The Hanja character for ‘middle’ (중) is wonderfully simple – it is merely a box with a line drawn right down the middle:
It is easy to see how a box with a line down the middle could mean ‘middle’, but it wasn’t always this way. In ancient China it looked like this:
Some people think that these pictographs represented a pole with flags flapping, while others believe that it is some kind of arrow piercing the center of a target. After a thousand years it had evolved to its modern, simple form.
In the east, China was considered the center of the world (it’s no wonder that so many Korean words derive from Chinese!). This idea is reflected in China’s name:
中國 (China- 중국)
In Korean we pronounce these characters as “Joong Gook”, but in Mandarin Chinese they say ‘Jong Guo’, and in Japanese they say ‘Chugoku’. As you can see, they are all very similar.
In English we say “China” which supposedly derives from the “Chin” dynasty, and this name was brought to the west by Marco Polo.
Unlike most Hanja characters which need to be combined with other characters to make words, 중 can be used as a word by itself.
The meaning of ‘middle’ can be stretched to mean ‘in the middle of something’ or ‘during’:
밤중 – In the middle of the night
식사중 – During a meal
수업중 – During class
운전 중 – While driving (‘during driving’)
It can be combined with verbs to mean ‘in the middle of doing something’ or ‘while’.
가는 중 – While going
일하는 중 – While working
먹는 중 – While eating
자는 중 – While sleeping
When you are specifying a particular person or thing from a group of things, you can use 중. For example when you say “One of my friends” you are referring to a particular person from amongst your group of friends. To do this in Korean we first need to identify the group:
My friends – 내 친구들
And then identify what we are specifying from this group:
One person – 한 사람이
When we add the 중 to the group like this it means “From among this group” like this:
내 친구들 중 – Among my friends (literally ‘in the middle of my friends’)
When you put it all together it looks like this:
내 친구들 중 한 사람이 – One of my friends
In the next example, we will make the sentence “One of the women was the first to speak.” In this sentence the group is ‘women’, and the part is ‘one person’.
So the group is women:
And we are specifying on person:
When you put it together it looks like this:
여자들 중 한 사람이 처음으로 말했습니다.
One of the women was the first to speak.
In this sentence there is a group of something (women 여자들), and from inside that group (This is the 중 – the center) there is one person (한 사람). Here are a few more examples:
Which one is the faster of the two?
둘 중 어느 게 더 빨라요?
Of all our friends, he lives farthest away.
내 친구들 중에서, 그 애가 가장 멀리 산다.
Some of these cars are called hybrids.
이 차들 중 일부는 하이브리드 자동차로 불린다.
Here is a list of more words that use the character 中 (중) as you can see many of these words mean ‘central’:
중년 (中年): Mid-year
중반 (中盤): middle phase, middle stage
중부 (中部): central part[district], middle part
중세 (中世): the Middle Ages, medieval times
중심 (中心): center, the middle
중앙 (中央): center, the middle
중학교 (中學校): Middle school
집중 (集中): Concentration