Although a phonetic Korean alphabet, now known as hangul, had been created by a team of scholars commissioned in the 1440's by , it did not come into widespread use until the late 19th and early 20th century. Thus, until that time it was necessary to be fluent in reading and writing hanja in order to be literate in Korean, as the vast majority of Korean literature and most other Korean documents were written in hanja. Today, hanja play a different role. Scholars who wish to study Korean history must study hanja in order to read historical documents. For the general public, learning a certain number of hanja is very helpful in understanding words that are formed with them, in much the same way that understanding Ancient Greek, Latin, and other ancient languages can give a deeper understanding of the Modern English vocabulary. Hanja are not used to write native Korean words, which are always rendered in hangul, and even words of Chinese origin — ''hanja-eo'' — are written with the native hangul alphabet most of the time.
A major impetus for the introduction of Chinese characters into Korea was the spread of . The major Chinese text that introduced hanja to Koreans, however, was not a religious text but the Chinese text, .
Koreans had to learn Classical Chinese to be properly literate for the most part, but there were some systems developed to use simplified forms of Chinese characters that phonetically transcribe Korean, namely, hyangchal , gugyeol , and idu .
One way of adapting hanja to write Korean in such systems was to represent native Korean grammatical particles and other words solely according to their pronunciation. For example, Gugyeol uses the characters 爲尼 to transcribe the Korean word "h?ni", in modern Korean, that means "does, and so". However, in Chinese, the same characters are read as the expression "wéi ní," meaning "becoming a nun." This is a typical example of Gugyeol words where the radical is read in Korean for its meaning and the suffix 尼, ni , used phonetically.
Hanja was the sole means of writing Korean until promoted the invention of hangul in the 15th century. However, even after the invention of hangul, most Korean scholars continued to write in hanmun.
It was not until the 20th century that hangul truly replaced hanja. Officially, hanja has not been used in North Korea since June 1949 , because Kim Il-sung considered it an artifact of and an impediment to literacy.
Additionally, many words borrowed from Chinese have been replaced in the North with native Korean words. However, there are a large number of Chinese-borrowed words in widespread usage in the North , and hanja characters still appear in special contexts, such as recent North Korean dictionaries .
Each hanja is composed of one of 214 s plus in most cases one or more additional elements. The vast majority of hanja use the additional elements to indicate the sound of the character, but a few hanja are purely pictographic, and some were formed in other ways.
To aid in understanding the meaning of a character, or to describe it orally to distinguish it from other characters with the same pronunciation, character dictionaries and school textbooks refer to each character with a combination of its sound and a word indicating its meaning. This dual meaning-sound reading of a character is called ''eumhun'' .
For example, the character 愛 is referred to in character dictionaries as ''sarang ae'' , where ''sarang'' is the native Korean word for "love" and ''ae'' is its sound. Similarly, the character 人 is read as referred to as ''saram in'' , where "saram" means "person" and "in" is its sound. When these two example characters are put together to form the word 愛人, they are simply read as ''aein'' , and denote the idea of a beloved or sweetheart .
The word or words used to denote the meaning are often—though hardly always—words of native Korean origin, and are sometimes archaic words no longer commonly used. For example, the character 山 is referred to as ''me san'' or ''moe san'' , where ''me'' or ''moe'' is an archaic word for "mountain," almost entirely supplanted by the Chinese-derived word ''san.''
Hanja are still taught in separate courses in , apart from the normal Korean language curriculum. Formal hanja education begins in grade 7 and continues until graduation from senior high school in grade 12. A total of 1,800 hanja are taught: 900 for junior high, and 900 for senior high . Post-secondary hanja education continues in some liberal arts universities. The 1972 promulgation of basic hanja for educational purposes was altered in December 31, 2000, to replace 44 hanja with 44 others. The choice of characters to eliminate and exclude caused heated debates prior to and after the 2000 promulgation.
Though North Korea rapidly abandoned the general use of hanja soon after independence, the number of hanja actually taught in primary and secondary schools is greater than the 1,800 taught in South Korea. Kim Il-sung had earlier called for a gradual elimination of the use of hanja, but by the 1960s, he had reversed his stance; he was quoted as saying in 1966, "While we should use as few Sinitic terms as possible, students must be exposed to the necessary Chinese characters and taught how to write them." As a result, a Chinese-character textbook was designed for North Korean schools for use in grades 5-9, teaching 1,500 characters, with another 500 for high school students. College students are exposed to another 1,000, bringing the total to 3,000.
In Korean language and Korean studies programs at universities around the world, a sample of hanja is typically a requirement for students. Becoming a graduate student in these fields usually requires students to learn at least the 1,800 basic hanja.
Current uses of hanja
Because many different hanja—and thus, many different words written using hanja—often share the same sounds, two distinct hanja words may be spelled identically in the phonetic hangul alphabet. Thus, hanja are often used to clarify meaning, either on their own without the equivalent hangul spelling, or in parentheses after the hangul spelling as a kind of gloss. Hanja are often also used as a form of shorthand in newspaper headlines, advertisements, and on signs. Some details of use follow.
Hanja in print media
In South Korea, hanja are used most frequently in academic literature, where they often appear without the equivalent hangul spelling. Usually, only those words with a specialized or ambiguous meaning are printed in hanja. In mass-circulation books and magazines, hanja are generally used rarely, and only to gloss words already spelled in hangul when the meaning is ambiguous. Hanja are also often used in newspaper headlines as abbreviations or to eliminate the ambiguity typical of newspaper headlines in any language. In formal publications, personal names are also usually glossed in hanja in parentheses next to the hangul. In contrast, North Korea eliminated the use of hanja even in academic publications by 1949, a situation which has since remained unchanged. Hanja are often used for advertising or decorative purposes, and appear frequently in dictionaries and atlases; see below.
Hanja in dictionaries
In modern Korean dictionaries, all entry words of Sino-Korean origin are printed in hangul and listed in hangul order, with the hanja given in parentheses immediately following the entry word.
This practice helps to eliminate ambiguity, and it also serves as a sort of shorthand etymology, since the meaning of the hanja and the fact that the word is composed of hanja often help to illustrate the word's origin.
As an example of how hanja can help to clear up ambiguity, many homophones are written in hangul as ?? , including:
# 修道 — spiritual discipline
# 受渡 — receipt and delivery
# 囚徒 — prisoner
# 水都 — 'city of water'
# 水稻 — rice
# 水道 — drain
# 隧道 — tunnel
# 首都 — capital
# 手刀 — hand-knife
Hanja dictionaries are organized by s, like hanzi and kanji.
Hanja in personal names
are generally based on hanja, although some exceptions exist. On business cards, the use of hanja is slowly fading away, with most older people displaying their names in hanja while most of the younger generation utilizes Hangul. Korean personal names usually consist of a one-character family name followed by a two-character given name . There are a few 2-character family names , and the holders of such names — but not only them — tend to have one-syllable given names. Traditionally, the given name in turn consists of one character unique to the individual and one character shared by all people in a family of the same sex and generation . Things have changed, however, and while these rules are still largely followed, some people have given names that are native Korean words . Nevertheless, on official documents, people's names are still recorded in both hangul and in hanja .
Hanja in place names
Due to standardization efforts during Goryeo and eras, native Korean placenames were converted to hanja, and most names used today are hanja-based. The most notable exception is the name of the capital, Seoul- although Seoul is the English pronunciation of 首府 which literally mean 'Capital'. Disyllabic names of railway lines, freeways, and provinces are often formed by taking one character from each of the two locales' names. For Seoul, the abbreviation is the hanja ''gyeong'' . Thus,
* The Gyeongbu corridor connects Seoul with Busan ;
* The Gyeongin corridor connects Seoul with Incheon ;
* The former Jeolla Province took its name from the first characters in the city names Jeonju and Naju .
Most atlases of Korea today are published in two versions: one in hangul , and one in hanja. Subway and railway station signs give the station's name in hangul, hanja, and English, both to assist visitors and to disambiguate the name.
Opinion surveys show that the South Korean public do not consider hanja literacy essential, a situation attributed to the fact that hanja education in South Korea does not begin until the seventh year of schooling. Hanja terms are also expressed through hangul, the standard script in the Korean language. Some studies suggest that hanja use appears to be in decline. In 1956, one study found mixed-script Korean text were read faster than texts written purely in hangul; however, by 1977, the situation had reversed. In 1988, 80% of one sample of people without a college education "evinced no reading comprehension of any but the simplest, most common hanja" when reading mixed-script passages.
A small number of characters were invented by Koreans themselves. Most of them are for proper names but some refer to Korean-specific concepts and materials. They include 畓 , 乭 , ? , and 怾 .
Some hanja characters have simplified forms '''' that can be seen in casual use. An example is , which is a cursive form of 無. Some of them are similar to Japanese ''shinjitai'' .
Each hanja character is pronounced as a single syllable, corresponding to a single composite character in hangul. The pronunciation of hanja in Korean is not identical to the way they are pronounced in Chinese, particularly , although some Chinese dialects and Korean share similar pronunciations for some characters. For example, 印刷 "print" is ''yìnshuā'' in Mandarin Chinese and ''inswae'' in Korean, but it is pronounced ''insue'' in Shanghainese . One obvious difference is the complete loss of from Korean while all Chinese dialects retain tone. In other aspects, the pronunciation of hanja is more conservative than most Chinese dialects, for example in the retention of labial consonant s in characters with labial consonant s, such as the characters 法 and 凡 ; the labial codas existed in Middle Chinese but do not survive intact in most Chinese varieties today, including conservative southern varieties like and .
Due to divergence in pronunciation since the time of borrowing, sometimes the pronunciation of a hanja and its corresponding hanzi may differ considerably. For example, 女 is ''nǚ'' in Mandarin Chinese and ''nyeo'' in Korean. However, in most modern Korean dialects , 女 is pronounced as ''yeo'' when used in an initial position, due to a systematic displacement of initial ''n'''s followed by ''y'' or ''i''.
Additionally, sometimes a hanja-derived word will have altered pronunciation of a character to reflect Korean pronunciation shifts, for example mogwa ?? 木果 "quince" from mokgwa ??.
There are historical similarities in the development of the hanja and kanji, which is the analog used in Japan, and there are also similarities in application between hanja and kanji. The archaic Japanese ''man'yōgana'' system of reading is similar to ''gugyeol.'' The '''' and '''' readings of kanji, whereby a character may be read according to its Chinese-derived sound or its native Japanese meaning , is similar in concept to ''eumhun.''