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Hanja is the Korean name for Chinese characters. 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 which can be written with hanja, and hanmun ( , ) 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 (kanji) 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. 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, hanja plays a different role. Scholars who wish to study Korean history must study hanja in order to read historical documents. For the general public, learning a certain number of hanja is very helpful in understanding words that are formed with them. 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.


A major impetus for the introduction of Chinese characters into Koreamarker 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 (爲) is read in Korean for its meaning (hă — "to do") and the suffix 尼, 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 Koreamarker since June 1949 (additionally, all texts are now written horizontally instead of vertically), because Kim Il-sung considered it an artifact of Japanese occupation and an impediment to literacy.

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 [24128].

Character formation

Each hanja is composed of one of 214 radical 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.

Eumhun (sound and meaning)

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 音 "sound" + 訓 "meaning," "teaching").

For example, the character 愛 (love) is referred to in character dictionaries as sarang ae (사랑 애), where sarang is the native Korean word for "love" (the character's meaning) and ae is its sound. Similarly, the character 人 (person) is read as referred to as saram in (사람 인), where "saram" means "person" and "in" is its sound. When these two example characters are put together to form the word 愛人, they are simply read as aein (애인), and denote the idea of a beloved or sweetheart ("love" + "person").

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. For example, the character 山 (mountain) is referred to as me san or moe san (메산, pronounced "meh sahn"; or 뫼산, pronounced "moeh sahn"), where me or moe is an archaic word for "mountain," almost entirely supplanted by the Chinese-derived word san.


Hanja are still taught in separate courses in South Korean high schools, apart 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). Post-secondary hanja education continues in some liberal arts universities. The 1972 promulgation of basic hanja for educational purposes was altered in 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.

Though North Korea rapidly abandoned the general use of hanja soon after independence, the number of hanja actually taught in primary and secondary schools is greater than the 1,800 taught in South Korea. Kim Il-sung had earlier called for a gradual elimination of the use of hanja, 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." 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. College students are exposed to another 1,000, bringing the total to 3,000.

In Korean language and Korean studies programs at universities around the world, a sample of hanja is typically a requirement for students. Becoming a graduate student in these fields usually requires students to learn at least the 1,800 basic hanja.

Current uses of hanja

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. Some details of use follow.

Hanja in print media

In South Korea, hanja are used most frequently in academic literature, 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 the ambiguity typical of newspaper headlines in any language. 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 which has since remained unchanged. Hanja are often used for advertising or decorative purposes, and appear frequently in athletic events and cultural parades, dictionaries and atlases; see below.

Hanja in dictionaries

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:

  1. 修道 — spiritual discipline
  2. 受渡 — receipt and delivery
  3. 囚徒 — prisoner
  4. 水都 — 'city of water' (e.g. Venice or Hong Kong)
  5. 水稻 — rice
  6. 水道 — drain
  7. 隧道 — tunnel
  8. 水道 — rivers, path of surface water
  9. 首都 — capital (city)
  10. 手刀 — hand-knife

Hanja dictionaries (Jajeon (자전, 字典) or Okpyeon (옥편, 玉篇)) are organized by radical, like hanzi (Chinese, 漢字) and kanji (Japanese, 漢字).

Hanja in 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 utilizes 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 2-character family names (eg 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). Things have changed, however, and while these rules are still largely followed, some people have given names that are 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).

Hanja in place names

Due to standardization efforts during Goryeomarker and Joseonmarker 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, Seoulmarker- although Seoul is the English pronunciation of 서울 (Seo-Ul) which literally mean 'Capital'. Disyllabic names of railway lines, freeways, and provinces are often formed by taking one character from each of the two locales' names. For Seoul, the abbreviation is the hanja gyeong (경, 京, "capital"). Thus,
  • The Gyeongbu (경부, 京釜) corridor connects Seoul (gyeong) with Busanmarker (bu);
  • The Gyeongin (경인, 京仁) corridor connects Seoul with Incheonmarker (in);
  • The former Jeolla (전라, 全羅) Province took its name from the first characters in the city names Jeonjumarker (전주, 全州) and Najumarker (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 and to disambiguate the name.

Hanja usage

Opinion surveys show that the South Korean public do not consider hanja literacy essential, a situation attributed to the fact that hanja education in South Korea does not begin until the seventh year of schooling. Hanja terms are also expressed through hangul, the standard script in the Korean language. Some studies suggest that hanja use appears to be in decline. 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. 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.

Korean hanja

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 Seongjumarker), and 怾 (Gi, an old name of the Kumgangsanmarker).


Some hanja characters have simplified forms (약자, 略字, yakja) that can be seen in casual use. An example is , which is a cursive form of 無.


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 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 coda in characters with labial consonant onset, 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 Koreanmarker ones), 女 is pronounced as yeo (여) when used in an initial position, due to a systematic displacement of initial n's 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 木果 "quince" from mokgwa 목과.

See also



  1. Hannas 1997: 71. "A balance was struck in August 1976, when the Ministry of Education agreed to keep Chinese characters out of the elementary schools and teach the 1,800 characters in special courses, not as part of Korean language or any other substantitive curricula. This is where things stand at present"
  2. Hannas 1997: 68-69
  3. Hannas 1997: 67. "By the end of 1946 and the beginning of 1947, the major newspaper Nodong sinmun, mass circulation magazine Kulloja, and similar publications began appearing in all-hangul. School textbooks and literary materials converted to all-hangul at the same time or possibly earlier (So 1989:31)."
  4. Hannas 1997: 68. "Although North Korea has removed Chinese characters from its written materials, it has, paradoxically, ended up with an educationa program that teachers more characters than either South Korea or Japan, as Table 2 shows."
  5. Hannas 1997: 67. "According to Ko Yong-kun, Kim went on record as early as February 1949, when Chinese characters had already been removed from most DPRK publications, as advocating their gradual abandonment (1989:25)."
  6. Hannas 1997: 67
  7. Hannas 1997: 67. "Between 1968 and 1969, a four-volume textbook appeared for use in grades 5 through 9 designed to teach 1,500 characters, confirming the applicability of the new policy to the general student population. Another five hundred were added for grades 10 through 12 (Yi Yun-p'yo 1989: 372)."
  8. Hannas 2003: 188-189
  9. Brown 1990: 120
  10. Brown 1990: 119-121
  11. Taylor and Taylor 1983: 90
  12. Brown 1990: 119


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