[漢字 배우자! 1 ] What is Hanja?

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Welcome to the first post of my new “漢字(한자) 배우자!” I love Hanja, but a lot of Korean-learning resources don’t really cover it unless it’s a resources specifically targeted toward people who want to learn Hanja. In this first post, I’ll start by briefly introducing what Hanja is and why it matters to Korean, and then I’ll introduce a few characters.

What is Hanja?

Hanja (漢字) is the Korean word for Chinese characters. About 70% of Korean vocabulary is based on Chinese characters, so being familiar with Hanja could potentially make it easier for you to learn and remember new words. I personally find Hanja especially useful in cases where the meanings of two words are very similar. If I know what their component Hanja are, I can work out the little nuances in the word meanings using the individual meanings of the Hanja.

While Hanja is no longer extensively used in Korean writing—it used to be the main writing form until Hangul was created, and even then it was used mixed in with Hangul for a long time—that doesn’t mean it has entirely disappeared. Names are one place where you can see Hanja. While some Koreans have native Korean names that are not based on Hanja, most have names that are based on the Chinese characters, which you can see on their identification cards.

You might also see a few Hanja in newspapers or on the news, particularly to denote specific countries, and sometimes words in books will have the Hanja written beside the hangul if the word has a homophone with a more common meaning, or if the word being used isn’t a very common one. Just walking around the city, you can see Hanja over doors and gates in old historical palaces, on restaurant and building signs… There are a lot of places you might see Hanja!

Hanja are divided into levels, and there is even a test that one can take to determine their level of proficiency in Hanja. The most basic characters are 8급 (level 8) and the most difficult are 1급. There are also 특급 (special level) characters that are very rarely (or perhaps not at all) used in Korean. I’ve found that some common Kanji in Japanese and some common characters in Mandarin fall under 특급 or the higher levels in Korean Hanja’s ranking system!

Why learn Hanja?

A lot of the time when I tell Korean acquaintances that I study Hanja, I’m met with the question, “Why?” Many of them seem puzzled why I would even bother when Hanja isn’t commonly used in writing anymore, when the characters are so difficult to read/write/remember, when they say they’ve forgotten pretty much all the Hanja that they’ve ever learned and have no use for it… and I won’t pretend that Hanja is the most useful thing, because it isn’t, not anymore. However, I have a few reasons why I learn Hanja (and why I think others should too!)

I already mentioned one of the benefits I get from Hanja, being able to work out word meanings easily, above. If I know the characters a word is made of, I can understand the nuances of its meaning. This way of working out word meanings using Hanja also helps me understand words that I’m just encountering for the first time. If I hear or see a word that I don’t know, I can often infer which characters the word is comprised of and thus, can guess fairly accurately what the word means. Or, if I see a new word and its Hanja written together, I can piece together what the word probably means. Of course, this requires having a decent mental storage of characters to choose from, but once you get there, the benefit is real!

The other reasons why I learn Hanja are less academic but no less valid! I find the characters beautiful to look at and fun to write, so that’s a plus for me. Also, knowing Hanja gives you something cool to talk about when you meet new Korean friends! Getting into Hanja can be daunting at first, but I hope you all at least give it a try to see if it works for you 🙂

Let’s learn Hanja

Now that you know what Hanja is and how learning it could help your Korean studies, let’s learn a few characters. I think it makes sense for us to start with the two characters in the word “漢字 한자.”

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The first character we see is 한수/한나라 漢 (한) (읽기7급II). 한수 refers to the Han River, which cuts through the middle of Seoul; and 한나라 refers to the Han country, or the Chinese Han Dynasty, people of Han descent, and China. Since we know 漢字 means “Chinese characters,” we know that here, the meaning of 漢 is 한나라 한.

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The second character here is 글자 자 (읽기7급), which is a character that refers to writing. Combined with 한나라 漢 (한), we get the meaning of “Chinese writing” or “Chinese characters.

Let’s look at a few more words that use these characters:

漢:
  • 漢江 한강 (한수 한, 강 강)The Han River
  • 漢水 한수 (한수 한, 물[water] 수)Another (less common) way to refer to the Han River
字:
  • 數字 숫자 (셀[count] 수, 글자 자)number
  • 文字 문자 (글월[writing, sentence] 문, 글자 자)script, writing
    • EX: 무자 메시지 (text message)

Let’s write Hanja

Writing 漢字 is another fun part of learning the characters! While you don’t really need to know how to write them, I find it pretty fun. It helps that they look cool, too!

Each character follows a specific stroke order which usually goes from top to bottom, left to right. Try to follow along and write today’s characters!