Hanja Time – Why Korea is called Korea

The name “Korea” comes from a building and some deer antlers.  It’s true, and in this article we are going to discover why.


Koreans call their country ‘Han Gook’ (한국 – 韓國) which means “Nation of Han people”, so why do we call it Korea?   Where does this word “Korea” come from anyways?


Korea has a long history that can be traced back thousands of years. Over the course of those millennia different kingdoms rose and fell. In 918 the Koryo (고려 – 高麗) dynasty (sometime spelled Goryeo) was established by King Taejo, and this dynasty lasted until 1392.   The name Koryo itself was derived from Koguryo (고구려 -高句麗), one of the ancient Three Kingoms of Korea.


The kingdom of Koryo 고려became known in the west as ‘Corea’, and eventually ‘Korea’.


The name 고려 is formed from two Han Chinese characters:

高 – – High, tall

麗 – –  Beautiful, elegant, fine


The influence of China on Korea was such that Korean clans adopted Chinese names (like “Kim” and “Lee”) and even the kingdoms of Korea were written with Chinese characters (this was before Korea had invented its own alphabet).


With than in mind, let’s take a closer look at the two characters behind the name ‘Korea’.


The idea of “high” or “tall”  was originally represented by the ancient Chinese by a carving a picture of a tall building.

It is still easy to imagine a tall building when you look at the character in its current form:


Now let’s take a look at some common vocabulary words that use this character for the meaning “high”:

고등학교 – 高等學校 (‘Go-deung Hak-gyo’): High School

고속 – 高速 (‘Go-sok’): High Speed

고급 – 高級 (‘Go-geup’): high rank, seniority, high level

고층 – 高層 (‘Go-cheung’): High Rise (building)

최고 – 最高 (‘Choi-go’): The Best


You can see how each of these words relates to something “high” in them, and each has the고 (‘go’) sound in them.


For what it’s worth, 고 -高is the 22nd most common last name in Korea (which isn’t saying much, but at least if you meet a Korean with the last name of고 or ‘Ko’ you will know what it means!)


So the ‘Ko’ in ‘Korea’ means ‘high’.  Now lets look at the ‘-rea’ part of ‘Korea’.

The ‘-rea’ part comes from 려- 麗which is actually pronounced something like “ryuh”.  It means ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’, and ‘elegant’.  This character evolved from ancient Chinese inscriptions of deer with beautiful antlers:

It’s a little hard to visualize, isn’t it? In each picture there are 2 deer, shown from the side, their legs pointing to the left.  Above the deer are the antlers. These carvings evolved over time to the modern form we use today:

Unlike 고 (高), the character for 려 (麗) isn’t used in very many common Korean words. The one you are most likely to encounter is:


화려(하다) – 華麗 (‘Hwa-ryuh Hada’): Fancy, showy, brilliant, colorful


There are less common words that use this character, and they all have similar meanings:


미려 – 美麗 (‘Mi-ryuh’): Beauty, elegance, gracefulness

수려(하다) – 秀麗 (‘Su-ryuh Hada’): graceful, beautiful, handsome.

장려(하다) – 壯麗 (‘Jang-ryuh’): splendid, magnificent, grand, imposing


So as it turns out, Korea really does come from a tall building and some deer antlers… in a manner of speaking anyways.


Hanja Time – The path to enlightenment

What do Taekwondo, Taoism, freeways, enlightenment, and the 8 provinces of Korea all have in common?


They all contain a character this character (which we say as 도 in Korean):

way path


It means ‘way’ or ‘path’, both in the literal sense, and in the metaphysical sense. You may have heard of Taoism- Tao (or Dao) is how this character is said in Chinese.  It is the ‘way’ to enlightenment.


Let’s take a look at the use of this character in the literal sense of ‘path’.


The Korean word 도로 (doro) means ‘street’ or ‘road’ and is a combination of道and another character with a similar meaning:

道 –   (do) “way”

路 –  (ro) “Street, Road”


If you add the characters for ‘high’ and ‘speed’ you get the word for ‘freeway’ 고속도로 (Gosok doro):

高 – (go) “High”

速 – (sok) “Speed”

道 –   (do) “Way”

路 –  (ro) “Street, Road”


Here are some other common words that use this character in the literal sense of ‘path’:

複道         – 복도     (bokdo)  “Hallway”

地下道     – 지하도 (Jihado) “Underpass, Underground passage”

鐵道         – 철도     (Cheoldo) “Train track”

橫斷步道 – 횡단보도 (Hoingdanbodo) “Crosswalk”


Now let’s take a look at道 when it is used the more metaphysical sense of “way”.


The famous Korean martial art 태권도 (Taekwondo) literally means the ‘way of punching and kicking’.  Its name comes from these three characters:

跆 – (tae) “to kick or destroy with the foot”

拳 –   (kwon) “to punch with the fist”

道 –   (do) “way”


The uniform of the Taekwondo student is called 도복 (Dobok):

道 –   (do) “way”

服 – (bok) “Clothing” (The same as Hanbok, the Korean traditional dress)


A Taekwondo studio is called a 도장 (dojang):

道 –   (do) “way”

場 – (jang) “place”


합기도 (Hapkido), another Korean martial art also uses this character in the same way:

(Hap) “Join or combine”

(ki) “Energy, spirit, or strength”

(do) “The way”


Hapkido shares the exact same characters as the Japanese martial art ‘Aikido’, which is why they sound so similar.  (In case you were wondering, the “do” in the Japanese ‘Judo’ also uses this character (柔道  meaning “gentle way”).


In Korea filial piety, or devotion to one’s parents, is very important.  The Korean word for filial piety, 효도a (Hyodo), literally means “The way of filial piety”:

(hyo) – Filial piety

(do) – The way


In Korean, 道 (도) can also mean ‘province’.  South Korea is divided into 8 provinces, which are similar to states in the US.  The names of the provinces are:

강원도 (Gangwon-do)

경기도 (Gyeonggi-do)

경상남도  (Gyeongsangnam-do)

경상북도  (Gyeongsangbuk-do)

전라남도  (Jeollanam-do)

전라북도  (Jeollabuk-do)

충청남도  (Chungcheongnam-do)

충청북도  (Chungcheongbuk-do)



I mentioned in the beginning of this article that Tao means ‘enlightenment’.  도 can mean the same thing in Korean too.  To say you’ve achieved enlightenment you say:

도를 깨닫다 –    find enlightenment, achieve enlightenment


And with that in mind, I hope you have found this month’s edition of Hanja Time enlightening!


Hanja Time – Have a Ball

The Chinese character 球 (구 – “Gu”) means ‘ball’ or ‘sphere’.  Many Korean names for sports and games have this character in them.


야구 “Yagu” (野球) – Baseball

The first sound, 야 “Ya” means countryside, or field.  When 구 “Gu” is added it becomes “Field-ball”, or baseball.


탁구 “Tak-gu” (卓球) – Ping pong/ Table Tennis

The sound 탁 “Tak” comes from the Chinese character 卓 which means ‘table’.  So 탁구 “Tak-gu” literally means “Table-ball”.


축구 “Chuk-gu” (蹴球) – Soccer

The first sound here  축 “Chuk” comes from the Chinese character 蹴 which means “kick”.  So 축구 “Chuk-gu” literally means “Kick-ball”. American football is called 미식축구 “Mi-shik Chuk-gu”.  “Mi-shik” just means “American Style”.


농구 “Nong-gu” (籠球) – Basketball

The first sound 농 “Nong” comes from the Chinese character 籠 which means ‘cage’ or ‘basket’.  So 농구 “Nong-gu” literally means “Basket-ball”.


피구 “Pi-gu” (避球) – Dodgeball

The first sound “Pi” 피 comes from the Chinese character 避 which means ‘avoid’.  So 피구 “Pi-gu” means “Avoid-ball”.


배구 “Bae-gu” (排球) – Volleyball

The first sound 배 “Bae” comes from the Chinese character 排 which means “row, rank, line”, presumably because each team lines up in a row on either side of the net.  So 배구 “Bae-gu” means “row-ball”


The following are just romanizations of English:


Tennis is just 테니스 “Teh-ni-suh”

Handball is just  핸드볼 “Hen-duh-bol”

Badminton is just 배드민턴 “Bae-duh-min-ton”

And my favorite sport Air Hockey is just 에어 하키 “Ae-uh Ha-Ki”.


One other good word to know is the word for Earth.


지구 “Ji-gu” (地球) – Earth

The first sound  지 “Ji” comes from the Chinese character 地 which means “Earth, soil, ground”.  So 지구 “Ji-gu” means “Earth-ball” or “Soil-ball” (which is slightly better than ‘dirt-ball’ I guess!).


Hanja Time – Stuck In The Middle

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(Center- )


國 (Nation-)


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:

한 사람이


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


Hanja Time with Gary Routh

Gary Hanja Time Banner

Happy New Year and more lucky Hanjas

Hidden in the Korean phrase for “Happy New Year”, 새해 복 많이 받으세요 (sae-hae book mahn-ee bah-deu-se-yo) is “Happy New Year” in Korean. means “new” and means “year”, and 많이 받으세요 means “receive a lot of (something)”. Those are all ‘native’ Korean. The part is Hanja and means luck, good fortune, and happiness. The character for looks like this:

If this character looks even remotely familiar there is a reason. Go to any Chinese restaurant and you will see this character written on posters, tablecloths, chopsticks—you name it. But it is usually written in a very artistic brush style. To prove it, I took my family and my camera to our favorite local Korean Chinese food restaurant, San Tong Palace (산동반점, on Convoy) and sure enough, the character was everywhere!

Let’s take a look at a few other Korean words that use this character.

행복하다: to be happy (heng-bok-hah-dah)

The in 행복 also means happiness or good luck and can be found in words like 다행 (fortunate), 불행 (unlucky), and 행운 (a common word for just “luck”).

복권: lottery ticket (bok-gwon)

The character for means “ticket”, so 복권 literally means “Luck-Ticket”.

경복궁: Gyung-Bok Palace (gyung-bok-goong).

This is one of the most famous historical sites in Seoul. With our ‘luck’ syllable,

, in the middle of the palace name, the first syllable, means ‘scenery or sunlight’, and can be found in two common Korean words that mean scene or scenery; 경치 (gyung-chee) and 풍경 (poong-gyung). The last syllable, means house or palace. Scenery+Luck+Palace =경복궁.