A Simple Introduction to Hanja
By Gary Routh
Do you know what the Shinsegae department store and the Shilla Dynasty have in common? What about Seoraksan Mountain and the Korean word for “sugar”? What connection is there between high schools and the Koryeo dynasty? The answer is in the Hanja.
Many Korean words are based on Chinese words. Though these words are usually written using the Korean alphabet Hangul (한글), Koreans are expected to learn many of the Chinese characters upon which they are based. These characters are called Hanja (한자).
Anybody who studies the Korean language will eventually noticed patterns between words. The Korean words for clock, hour, and generation are all related to time, and all have the sound “시” in them. The words for student, tuition, school, and college all have the sound “학”, and are related to learning. When you begin to associate “시” with “time” and “학” with “learning”, you have started learning Hanja, even if you didn’t realize it.
Like many who study the Korean language, I ignored Hanja for a long time. It looked too hard, too complicated, and not really worth the effort. After a while, however, I began to get the feeling that if I could learn the meaning of the Hanja behind the words, I would learn how different words were related to each other. And if I could associate new vocabulary with those words that I already knew, it would become easier to learn new vocabulary.
So with no guidance at all I dove headfirst in to Hanja. Actually it was more like a belly flop. I didn’t know where to start, or which characters to learn first. I didn’t know which Hanja were common and which were obscure. I bought a couple books (There aren’t very many Hanja books available in English). I made flashcards. I scoured the internet looking up the Hanja behind new words I was learning, and wondered what other words used those characters. Mostly though, I struggled.
And then I discovered the급.
급 is the Korean word for “level”, or “rank.” As it turns out, there are 8 levels of Hanja characters. Level 8 is the “beginner” level, and Level 1 is the “expert” level. Korean children begin their study of Hanja with the 50 characters that make up Level 8.
Like Korean grade school children, I decided to focus on learning the level 8 characters first. Level 8 consists of basic characters, such as the numbers 1 through 10, the 4 directions (north, south, east, and west), and characters for man, woman, person, mother, and father, etc.
Once I got comfortable with level 8, I moved on to Level 7, which consists of 100 Hanja covering a broader range of vocabulary. It was with level 7 that I began to notice improvements in my vocabulary, and I began to discover surprising relationships between Korean words that only reveal themselves to those who look up the Hanja behind them.
I learned that the신 sound in 신세계 (Shinsegae Department Store) and 신라 (Shilla dynasty) comes from the Hanja character for “new.”
I discovered that the 설 sound in 설탕 (sugar) and 설악산 (Seorak Mountain) comes from the Hanja character for “snow.”
I found out that the 고 sound in 고등학교 (high school) and 고료 (Koryeo Dynasty) both come from the Hanja character for “high, or tall.”
The Korean language is full of hidden surprises that can be discovered once you set down the path of learning Hanja. It’s not always easy… but it is rewarding, often fascinating, and occasionally even fun!