Hanja – All about Chinese characters & their meanings

In this lesson, you’ll be learning everything you need to know about Hanja.

The Korean language is an incredibly old one. Even the 한글 (hangeul) alphabetic system we are learning and Koreans are actively using today is centuries old. With that said, before King Sejong created 한글, a different writing system was used for written Korean: hanja. And in this lesson, we will explain to you exactly what hanja is, how important it used to be for Korean history and its status in modern Korean society.


What is hanja?

Hanja is what Koreans call their traditional writing system. The word itself translates to “Chinese character.” It comprises, for the most part of Chinese characters. Although the characters themselves derive from the Chinese language, they each have a Korean pronunciation in hanja, using a similar structure as 한글-based pronunciation does. Koreans began using hanja during the Gojoseon period, so 400 BCE already.

Is Hanja the same as China’s Hanzi?

Hanzi is used to refer to Chinese characters. Although there are some differences in stroke orders, for the most part, the hanja letters are identical to the original traditional Chinese characters, even today.

Interestingly, the characters currently in use in mainland China, as well as Japan (where they are called kanji), have been simplified. This means they no longer look exactly like the traditional characters, unlike hanja.

Do Hanja and China’s Hanzi have similar pronunciations?

Hanja characters are read and pronounced differently from the Chinese characters, Hanzi. They may have a similar meaning or representation, but they have different pronunciations.

Can Chinese read Hanja?

Hanja uses a different set of Chinese characters so the Chinese can’t read Hanja. If they do, they’ll only be able to identify the characters but may have a different meaning for them.

What is Hanja-eo?

Another term used often when talking about hanja is hanja-eo. It refers to Korean words that can be written using Hanja or Chinese Characters.

Hanja-eo is the term used to talk about Sino-Korean vocabulary. That means both words that were directly borrowed from Chinese as well as words that are fully Korean but were created from Chinese characters.

A Student Reading A Book

How many Hanja characters are there?

According to 한한대사전 Han-Han Dae Sajeon, which refers to the Korean Hanja to Hangul dictionary, there are around 53,667 Hanja characters.

How many Hanja characters do I need to learn?

There’s no exact number of Hanja characters you must learn. However, if you want to recognize Sino-Korean words, 2000 Hanja characters will be a good amount of Hanja.

How are Hanja and Kanji the same?

Just like the term hanja means hàn (the Chinese word for Chinese characters), so does the Japanese term kanji. If you wrote any of them as a traditional Chinese character, they would all look like 漢字. In other words, hanja and kanji both mean the Chinese character writing system, with hanja in use in Korea and kanji in Japan.

Why did Korea stop using Hanja?

Actually, Korea has not stopped using hanja entirely. However, it has been largely replaced by 한글 for everyday writing. Also, despite 한글 being created in the early 15th century, it did not become widespread to use until between the 19th and 20th centuries. Until then, hanja was the primary system used for the written word.

Is Hanja still taught?

Hanja is still taught today in high schools. They are taught in a separate class from a regular Korean language class.

Happy female student with backpack and stack of books

Do I need to learn Hanja?

Although it is not mandatory for you to learn hanja to manage a visit and life in Korea, as well as to speak the Korean language, learning some hanja characters will help you tremendously. You see, even today approximately 60% of the Korean language is made up of words of Chinese origin. Therefore you will see hanja all around you when you’re in Korea!

For example, you may see some hanja characters every single day you spend in Korea. We will explain this in a little more detail below.

How important is it to learn Hanja?

Learning hanja may aid you in understanding the Korean language more deeply and even help you widen your vocabulary. In fact, you’ll find hanja a lot in Korean dictionaries, although each Korean word is first and foremost written in 한글. Yes, even words of Sino-Korean origin. Hanja is mostly present in a dictionary to explain a word’s origin. But if you are truly interested in learning hanja for yourself, a Korean dictionary is a great place to start memorizing them! Learning hanja now will also give you an excellent advantage in case you ever take up Chinese or Japanese as a language to learn.

Otherwise, you may be encouraged to learn hanja if you want to be able to understand old idioms, academic texts, and legal documents in full. Also, you will not be able to read old scholarly texts without having a handle on hanja characters first! And of course, for much traditional art and culture, such as calligraphy, hanja is essential.

As far as modern books and magazines go, hanja is rarely used. Its purpose there is only to explain a word that may otherwise be ambiguous in its meaning. However, hanja is more commonly seen in newspaper headlines! This is exactly to squash any ambiguity of a headline.

Do note that hanja’s status is more prevalent in modern South Korean society than it is in North Korea. Their hanja no longer exists even in academic settings.

Where can I see Hanja used in Korea?

For starters, you may see hanja in as simple of places as a restaurant menu, typically to indicate the size of the dish. You may come across the same characters in a supermarket. It is also not surprising to see hanja characters depicted in public bathroom doors, for women and for men.

Also, it is important for you to note that, though not widely used anymore, Korean personal names are typically based in hanja. Though the use of native Korean words when naming children is becoming more common now, this is still the primary way to name a person. Therefore in official documents, even today, each person’s names continue to be recorded in hanja.

Additionally, you may see hanja characters sprinkled into brochures, restaurant signs, branding and logos, advertising, legal documents, academic texts, and so on, even if the text is otherwise written in 한글. A lot of street and place signs also incorporate hanja.

3 students writing on a paper while sitting down

What is some basic hanja I could learn today?

Based on the above information, we wanted to share with you some of the basic hanja characters you may come across daily in Korea.

small소 (so)
medium중 (jung)
large대 (dae)
person인 (in)
man남 (nam
female여 (yeo)
mountain산 (san)
door문 (mun)
month달 (dal)
day일 (il)

And there you have it, your small and compact information package on hanja! How interested in learning more about hanja characters did this article make you? And do you have previous experience in learning Chinese characters or Japanese kanji?

The post Hanja – All about Chinese characters & their meanings appeared first on 90 Day Korean®.

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