Hanja (lit. Han character(s)), or Hanmun (한문; 漢文), sometimes translated as Sino-Korean characters, are what Chinese characters (Hanzi) are called in Korean, but specifically, they refer to those that the Korean language borrowed and incorporated into their own language, changing their pronunciation. Unlike the Japanese Kanji, which has altered and simplified many characters, Hanja are almost entirely identical to modern traditional Chinese Hanzi, although a minority of the standard characters of Hanja are variant Hanzi also used in standard Kanji.
One of the major impetuses for the introduction of Hanja into Korea was the spread of Buddhism. The major text that introduced Hanja to Koreans, however, was not a religious work but the Cheonjamun (Thousand-Character Classic). Hanja was the sole means of writing Korean until King Sejong the Great invented Hangul in the 15th century. However, even after the invention of Hangul, most Korean scholars continued to write in Hanja.
There were some systems developed earlier, to use simplified forms of Chinese characters that phonetically transcribe Korean, namely, Hyangchal (향찰 ; 鄕札), Gugyeol (口訣), and Idu (이두 ; 吏讀), but for the most part Koreans had to learn Literary Chinese to be literate.
It was not until the 20th century that Hangul truly replaced Hanja. Officially, Hanja has not been used in North Korea since 1949.
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.
Meaning and Sound
In modern Korean, when a Hanja appears as a word or part of a word, it is invariably pronounced by its sound. To aid in understanding a character, however, character dictionaries and school textbooks refer to each character not only by its sound but also by 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 is referred to in character dictionaries as sarang ae (사랑 애), where sarang is the word for "love" (the character's meaning) and ae is its sound. Similarly, the character 人 is read as referred to as saram in (사람 인), where "saram" means "person" and "in" is its sound. When the two characters are put together to form the word 愛人, they are simply read as aein (애인; pronounced "ay-in"), 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 is referred to as me san (메산; pronounced "meh sahn"), where me is an archaic word for "mountain," almost entirely supplanted by the Chinese-derived word san.
This dual sound-meaning concept is similar but not identical to the Japanese on and kun readings of Kanji, whereby a character may be read according to its Chinese-derived sound (on) or its native Japanese meaning (kun).
Hanja are still taught as courses (that have recently become non-compulsory) in South Korean high schools. Hanja education begins in grade 7 (junior high school) and continues until graduation from senior high school in grade 12. A total of 1800 Hanja (about 100 less than Kanji) 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 on basic Hanja for educational purposes were 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.
In overseas universities, a sample of Hanja is a requirement for students of Korean Studies and Koreanology. Those who become graduate students usually acquire at least the 1800 basic Hanja.
Because many different Hanja—and thus, many different words derived from Hanja—often share the same sounds, two distinct Hanja words 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
Sino-Korean characters are used most frequently in academic literature, where they often appear without the equivalent Hangul spelling. Either all words of Sino-Korean origin may be spelled using Hanja (which is extremely rare), or only those words with a specialized or ambiguous meaning may be printed in Hanja (which is the more common way of using them.) In books and magazines, Hanja are generally used sparingly, and only to gloss words already spelled in Hangul when the meaning is ambiguous. Hanja are often used in newspaper headlines instead of Hangul to eliminate the ambiguity typical of newspaperese in any language. Hanja appear frequently in 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. (A similar practice is followed in Japanese dictionaries.) 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:
- 修道 "spiritual discipline"
- 受渡 "receipt and delivery"
- 囚徒 "prisoner"
- 水都 "'city of water'" (e.g. Hong Kong and Naples)
- 水稻 "rice"
- 水道 "drain"
- 隧道 "tunnel"
- 首都 "capital (city)"
- 手刀 "hand-knife"
Hanja dictionaries (Okpyeon ) are organized by radicals, like Hanzi and Kanji.
Hanja in Personal Names
Korean personal names generally use Hanja, although exceptions exist. Korean personal names usually consist of a one-character family name (seong, 姓) followed by a two-character given name ("ireum"). There are a few 2-character family names (eg 南宮, nam'gung), 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 (돌림자, tollimja). 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 "heaven" or "sky" — and "Iseul" — meaning "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
Placenames are almost universally composed of Hanja, but exceptions exist, the most significant of which is the name of the capital, Seoul. 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 (京). Thus,
- The Gyeongbu (京釜) corridor connects Seoul (gyeong) with Busan (bu);
- The Gyeongin (京仁) corridor connects Seoul with Incheon (in);
- The former Jeolla (全羅) Province took its name from the first characters in the city names Jeonju (全州) and Naju (羅州) (the "n" sound in Korean is assimilated to "l" when it follows an "l" sound).
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. (A similar practice occurs in Japan, where signs are written in Hiragana, Kanji, and English).
The pronunciations of Hanja is not entirely identical to the way the Chinese pronounce them. For example, 印刷 "print" is ýnshuā in Mandarin Chinese and inswae (인쇄) in Hanja pronunciation.
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 nǚ in Mandarin Chinese and nyeo (녀) in Korean. However, in most modern Korean dialects (especially South Korean ones), 女 is pronounced as yeo (여), due to a systematic displacement of initial n's followed by y or i.
Sometimes, to represent grammatical particles unique to Korean, Hanja are used solely for their Chinese pronunciation, but not for their meaning at all. This partial use is the basis of vernacular Sino-Korean scripts like Gugyeol. For example, Gugyeol uses the Hanzi weini (爲尼) to transcribe the Korean word "hăni", "hani" in modern Korean, that means "does, and so". However, in Chinese, "weini" means "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, used phonetically.
Much like Japanese, a great deal of Hanja vocabulary were directly borrowed from Chinese vocabulary. A small number of Sino-Korean words were either coined by the Koreans, or they were replaced with Hangul for non-existing Hanja words. Many academic and scientific terms were borrowed from Japanese. The Japanese translated numerous Western words (mainly English and German) into Sino-Japanese terms by coining or reusing words. Under the Japanese annexation, they were borrowed into Korean by systematically changing the pronunciations of the characters from Japanese to Korean.
The table below contains words different between Chinese and Korean:
||Korean (in Hanja)
Korean (in Hangul)
||名片 or 咭片
Sometimes the Chinese and Korean words are composed of the same characters, but in reversed order.
||Korean (in Hanja)
Korean (in Hangul)
* Note, however, that the Chinese order of jeong-o is used frequently in modern Korean as well.
Some Sino-Korean words derive from kun readings of Kanji, which are native Japanese pronunciations of Chinese characters. When borrowed into Korean, Sino-Korean pronunciation is used.
Chinese pronunciation of
|Actual Chinese term
||組裝 or 組合
||建築物 or 建物
|share or stock
A few words were found in Chinese but not in Hanja, especially in newly coined out phrases. These words were subsequently replaced by Hangul.
- Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481892X (paperback); ISBN 0824818423 (hardcover)
- DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824810686