Hi! Welcome to Hanja for Beginners – a series where I attempt to cover some of the most commonly used hanja in Korean and explain how they’re used.

The idea for this series came to me during a lesson with one of my students, who’s currently preparing for TOPIK II. We noticed that as we switched to a more TOPIK-driven format, more and more hanja-based words started cropping up, which is normal because as a general rule, the more technical, complex (in terms of ideas and topics) and academically-oriented a text is, the more hanja-based words it tends to feature.

I started coming up with a list of commonly used hanja to incorporate into our lessons, and then it occurred to me – why not compile it into a series of articles?

Naturally, it would be impossible for me to cover every hanja there is in the Korean language, but I hope to at least include the most commonly used ones.

Why Learn Hanja?

Good news first – you do not have to learn how to read or write the corresponding Chinese character (I will still include them for those who are interested, but you absolutely do not have to memorise them)!

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the real question is: why not? Firstly, it can help you deduce the meaning of a word, even if you’ve never seen it before. Secondly, due to the nature of Chinese words (from which the hanja-based words are derived), once you accumulate enough characters, you’ll be able to put them together to form words, creating a huge word web. You know how the word for ‘tear’, 눈물 is literally ‘eye water’? Pretty much all hanja-based words are like that. If you know what the individual characters mean, remembering the word will be a lot easier.

So without further ado, let’s jump right in.


인 (人)

Probably one of the first 한자어 you learned without realising it. 인 is the hanja equivalent of 사람, meaning ‘person’. A Korean, 한국인, is literally a ‘Korea person’, while a soldier, 군인, is a ‘military person’. Human right is called ‘인권’, which literally translates to ‘person right’. The word ‘life’ as we know it is ‘인생’, meaning ‘person lives’. A person’s character is called ‘인성’, meaning ‘person quality’, because the character of individual is essentially the combination of their qualities as a person, right?

Before I move on to the next word, I would like to ask you to try guessing, based on what I wrote in the previous paragraph, what 생명권 means (if you don’t already know what it is means, that is). While you may not know what 명 means, you know that 생 means ‘to live’ and 권 means ‘right’, and that should give you a pretty good idea of what the word means.

That’s right! It means ‘right to life’ – our fundamental right, as humans, to live.

남 (男) & 여/녀 (女)

You probably know these two already – 남 as in 남자, meaning ‘male’, and 여 as in 여자, meaning ‘female’. Note that 여 is written and pronounced as 녀 when it’s placed anywhere but the beginning of the word. ‘소녀’, meaning ‘young girl’, is a good example.

-자 (者)

‘자’ is mostly used as a suffix, added to nouns to indicate a person playing a specific role. For example, when you combine 과학 (science) with 자 (person), you get ‘scientist’ – a ‘science person’. Likewise, combining 연구 (research) + 자 would give you ‘researcher’, a ‘person’ who does ‘research’. Winner is 우승자, which literally translates to ‘winning person’.

Who says 한자 is difficult?

-원 (員)

Also a suffix, but unlike ‘자’ it implies membership. An employee of a company is called 사원, literally ‘company member’. A member of a club would be ‘회원’, meaning ‘gathering member’. To mobilise a group of people would be ‘동원하다’, which basically translates to ‘moving members’. A committee is a 위원회, that is ‘entrust-person/member-gathering’, as in ‘a gathering of people who have been entrusted with certain tasks’.

– 사 (師)

사 means ‘teacher’, as well as ‘a person of skill’, that is, someone who possesses a certain level of expertise in a given trade. These days, we mostly see it in the names of professions – such as 교사 (teacher), 번역사 (translator), 간호사 (nurse) and 변호사 (lawyer/attorney), which can be translated as ‘a person who teaches’, ‘a person who reinterprets’, ‘a person who takes care of others’ and ‘a person who argues in defense of others’ respectively. You might have noticed that both 간호사 and 변호사 contain the word ‘호’, which means ‘to protect/shelter’.

Dimensions & Directions

대 (大), 중 (中), 소 (小)

대 means ‘big’, 중 means ‘middle/medium’ and 소 means ‘small’. You might have seen them on the menu of some restaurants, where they denote the serving sizes. But you’ve probably seen them elsewhere, too, where the usage is a little less obvious. University, 대학교, is literally “big school”. The word ‘most’, 대부분, can be translated directly to “big part”. Something that is massive could be described as 거대하다, with 거 meaning ‘gigantic’ and 대 meaning ‘big’, which seems a bit redundant as they both technically mean the same thing, just to different extent. This has to do with one of the key features of the Chinese language – we often combine two characters that are similar or sometimes even identical in meaning to create a two-character word for a sense of balance. And in order to achieve balance, you need at least two elements in the equation. As you dive into the more advanced hanja-based words, you’ll notice a similar pattern, too.

Now, can you guess the word for ‘giant’, based on what I’ve explained so far? That’s right – it’s 거인, a ‘gigantic person’!

I’ll name a few more examples for 중 and 소. There’s the obvious one, 중학교, meaning ‘middle school’. The centre of something is called 중심, literally the ‘middle-heart’, as in the centre of its heart. To halt something that is currently in progress is to 중단하다, ‘middle sever’, that is to sever it in the middle. And to concentrate would be to 집중하다, ‘focus middle’, as in focusing your attention on the very centre of the subject matter.

Here are some examples for 소 – a novel is 소설, which can be translated to a ‘little story’. Small and medium-sized enterprises are known as ‘중소기업’, with 기업 meaning ‘enterprise’. And lastly, a person who’s timid can be described as 소심하다, which is to have a ‘small heart’.

고 (高) & 저 (低)

고 means ‘high’, while 저 means ‘low’. The word 최고, for example, actually means ‘the highest’, 최 being the hanja equivalent of 가장, meaning ‘the most’. 고속도로, meaning ‘highway’, actually translates to ‘high-speed road’, with 속 being short for 속도, meaning ‘speed’. Similarly, 고온, with 온 being short for 온도 (temperature), means ‘high temperature’, and 고가, with 가 being short for 가격 (price), means ‘high price’.

The same logic can be applied to 저. 저온 means ‘low temperature’, 저가 means ‘low price’ and 최저 means ‘the lowest’. You might also see them used on product packaging. 저지방 means ‘low fat’, and 고영양 means ‘highly nutritional’. Just the other day I bought a moisturiser that says ‘고보습’ on the bottle. It means ‘high moisture retention’.

상 (上) , 하 (下), 좌 (左), 우 (右)

상, 하, 좌 and 우 mean ‘up/top’, ‘down/bottom’, ‘left’ and ‘right’ respectively. 상 in particular is very commonly used. For something to rise or increase would be 상승하다, which can be translated as ‘up-rise’, that is to rise upwards – another case where we combine two characters that can potentially mean the same thing just to avoid having single-character words. To improve would be 향상하다, meaning ‘towards above’.

하 is fairly common as well. It can be found in words like 지하, ‘earth-below’, meaning ‘underground’. There’s 하락하다, ‘downward-fall’, meaning to decrease, the opposite of 상승하다. It can also be combined with 체, the hanja equivalent of 몸, meaning ‘body’, to form 하체 – ‘lower body’, that is everything from the waist down. The same thing can be done with 상 to form 상체, meaning ‘upper body’.

The usage of 좌 and 우 is more limited. You can combine them with 측, meaning ‘side’, to form 죄측 and 우측, which is the same as saying 왼쪽 and 오른쪽. There’s also a really interesting verb that combines both: 좌우하다, which means to have control over the final outcome of something. Because when you get to decide if something goes left or right, you control its fate. It’s basically yours.


I’m sure there’s a proper name for these, but I’m calling them modifiers because they modify nouns to add extra meanings.

-성 (性)

성 (性) is a really complicated hanja because it can mean a lot of things, one of them being sex. I’m not going to cover everything today, though. Instead, I’d like to talk about what it means when it’s used as a suffix. When it’s attached to the end of an adjective, it turns that adjective into a noun that implies a certain quality or state. For example, adding it to 중요 changes the meaning of the word from ‘important’ to the ‘quality of being important’, aka ‘importance’.

What about 가능성? 가능 means ‘possible’, so 가능성 would be… yes, that’s right, possibility, the state of being possible. Likewise, 위험성 means ‘danger’, that is the state of being dangerous, or simply put ‘dangerousness’ (I’m not sure if that’s a real word, but you get what I mean), while 필요성 means ‘necessity’, the state of being required, of being necessary.

-적 (的)

You probably know this one already, as this is usually taught in most lower intermediate materials. 적 is often added to hanja-based nouns to turn them into adjectives, usually used with 이다. For example, adding 적 to 과학 would change its meaning from ‘science’ to ‘scientific’.

I’m only including this one for those who like dissecting words for fun because you don’t actually need to know what it really means in order to use it effectively. But simply put, 적 can be loosely translated to ‘that is of’. So 과학적 is literally ‘that is of science’. To say something is of science is to say it embodies the qualities of science, ergo ‘scientific’.

불/부 (不)

Unlike the other two, this one is a prefix, which means it’s added to the beginning of a word. Its function is simple – negation. Adding it to 편하다, meaning comfortable, will create its opposite – 불편하다, meaning uncomfortable. If you add to 법, which means ‘law’, you get 불법, meaning ‘unlawful/illegal’.

Note that 불 turns into 부 before ㄷ or ㅈ. This can be seen in words like 부족, which literally mean ‘not enough’, and 부동산, meaning ‘real estate’, which can be directly translated to ‘non-movable property’, because, well, you can’t pack your house into a box and take it with you like you do with other types of property.

That’s it for part 1 – I hope you found it helpful!

If you’re interested in studying hanja, I would recommend getting a small notebook and dedicating one page to every new hanja character you learn, and write down all the hanja-based words you know that contain that character. I’ve given you some in this articles to start with, but you should make it goal to collect more as you come across more and more of them in your studies. Once you’ve accumulated enough of the common ones, you’ll begin to see how they’re all interconnected, like a web!

Also, you might want to download Naver’s hanja dictionary for verifying whether a hanja is the one you’re thinking about or if it’s a homonym (there are a lot of them).

Click here to read part 2!

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