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Languages Korean
Parent systems
Sister systems
Kanji, Zhuyin, Simplified Chinese, chữ nôm, Khitan script, Jurchen script
Korean name
Hangul 한자
Hanja 漢字
Revised Romanization Hanja
McCune–Reischauer Hancha

Hanja is the Korean name for Chinese characters (hanzi).[1] More specifically, it refers to those Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and incorporated into the Korean language with Korean pronunciation. Hanja-mal or hanja-eo refers to words that can be written with hanja, and hanmun (한문, 漢文) refers to Classical Chinese writing, although "hanja" is sometimes used loosely to encompass these other concepts. Because hanja never underwent major reform, they are almost entirely identical to traditional Chinese and kyūjitai characters. Only a small number of hanja characters are modified or unique to Korean. By contrast, many of the Chinese characters currently in use in Japan and Mainland China have been simplified, and contain fewer strokes than the corresponding hanja characters.

Although a phonetic Korean alphabet, now known as hangul, had been created by a team of scholars commissioned in the 1440s by King Sejong the Great, it did not come into widespread use until the late 19th and early 20th century.[2] Thus, until that time it was necessary to be fluent in reading and writing hanja in order to be literate in Korean, as the vast majority of Korean literature and most other Korean documents were written in hanja. Today, a good working knowledge of Chinese characters is still important for anyone who wishes to study older texts (up to about the 1990s), or anyone who wishes to read scholarly texts in the humanities. Learning a certain number of hanja is very helpful to understanding the etymology of Sino-Korean words, and to enlarging one's Korean vocabulary. Hanja are not used to write native Korean words, which are always rendered in hangul, and even words of Chinese origin—hanja-eo (한자어, 漢字語)—are written with the hangul alphabet most of the time.


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A major motivation for the introduction of Chinese characters into Korea was the spread of Buddhism. The major Chinese text that introduced hanja to Koreans, however, was not a religious text but the Chinese text, Cheonjamun (Thousand Character Classic).

Koreans had to learn Classical Chinese to be properly literate for the most part, but there were some systems developed to use simplified forms of Chinese characters that phonetically transcribe Korean, namely, hyangchal (향찰; 鄕札), gugyeol (구결; 口訣), and idu (이두; 吏讀).

One way of adapting hanja to write Korean in such systems (such as Gugyeol) was to represent native Korean grammatical particles and other words solely according to their pronunciation. For example, Gugyeol uses the characters 爲尼 to transcribe the Korean word "hăni", in modern Korean, that means "does, and so". However, in Chinese, the same characters are read as the expression "wéi ní", meaning "becoming a nun." This is a typical example of Gugyeol words where the radical () is read in Korean for its meaning (hă—"to do") and the suffix , ni (meaning "nun"), used phonetically.

Hanja was the sole means of writing Korean until King Sejong the Great promoted the invention of hangul in the 15th century. However, even after the invention of hangul, most Korean scholars continued to write in hanmun.

It was not until the 20th century that hangul truly replaced hanja. Officially, hanja has not been used in North Korea since June 1949 (additionally, all texts are now written horizontally instead of vertically). Additionally, many words borrowed from Chinese have been replaced in the North with native Korean words. However, there are a large number of Chinese-borrowed words in widespread usage in the North (although written in hangul), and hanja characters still appear in special contexts, such as recent North Korean dictionaries.[3]

Character formation

Each hanja is composed of one of 214 radicals plus in most cases one or more additional elements. The vast majority of hanja use the additional elements to indicate the sound of the character, but a few hanja are purely pictographic, and some were formed in other ways.


To aid in understanding the meaning of a character, or to describe it orally to distinguish it from other characters with the same pronunciation, character dictionaries and school textbooks refer to each character with a combination of its sound and a word indicating its meaning. This dual meaning-sound reading of a character is called eumhun (음훈; 音訓; from "sound" + "meaning," "teaching").

The word or words used to denote the meaning are often—though hardly always—words of native Korean (i.e., non-Chinese) origin, and are sometimes archaic words no longer commonly used.



South Korean primary schools abandoned the teaching of hanja in 1971. It is taught in separate courses in South Korean high schools, separately from the normal Korean-language curriculum. Formal hanja education begins in grade 7 (junior high school) and continues until graduation from senior high school in grade 12. A total of 1,800 hanja are taught: 900 for junior high, and 900 for senior high (starting in grade 10).[4] Post-secondary hanja education continues in some liberal-arts universities.[5] The 1972 promulgation of basic hanja for educational purposes changed on December 31, 2000 to replace 44 hanja with 44 others. The choice of characters to eliminate and exclude caused heated debates prior to and after the 2000 promulgation.

Debate flared again in 2013 after a move by South Korean authorities to encourage primary and secondary schools to offer hanja classes. Officials said that learning Chinese characters could enhance students' Korean-language proficiency; protesters called the programme "old-fashioned and unnecessary".[6]


Though North Korea rapidly abandoned the general use of hanja soon after independence,[7] the number of hanja actually taught in primary and secondary schools is greater than the 1,800 taught in South Korea.[8] Kim Il-sung had earlier called for a gradual elimination of the use of hanja,[9] but by the 1960s, he had reversed his stance; he was quoted as saying in 1966, "While we should use as few Sinitic terms as possible, students must be exposed to the necessary Chinese characters and taught how to write them."[10] As a result, a Chinese-character textbook was designed for North Korean schools for use in grades 5–9, teaching 1,500 characters, with another 500 for high school students.[11] College students are exposed to another 1,000, bringing the total to 3,000.[12]


Because many different hanja—and thus, many different words written using hanja—often share the same sounds, two distinct hanja words (hanjaeo) may be spelled identically in the phonetic hangul alphabet. Thus, hanja are often used to clarify meaning, either on their own without the equivalent hangul spelling, or in parentheses after the hangul spelling as a kind of gloss. Hanja are often also used as a form of shorthand in newspaper headlines, advertisements, and on signs, for example the banner at the funeral for the sailors lost in the sinking of ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772).[13]

Print media

In South Korea, hanja are used most frequently in ancient literature, legal documents, and scholarly monographs, where they often appear without the equivalent hangul spelling. Usually, only those words with a specialized or ambiguous meaning are printed in hanja. In mass-circulation books and magazines, hanja are generally used rarely, and only to gloss words already spelled in hangul when the meaning is ambiguous. Hanja are also often used in newspaper headlines as abbreviations or to eliminate ambiguity.[14] In formal publications, personal names are also usually glossed in hanja in parentheses next to the hangul. In contrast, North Korea eliminated the use of hanja even in academic publications by 1949, a situation that has since remained unchanged.[10] Hanja are often used for advertising or decorative purposes, and appear frequently in athletic events and cultural parades, dictionaries and atlases. For example, the hanja 辛 (sin or shin, meaning sour or hot) appears prominently on packages of Shin Ramyun noodles.


In modern Korean dictionaries, all entry words of Sino-Korean origin are printed in hangul and listed in hangul order, with the hanja given in parentheses immediately following the entry word.

This practice helps to eliminate ambiguity, and it also serves as a sort of shorthand etymology, since the meaning of the hanja and the fact that the word is composed of hanja often help to illustrate the word's origin.

As an example of how hanja can help to clear up ambiguity, many homophones are written in hangul as 수도 (sudo), including:[15]

  1. 修道: spiritual discipline
  2. 囚徒: prisoner
  3. 水都: "city of water" (e.g. Venice or Suzhou)
  4. 水稻: paddy rice
  5. 水道: drain, rivers, path of surface water
  6. 隧道: tunnel
  7. 首都: capital (city)

Hanja dictionaries (Jajeon (자전, 字典) or Okpyeon (옥편, 玉篇)) are organized by radical (the traditional Chinese method of classifying characters).

Personal names

Korean personal names are generally based on hanja, although some exceptions exist. On business cards, the use of hanja is slowly fading away, with most older people displaying their names in hanja while most of the younger generation uses hangul. Korean personal names usually consist of a one-character family name (seong, 성, 姓) followed by a two-character given name (ireum, 이름). There are a few two-character family names (e.g. 남궁, 南宮, Namgung), and the holders of such names—but not only them—tend to have one-syllable given names. Traditionally, the given name in turn consists of one character unique to the individual and one character shared by all people in a family of the same sex and generation (see Generation name). During the Japanese administration of Korea (1910–1945), Koreans were encouraged to adopt Japanese-style names, including polysyllabic readings of the hanja, but this practice was reversed by post-independence governments on Korea. Since the 1970s, some parents have given their children given names that break the Chinese generation style, and are simply native Korean words. Popular ones include haneul—meaning "sky"—and iseul—meaning "morning dew". Nevertheless, on official documents, people's names are still recorded in both hangul and in hanja (if the name is composed of hanja).


Due to standardization efforts during Goryeo and Joseon eras, native Korean placenames were converted to hanja, and most names used today are hanja-based. The most notable exception is the name of the capital, Seoul, a native Korean word meaning 'capital' with no direct hanja conversion; the hanja gyeong (경, , "capital") is sometimes used as a back-rendering. For example, disyllabic names of railway lines, freeways, and provinces are often formed by taking one character from each of the two locales' names; thus,

  • The Gyeongbu (경부, 京釜) corridor connects Seoul (gyeong) and Busan (bu, );
  • The Gyeongin (경인, 京仁) corridor connects Seoul and Incheon (in, );
  • The former Jeolla (전라, 全羅) Province took its name from the first characters in the city names Jeonju (전주, 全州) and Naju (나주, 羅州) ("Naju" is originally "Raju," but the initial "r/l" sound in South Korean is simplified to "n").

Most atlases of Korea today are published in two versions: one in hangul (sometimes with some English as well), and one in hanja. Subway and railway station signs give the station's name in hangul, hanja, and English, both to assist visitors (including Chinese or Japanese who may rely on the hanja spellings) and to disambiguate the name.


This Korean War propaganda leaflet created by the US Army as part of Operation Moolah uses hangul–hanja mixed script.

Opinion surveys in South Korea regarding the issue of hanja use have had mixed responses in the past. Hanja terms are also expressed through hangul, the standard script in the Korean language. Hanja use within general Korean literature has declined significantly since the 1980s because formal hanja education in South Korea does not begin until the seventh year of schooling, due to changes in government policy during the time. In 1956, one study found mixed-script Korean text (in which Sino-Korean nouns are written using hanja, and other words using hangul) were read faster than texts written purely in hangul; however, by 1977, the situation had reversed.[16] In 1988, 80% of one sample of people without a college education "evinced no reading comprehension of any but the simplest, most common hanja" when reading mixed-script passages.[17]

Gukja (국자, 國字)

A small number of characters were invented by Koreans themselves. Most of them are for proper names (place-names and people's names) but some refer to Korean-specific concepts and materials. They include 畓 (논 답; non dap; "paddyfield"), 乭 (Dol, a character only used in given names), 㸴 (So, a rare surname from Seongju), and 怾 (Gi, an old name of the Kumgangsan).

Further examples include 媤 (시 si), 㕦/夻 (화 hwa), 巭 (부 bu), 頉 (탈 tal), 䭏 (편 pyeon), and 哛 (뿐 ppun).

Compare to the parallel development in Japan of kokuji (国字), of which there are hundreds, many rarely used—these were often developed for native Japanese plants and animals.


Ryakja (약자, 略字) simplification of 無

Some hanja characters have simplified forms (약자, 略字, ryakja) that can be seen in casual use. An example is , which is a cursive form of 無 (meaning "nothing").


Each hanja character is pronounced as a single syllable, corresponding to a single composite character in hangul. The pronunciation of hanja in Korean is not identical to the way they are pronounced in modern Chinese, particularly Mandarin, although some Chinese dialects and Korean share similar pronunciations for some characters. For example, 印刷 "print" is yìnshuā in Mandarin Chinese and inswae (인쇄) in Korean, but it is pronounced insue in Shanghainese (a Wu Chinese dialect). One obvious difference is the complete loss of tone from Korean while all Chinese dialects retain tone. In other aspects, the pronunciation of hanja is more conservative than most northern and central Chinese dialects, for example in the retention of labial consonant codas in characters with labial consonant onsets, such as the characters 法 (법 beop) and 凡 (범 beom); the labial codas existed in Middle Chinese but do not survive intact in most northern and central Chinese varieties today.

Due to divergence in pronunciation since the time of borrowing, sometimes the pronunciation of a hanja and its corresponding hanzi may differ considerably. For example, 女 ("woman") is in Mandarin Chinese and nyeo (녀) in Korean. However, in most modern Korean dialects (especially South Korean ones), 女 is pronounced as yeo (여) when used in an initial position, due to a systematic elision of initial n's when followed by y or i.

Additionally, sometimes a hanja-derived word will have altered pronunciation of a character to reflect Korean pronunciation shifts, for example mogwa 모과 木瓜 "quince" from mokgwa 목과, and moran 모란 牡丹 "Paeonia suffruticosa" from mokdan 목단.

There are some pronunciation correspondence between the onset, rhyme, and coda between Cantonese and Korean.[18]

See also



  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b c d
  4. ^ .
  5. ^ , and references cited therein.


External links

  • Hanja–Hangul Convert Project
  • Hanja (Chinese characters)
  • Hanja Dictionary for learners of Korean
  • One out of Five Korean Students Couldn't Write Their Own Names (in hanja)
  • Hanja Explorer, a website to visualize and study Hanja and Korean vocabulary
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