What is Hanja?
Each grade level in junior high and high school is expected to memorize about 200 characters each. By the time a student graduates from high school, they have learned close to 2,500 characters.
University students know a lot more than 2,500. Lawyers and judges know, by far, the most. There are about 10,000 characters used in legal documents and court proceedings.
Most people in Korea don't know all 2,500. They do know, however, a significant chunk of that 2,500 unless they are uneducated or illiterate.
If you want to be very comfortable in Korean society, you'll have to learn the 2,500 that high school students know. If you want people to think you are educated and intelligent, you had better know at least all the Hanja that a high school student knows, plus the ones relevant to your field of expertise.
How to Learn Hanja
There are three parts to each hanja: the symbol, the sound, and the meaning.
At the most basic level, you can associate the sound with the meaning. For instance, if you've learned a lot of words, you're going to recognize the symbols that are common among similar words. Likely, you'll recognized the sound 불 as representing "not". Just knowing the sound and the meaning, and connecting the two, will help you learn enough Korean to speak fluently.
At the next level, you'll need to recognize the symbol and connect it with the sound and meaning. You may want to, at this stage, learn the common word that describes the meaning. This way, you can talk about the character with other Koreans.
At the final level, you learn how to write the character and you master its subtle meaning. This training takes considerable time and effort, in addition to a lot of memorization and practice, to reach.
The first two levels can be reached passively, just by soaking in the world around you without much active effort. I've tried to document the various characters on this site so that you can connect their symbols, sounds, and meanings. Words that are based on Chinese should always have the reference to the Chinese characters.
How to Master Hanja
There is a proven method to master the Chinese characters. This method has been used for the past two thousand years with billions of students. It is tried and true. Don't mess with it.
Before you approach this, think carefully: If it takes a smart Korean student 6 years to learn 2,500 characters, how long will it take you to do the same? You cannot expect to put in less effort and time than a smart Korean kid and get a better result.
First, you're going to learn characters in chunks of about 5-10 at a time each week. This is a good pace that requires only about 1 hour of study a day. Any less, and you won't learn. Any more, and you just burn yourself out. I strongly suggest getting a practice book, starting at the Junior High Grade 1 level.
Next, study the formation of the characters. Associate the sound and meaning with the symbol in your head. Look at words that use the character. Read the interesting notes and memorization helps in the lesson.
Then, grab a piece of boxed writing paper and carefully, slowly, write the first letter once. Then write it about ten more times, careful to get the order right and the shape perfect. Focus on where each line should fit in the square and which lines close, cross, and avoid each other. Say, aloud, the meaning and sound each time you write it. Do this for all 5-10 characters.
The next study session is a review. Look over the lesson again, and write the characters as you did yesterday. You should be getting faster at the characters by now, but it won't be natural yet.
The next day, try to remember the characters without looking, writing each once, in order, as if you were taking a test. Then, make sure you got it right. Beat yourself up for forgetting the ones you forgot. Write them out, quickly now, once each, ten times.
The next two days you should be able to remember them all without looking. If there is any doubt, verify that you got it right.
After seven days of writing each character 10 times, you'll have memorized them. But this is not enough. You need to review them regularly over the next week. Writing them out once or twice should be enough to review. Do this before or after you've studied next week's lessons.
On one day of the week, take some time to remember all the characters you have learned, just to keep your memory fresh. After recalling characters over the course of a year, you'll have put them, permanently, in your long-term memory.
All you need to do is stay familiar with the characters. What took a year to create can be undone in a year if you never recall the characters. The lessons you are using should have organized the characters from most common to least common. This way, the ones you learned first can never be forgotten since they are the most useful!
I cannot stress enough the idea of doing a little bit (~1hr) every day can have over years. After 6 years of consistent, 1 hour intense study, there is no reason why you shouldn't have mastered Chinese characters in Korean.
A long time ago, Koreans adopted Chinese as their writing system. There is no previous writing system we know about.
Chinese characters had sounds associated with them, as well as meanings. Sometimes the characters stood for the sounds of the words they would use in Korean. Sometimes they stood for the meanings.
By the time King Sejong the Great became king of Korea, you had to virtually master Chinese if you wanted to read anything at all. The common people, those who spent much of their time simply trying to make a living, had no time to study Chinese in the depth that the scholars did. What added to it all was the fact that if you wanted a government job, you had to pass an exam in Chinese. If you were the top of the top, you could get an entry level position. Anything less simply wasn't good enough. If you were the very top, then you could get extremely high positions in government.
Anyway, King Sejong commissioned some very wise scholars to come up with a writing system that could accurately represent the Korean spoken language, and that could be mastered by the most common folk in Korea. He wanted this to become the official writing system of the country, to make the Korean people more equal. After several years, they came back with Hangeul.
Unfortunately, this isn't the end of the story. By the time King Sejong was around, Chinese words had thoroughly penetrated the Korean language. It's all but impossible to speak "pure" Korea nowadays, because so many of the most common words are simply Chinese. And another problem: Koreans didn't pronounce Chinese properly at all. Hundreds of characters, some with opposite meanings, would share the same sound in Korean. Koreans would usually combine two characters together, so that you couldn't confuse the word, but even then, it required that you had to tell the listener or the reader which Chinese word you were using. Obviously, when people wrote in Chinese, there was no confusion in writing. But now that you spelled words phonetically, you had the same problem as in speaking.
In speaking, you would simply say, "By XYZ, I mean the A X, the B Y, and the C Z." The XYZ being Chinese character sounds in Korean, and the A, B, and C being the meaning in Korean. Well, some people got the bright idea that you should simply write Chinese instead of Hangeul when you wrote Chinese loan words, and now we're back to square one.
North Korea officially banned all Chinese writing. They have adapted fairly well. I don't know what the North Koreans think of Chinese, but I imagine using Chinese words is discouraged, and maybe some people don't even know that some of the words they use are Chinese anymore. When I read North Korean propaganda in Korean, it's apparent they avoid Chinese more or less successfully.
South Korea hasn't done anything like this. Commonly, you simply write it out in Hangeul, and hopefully people understand what you are saying. In formal or legal documentation, you are going to see Chinese everywhere, because the possibility of confusion is too great.
Nowadays, Chinese writing appears less and less. I think people are settling on a small subset of Chinese word combinations, and making them more or less "official." It is not uncommon, however, to hear kids come up with new words derived from Chinese, or old people use words that people simply don't use anymore.
I think there is also the idea, more and more, that Chinese education simply isn't as important as Western education, and so people are willing to let incompetence in Chinese slide as acceptable, provided you are well enough educated in English and science.
Parts of Each Character
There are three parts to each character:
- The symbol: 漢
- The sound: 한
- The meaning: 한수
The symbol is a little picture of the character. In order to learn the picture, you really have to know how to identify it and how to write it. There is an order to writing each character. The rules are pretty simple, and once you've mastered about 20 characters, you should know how to write them all just by looking at them.
Generally, you'll get to know the characters just by looking at them. That takes time and experience. Korean dictionaries list the hanja next to the words that have them so you can compare when needed if there is confusion.
My understanding is that only a handful of characters have symbols that correspond to their meaning. Most of the rest are actually related to their sound. That is, the Chinese used characters, initially, to represent meaning, but later, to represent the sound. There is some interesting theories about how the symbol and the sound relate, with some interesting conclusions.
Also, note that the Chinese introduced a simplified form of most of the characters. The Japanese and Chinese use these almost exclusively nowadays. However, the Koreans have stuck with the old, complicated way of writing the characters. When you see the simplified forms next to the old forms, you will identify the one or two changes that make a character simple versus old.
The sound is how you read them. Some characters have multiple sounds, but the vast majority have only one sound. Many characters share the same sound. So, for instance, for 한, there are probably a hundred or so characters that make that sound, only about twenty of which are common knowledge.
The sound roughly, very roughly, relates to the way the characters were pronounced a long, long time ago in China. This means that you'll likely hear the same sound for the same character in both Chinese and Japanese. However, throughout the ages, Korean has wandered along with Chinese and Japanese, so many times you won't recognize the relationship between the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean pronunciation.
Each character has a distinct meaning. Only a few share meanings. Some that share the same sound also have a similar, but distinct, meaning.
The meaning is expressed as a very short phrase or word. However, this rarely does the meaning justice. To truly understand the meaning, you'll have to know the words that the character forms and how it differs from characters with similar meaning.
The meaning is pretty faithful across the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. However, there are differences and they are significant at times.
I'm going to try and index as many characters as I can. On each page, I intend to provide:
- The symbol, sound, and meaning.
- Words that use the character.
- How important it is to know the character.
- What it really means.
If you want to learn to write Chinese, go somewhere else to learn. There are a few very minor differences between the way the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese write characters, far too minor for you to be concerned with. When a Korean points it out to you, you won't forget it.