean vocabulary thus these characters appear frequently in academic texts to remove any confusion.

Dictionaries

As we have said multiple times by now, Sino-Korean vocabulary has a tremendous amount of vocabulary. You can probably imagine the headaches this would cause for dictionaries. Therefore, Korean dictionaries always add the Hanja to each word. This removes any possible confusion from, but it also helps the user better understand that Sino-Korean word.

Names

Lastly, another important use of Hanja is names. While names are most often written purely in Hangeul, the names of many Koreans are also written (and registered officially) in Hanja. Those Chinese characters are very serious business in Korea when the parents plan to use them for their child. It is a rather simple, but complicated tradition beyond the scope of this article.

Those were the most important uses of Hanja today. There’re probably still a few more uses, but these are the most important ones.

Why Learn Hanja

If you follow a few Korean language bloggers and vloggers (like), many of them will have recommended looking at Hanja at one point. I feel this advice is completely justified. As you may have noticed, Korean is full of homonyms and difficult to explain (Sino-Korean) vocabulary. However, if you understand those pesky Chinese and their underlying meaning, those confusing Sino-Korean words suddenly become a whole lot easier to understand.

However, dealing with Hanja is not something someone who just began their journey to learn Korean should bother with. Beginners should focus on learning basic grammar and basic vocabulary and more importantly, master Hangeul. The pesky Chinese characters can wait. However, once you enter the intermediate level those characters become a lot more interesting. And Morning Lands wholeheartedly recommends to start learning Hanja and our Hanja articles can help you with it.

Furthermore, if you have the aspiration to attend Korean college and classes which are in Korean or major in Korean, then learning the characters is an absolute must. For the former situation, it becomes a lot easier and for the latter situation, it is simply a necessity.

Lastly, let me be absolutely clear: While we recommend you to start looking at Hanja, learning them is not a necessity. You can perfectly do without them. They are just a nifty little thing that can help you. If you don’t want to deal with them, that is perfectly fine. But, if you do want to take a peek at them there are a few do’s and don’ts you ought to keep in mind. If you don’t, you might end up wasting your time.

What To Do

Hanja are Chinese characters and Chinese characts are logograms, symbols that represent a word or a phrase. Typically one of these characters will represent a word or a concept, sometimes they are referred to as the meaning of that character. Besides the meaning, a character also has one (or more) pronunciation. Because of this, each Hanja has what is known 음훈 (Hanja: 音訓), the meaning and pronunciation of the character. This is the most important act about it for a Korean language learner, especially the meaning.

If you start with Hanja, your goal ought to be to know the meaning of a character and being able to associate it with a sound. If you are able to do this, you can actually start guessing the meaning of unknown words you encounter. Don’t believe me? I’ll show it:

Korean Word: 출퇴근

Hanja: 出退勤

Analysis: The character 出 [출] means ‘leaving’, ‘exit’. The character 退 [퇴] means to ‘withdrawing’ and ‘leaving’. Lastly, 勤 [근] means ‘work’. If we combine them into a story, you can come up with the meaning yourself. I leave my house to go to work (출근) and I leave my work to go home (퇴근). This kind of thing we would call ‘commuting’ and that is what the Sino-Korean word 출퇴근 means.

What Not To Do

There are, however, a few interesting aspects to Hanja that do allure a lot of people. How to properly write the character. Like Hangeul, all Chinese characters have a proper stroke order and the stroke order is even more important for them. However, for most Korean language learners learning the stroke order is an absolute waste of time. You are most likely never going to use that knowledge in any meaningful way. Therefore, I always urge those delving into the Chinese characters of Korean to not bother with stroke orders and memorizing them.

However, if you are into calligraphy the story becomes different. For those aspiring calligraphy, the character’s stroke order is a must learn. They are the only exception to the Morning Lands main rule on Hanja.

Also if you happen to know or learn Japanese or Chinese, please do not confuse those characters with Hanja. Hanja are all ancient Chinese characters some of which are no longer used in modern Chinese and Japanese. So do not mix the characters up and keep them seperate.

Where To Start

So you have been convinced of the usefulness of spending some time on learning Hanja. That’s awesome. However, you might be needing some help with knowing where to start. Doing this on your own can be tricky because perhaps how you interpret a meaning might differ from how Koreans actually interpret it. Therefore, we absolutely recommend you to buy a book to help you and there are plenty of books out there on this subject to help you out. Some suggestions.

  1. Our first suggestion is the excellent “Your First Hanja Guide: Learn Essential Chinese Characters Used in the Korean Language” by the guys and girls of Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK). This simple book will show you the basics of how those Chinese characters of Korean can help you learn a lot of vocabulary.
  2. Another useful book with the same idea as the one from TTMIK is “Useful Chinese Characters for Learners of Korean”. This book, however, is written and published by the Seoul National University Language Education Institute.
  3. The excellent website How To Study Korean have some excellent posts on a lot of Hanja. Each of their posts covers a few characters, going over their meaning and a few words using said character. All in all an excellent source.
  4. Lastly, there is, of course, Morning Lands. Because we are huge Hanja fans, we add characters to our Korean language Bank frequently. Our articles go over one individual character and its meaning and what sorts of vocabulary might use said character. Our articles always end with a short vocabulary list to help you expand your Korean vocabulary. Those lists give the word written in both Hanja and Hangeul along with the English translation. Plus, if an article exists on a character used in a word, you can click that character and read the article on that one.

And with that, we end this article on Hanja, the Chinese characters in the Korean language.

Hanja: Chinese Characters In Korean - A Poetic Example
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An example of ancient Korean poetry written in Hanja along with a modern Hangeul version. (English translation in the article)

Poem translation v 0.1:

On a bright moonlit night in Seoul
After a late night’s play
Come on in. Looking at your seat,
You have four legs.
They’re mine.
Who are the two?
They are only mine.
I can’t help being taken away.


[1] The system of writing Korean in Chinese characters was rather complex. There were multiple systems in use for it: 향찰 (Hanja: 鄕札), 구결 (Hanja: 口訣) and 이두 (Hanja: 吏讀).

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