The Role of Hanja in the Korean Language

“The Role of Hanja in the Korean Language”

Hanja are what Chinese characters are called in Korean and refer to Chinese terms that have been taken in as loanwords and have koreanized pronunciations. Many Sino-Korean terms were Chinese and Japanese character-based words that were once all written using Hanja. Unlike the Japanese and Mainland Chinese, who use simplified Chinese characters, Hanja remains very similar to the traditional Chinese characters used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. Since its introduction, Hanja has played a role in shaping the early Korean writing systems, but subsequent language reforms have changed its role in the modern Koreas.

Hanja was introduced into Korea through contact with the Chinese between 108 BC and 313 AD, when the Han dynasty established several commanderies in northern Korea. In addition, another major influence towards the spread of Hanja in Korea was the “Thousand-Character Classic”, a major text that contained a thousand unique Chinese characters. This heavy contact with Chinese coupled with the spread of Chinese culture, heavily influenced Korean language since they were the first non-Chinese culture to adopt Chinese loanwords to their language and Hanja to their writing system. Moreover, the Koryo kingdom further promoted the use of Hanja when they adopted a civil service examination system in 958 that required knowledge of written Chinese and Confucian literary classics. Although the promotion of Hanja and Chinese literature gave Korea a writing system, there were still problems using Hanja because written Chinese did not properly reflect Korean syntax and cannot write out native terms.

The early writing systems developed to write Korean using Hanja were Idu, Kugyol, and simplified Hanja. Idu was a writing system used to write native Korean based on either the Hanja’s meaning or sound. In addition, in Idu, there may be times where one Hanja may represent several sounds and several Hanja may be used to represent the same sound. This system was used for writing official documents, legal agreements, and personal letters during the Koryo and Chosun dynasties and was used until 1894, despite being unable to properly reflect Korean grammar. While the Idu system allowed Koreans to transcribe native terms based on meaning and sound, the Kugyol system was developed to help better understand Chinese texts by adding native grammatical words into the Chinese sentences. The native grammatical words that were written with Hanja and like Idu, Kugyol used either the meaning or sound. Later, the most frequently used Hanja for grammatical words were simplified and sometimes fused to create new simplified Hanja. However, the main problem with this system they either used only the sound, ignoring the meaning or used the meaning and ignored the sound. These early writing systems were displaced first by the development of Hangul and later by the 1894 Kabo reforms that called for Korean to be written with a mixed script of Hanja and Hangul using native syntax. When the Second World War ended in 1945, Korean usage was restored and both the North and South Korean governments initiated language reform programs.

The language reform policy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was based on Communist ideology. In their language reform, North Korea called their standard “Munhwao” or “Cultured Language” and replaced many Japanese loanwords and Sino-Korean terms with newly coined native words. Moreover, the North Korean government was able to solve the “homophone problem” that exists in Sino-Korean terms by simply deleting certain words with similar sounds from their lexicon. In 1949, the government officially abolished the use of Hanja in favor of Hangul, but later allowed Hanja to be taught in 1960 because Kim Il-Sung wanted to maintain cultural links with overseas Koreans and because it was needed to have mastery of the “Cultured Language,” which still contained many Sino-Korean terms. As a result, 3,000 Hanja are taught in North Korea with 1,500 in 6 years of secondary school, 500 in 2 years of tech-nical school, and finally 1,000 in a four-year university. Nonetheless, not many North Korea have a solid command of Hanja since only those who are currently in school are familiar with it.

Like North Korea, the South Korean government attempted to reform their language by first purging their lexicon of Japanese loanwords and promoting usage of native terms. However, unlike North Korea, the Republic of Korea’s policy on Hanja was in-consistent. From 1948 to 1970, South Korea had attempted to abolish Hanja but failed due to the influence of Sino-Korean terms in the language and because of pressure from academic institutions. Because of these failed attempts, the Ministry of Education in 1972 allowed 1,800 Hanja to be taught, which is now optional, with 900 characters taught in middle school and 900 characters in high school. Moreover, the Supreme Court in 1991 has only allowed 2,854 Hanja to be used for personal names. These various policies towards Hanja usage show how language reforms can be corrupted and harmful if they are motivated by political and nationalist agendas.

Despite these language reforms, Hanja continues to be used in South Korean society. Because many Sino-Korean terms often have very similar pronunciations, Hanja clarifies the term used and gives meaning to the word. Usually this type of usage has the Hanja is placed next to the Hangul spelling in parentheses where it clarifies personal names, places, and even terms. In addition, Hanja differentiates similar-sounding personal names, especially in official documents where names are recorded using both Hanja and Hangul. Not only is Hanja used to provide meaning and disambiguate terms, it been used to name railways, and freeways by taking the first Hanja from one city’s name and joining it with another to show which cities are connected, such as Seoul and Pusan with the Gyung-Pu railway line.

Even though Hanja is still in use, the government’s policies towards its role in their language have resulted in long-term problems among the population. First, the government’s hostile policy towards Hanja and their pro-Hangul platform has created differing degrees of Hanja literacy among generations where older generations have problems reading Hangul-only texts while the younger generations have trouble reading mixed texts, which are known as the “Hangul Generation.” Second, possibly due to government policy, the use of Hanja has drastically declined in print media over time and current generations show a trend towards replacing Sino-Korean terms with native terms for popular usage. This trend has also occurred in North Korea, where Hanja is no longer used and ideological native terms are used in its place. However, this is becoming a serious problem because both Koreas have replaced Sino-Korean terms with different native terms (ROK’s serossugi versus DPRK’s naeryossugi to describe “vertical writing”). Finally, there has been a recent proliferation of the use of English loanwords in the Korean language because of South Korea’s high number of online users, and globalization, which has led to the use of English words or expressions at the expense of Sino-Korean words.

In short, Chinese characters were introduced to Korea from early Han dynasty and gradually influenced the Korean language as Hanja. Although the introduction of Hanja gave Koreans a written script, it was still unable to properly reflect certain Korean words and grammar until Hangul was developed, which allowed Koreans to properly express themselves without the use of Hanja. After the end of World War II, both North and South Korea initiated language reforms that attempted to purge Korean of recent Japanese terms, and historical Chinese terms. As a result of their language reforms, North Korea no longer uses Hanja, while the South has changed their policies towards Hanja use several times, leading to inconsistent Hanja proficiency. However, both Koreas did manage to replace many Hanja-based terms with native terms and there is a trend towards increased use of Hangul and native terms, which is increasingly associated with Korean nationalism.
Works Cited

Kim, Sung-he. “Balance among Inevitability: Foreign language, where to stand in Korean society?” Annals. November 30, 2004. Yonsei University. June 28, 2005. <;.

Taylor, and M. Martin Taylor. Writing and Literacy in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Benjamins, John Publishing Company, 1995.

Yu Cho, Young-mee. “Diglossia in Korean Language and Literature: A Historical Perspective.” East Asia: An International Quarterly Spring 2002: 11.