HanJa Characters

The Korean people and their language have existed for thousands of years. Early on, they used Chinese characters to write the Korean language. The pronunciations and grammar were different than Chinese. They were using those written characters to represent their own language. When Chinese-like characters are used by Koreans in this way, they refer to the characters as “HanJa.”

Today HanJa is not required when writing Korean, but it is still used in formal and traditional writing. All words can be represented by pure Korean HanGul letters, but only words with Chinese roots can be represented by HanJa characters. About 80% of Korean words can be represented by HanJa. Typically, Chinese root words are two syllables represented by two HanJa characters.

There are thousands of HanJa characters. Many share the same Korean pronunciation, but each has its own meaning. Each HanJa character represents a single syllable. However, the HanJa characters are not phonetic — they do not contain any clues about pronunciation. They contain rich clues about meaning. In fact, a primary use of HanJa is to specify meanings, especially in cases when multiple HanJa characters share the same pronunciation.

For Korean words with HanJa roots, the HanJa representation provides the exact meaning. The HanGul version provides the exact pronunciation. The HanGul version is significantly easier to use, but both are required to fully understand the word. For example, if searching for meanings online it is much easier to search based on the phonetic HanGul version, select the correct HanJa character based on the search results, and then learn the meaning.

Korean high school students memorize thousands of HanJa characters. Truly mastering HanJa, however, requires even higher levels of study. Learning the most common HanJa root characters can enhance Korean vocabulary study significantly; this is similar to how studying Greek or Latin root words helps build English vocabulary. An excellent resource is the book “Handbook of Korean Vocabulary” (Handbook of Korean Vocabulary: A Resource for Word Recognition and Comprehension, by Miho Choo and William O’Grady, 1996, Center for Korean Studies), which has hundreds of vocabulary words organized by common root characters. It also has a useful section of Korean root words, which do not have HanJa representations. http://hanja.naver.com is a good online source for HanJa study.

A good example of a HanJa character is the root syllable “Han.” The HanGul version of this syllable is 한, which specifies the pronunciation “Han” (ㅎ=h, ㅏ=a, ㄴ=n; ㅎ+ㅏ+ㄴ=한). The HanJa version is 韓, which means Korea. You can combine the root 韓 with other syllables to create many two-syllable words, as shown in the following table:

Table 1.1: Examples of HanJa Vocabulary with Common Roots

HanJa

HanGul

Pronunciation

Definition

HanGuk

Korean Country

HanShik

Korean Food

NamHan

South Korea

BukHan

North Korea

HanJa

Korean Characters

As you study HanJa you will notice that some characters are simple and some are complex. The complex HanJa are usually a combination of several simple HanJa into one character. For example, the simple HanJa for roof and tree are put together into a more complex HanJa character representing the Song family name. Understanding the characters that make up a complex HanJa symbol provides a deeper understanding of the meaning. In the following example, one interprets the imagery of a family tree under one roof, which evokes deeper insights about the meaning of the family name “Song.”

Table 1.2: Examples of Simple and Compound HanJa

HanJa

HanGul

Pronunciation

Definition

Myeon

Roof, Home

Mok

Tree

Song

Song (family name)

7 thoughts on “HanJa Characters

  1. Korean writing into hanja is 韓글. 글 cannot be put made into Hanja because it is a native Korean word. Only Sino-Korean words can be made into Hanja. 契 means to bear. Also, Hanja into Hanja is 漢字. 子 means child.

  2. Hi, I was wondering if you knew of any resources to find more hanja poems (and more importantly, any ways to translate hanja to english).

  3. I have an antique Korean printing board which appears to have been carved in Hanja. Is there anyone out there that might be proficient in Hanja and can translate a photo of the front and back of my printing board for me?
    Thanks

  4. Is there any occult esoteric or symbolic meaning behind the letters of Hanja or Hangul such as elements, alchemy, astrology or a similar discipline…?

    • I suggest reading the book “A Guide to Korean Characters. Reading and Writing Hangul and Hanja” by Bruce K. Grant.

      Hangul was scientific in its creation. The consonants represent how your mouth, tongue, and lips are formed to make the sounds. However, the building blocks of all the letters are based on representations of the sky, the earth, and man between the two. There is a harmony and balance represented.

      For Hanja or chinese characters, there are several categories. 1) Simple pictographs representing the meaning of the word (shape = meaning) 2) Simple diagrams (also shape = meaning, but representing concepts like up or down rather than objects) 3) Simple compounds (combine simple characters together for a blended meaning… for example tree and sun together = east because of the sun rising from behind the trees to the east) 4) Phonetic Compounds. One or more characters representing the meaning combined with a character representing the pronunciation. 5) Derived meanings. This covers pictographs of more abstract concepts — often these were required to fully represent the language in modern times. 6) Arbitrary meanings… some just evolved and just are what they are — so they get their own category.

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