Hanja Time with Gary Routh

kkonnect december 03

Hanja Time!

A Single Stroke


The simplest Hanja character must be the character for the number 1.  It is pronounced일, and it looks like this: 一

Yep, it’s just a line. The numbers two (이) and three (삼) are just as simple:


The characters for one, two, and three are so simple that once you have seen them, they are almost impossible to forget.  The numbers four through ten aren’t as easy to remember, but they aren’t too complicated:

Four (사)
Five (오)
Six (육)
Seven (칠)
Eight (팔)
Nine (구)
Ten (십)

Numbers can seem a little boring, especially if the goal of learning Hanja is to increase one’s vocabulary. But even numbers have a funny way of sneaking inside every day vocabulary…

Take another look at the character for Ten (십): 十

자가, the Korean word for “cross” gets its name from the fact that a cross looks like the Hanja character for ten.  The자 means letter or character, and the가 means shelf (in the olden days, long wooden poles were mounted on a wall and used as a shelf).  So the name means “Wooden poles that look the ‘ten’ character”.

Character, or Letter
Wooden poles used as a shelf

The 자 that means “letter” or “character” is the same자 that is in the word 한자 itself. The 한 in한자 refers to the Han dynasty of China. So 한자 literally means “Han Chinese Characters.”

If the character for ten could be hiding in an everyday word like십자가, what other words might have numbers hiding in them?


Let’s go back to that single stroke, the number one. As it turns out, there are quite a few everyday words that have this character in them:

일등 一等 First place
일반적 一般的 general, usual, average, ordinary
일생 一生 one’s (whole/entire) life, a lifetime
일월 一月 January
일주일 一週日 One week
일회용 一回用 Disposable
제일 第一 The most, the first
통일 統一 Unification, or Reunification

Let’s take a look at another example of numbers hiding in everyday words. I’ve always had a hard time keeping the word for uncle (삼촌) and cousin (사촌) straight.  They sound so similar that I could never remember which was which.

Both words end in촌, which means “degree of kinship”.


Remember the characters for three and four?

Three:  (삼):  三

Four     (사):  四

As it turns out, the word for uncle- 삼촌, literally means “3rd degree of kinship.”  What that means is that you are separated from your uncle by three steps.  You are the first step, your dad is the second step, and your dad’s brother is the 3rd step.  He’s the third 촌, or the삼촌.


Suppose your uncle has a kid.  That kid, your cousin, would be the fourth촌, or사촌!

Thanks to Hanja, I now have a way of remembering the difference between 삼촌 and사촌.

A few other common words that use the number 4(사) are:

사계절 四季節 The four Seasons
사방 四方 All 4 directions, or “every side”


Unlucky number 4

In Korea (as in China and Japan) the number 4   is associated with death.  This is   because both the Hanja character for death   and the Hanja character for four   are pronounced사.  The   character for “death” looks like this:

The most common word that uses this character   is사망 (死亡) 하다, which simply means “to die”.  This may seem like a silly reason to fear   the number four.  Nonetheless,   superstitions being what they are, many buildings in Korea do not have a 4th   floor!


Now let’s take a look at the character for one hundred.  It is pronounced백 and looks like this: 百


This character can be found in the word for department store, 백화점, which literally means “Store of a hundred products”.

One Hundred
Goods or products


Finally, let’s take a look at the character for ten thousand.  It is pronounced만 and looks like this: 萬

This character is found in the Korean equivalent of “Hooray”, which is “만세”, which literally means “Ten thousand years.”

Ten Thousand
Years (or age)

Of course Hanja numbers are used for more numerical purposes- minutes, months, and years are all counted in Hanja numbers.  For a closer look at these and other uses of Hanja numbers visit www.kkonnect.net.  For any questions, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to email me at newhanja@gmail.com. And be sure to join us next month when we see how many Hanja characters evolved over thousands of years from simple, easy to recognize drawings.

About the author: Gary Routh is an engineer at The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR). He began learning Korean in 1994 using various methods, including the study of Hanja as a helpful tool in building vocabulary.



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