I am unwise. Why I am learning Hanja.

This post is just a ramble about why I am learning Hanja, why my approach is unwise, and yet why I feel a siren call to continue on this path.

Why am I learning hanja?  Short answer: to expand my Korean vocabulary, because I couldn’t write down Chinese characters when I took notes, because I hate romanization, because I couldn’t perceive Chinese letters until I learned how to see their building blocks, because my friend is taking a trip to China, because I couldn’t remember Chinese, because I am dissatisfied with my Korean handwriting, because calligraphy and Chinese brush painting is beautiful art, and because I learn a little about Chinese language and culture along the way.

Shorter answer: because it’s fun, pretty, and interesting.

When I first started watching Korean dramas, I picked up bits and pieces from the dialog.  Curious, I poked around the internet and found some phrases.  I bought a set of 60 flashcards for kids.  I got a bit further when I purchased a book explaining vocabulary and grammar, and started to feel like a student studying Korean when I joined an online class.  After a year of learning Korean, I know “a little bit”.

In terms of Chinese, I am at the “just bought 60 flashcards” phase.  I do not know pinyin, and I can just barely scrawl out a few hanja characters.  Everyone tells me that it is unwise to learn Chinese writing before you first learn to speak Mandarin Chinese.   Koreans tell me it is unwise to attempt to learn how to write Hanja characters, which is an advanced skill, before I learn a lot more about Korean.  I have to agree.  I am unwise.

Still …  it really bugged me that I went cross-eyed when I saw Chinese characters, and that I couldn’t manage to write them in my notebook as I was learning Korean.  I was curious about the pictures in Chinese letters.  Chinese so influenced the Korean language, that learning Korean words and understanding their etymology to see connections between words kept showing me Chinese.  Koreans I spoke with would clarify their meaning with Chinese characters.  1000 Most Frequent Korean Words list I was memorizing showed Chinese letters along with the Korean words I was learning. I couldn’t remember these Chinese characters because I couldn’t see them, process them, or even figure out how to write them.


Chinese is this great mystery to me.  I am still agog at the idea that one can learn to speak Chinese as a foreigner, yet be functionally illiterate.  Businessmen learn enough Chinese to speak and get around while being unable to read or write Chinese characters at all.

Woman – one letter, two sounds

I am not at the point where I want to learn Chinese.  In fact, I have been pretty hesitant to hear the sounds of Chinese at all, because I knew the Korean pronunciation of Chinese characters was different than Mandarin Chinese pronunciation.  Let’s take ‘woman’ as an example.  I’ve learned the Chinese character for woman is 女.  Chinese pronounce this as nǚ.  Koreans pronounce it as  여 yeo.


I have a hard enough time pronouncing one sound for Korean words. I did not want to confuse myself by learning two.

How to say woman in Korean?

여성 is “yeoseong” means “female gender”.  여자 is “yeoja” and means “woman”.

yeo = female is in many compound words.   Picking up that yeo is associated with feminine words helps build Korean vocabulary.  The reason that yeo is in several words goes back to Chinese.  Here is an example from the Naver Korean dictionary.


Woman in Chinese

It is useful to learn Hanja 女 is woman.  Add that 人 is person, and you are not surprised to learn 女人 is feminine person/woman.

Romanization is Evil

After struggling at first with learning Korean because I was working from romanization instead of the Korean alphabet (Hangul), I have come to the conclusion that romanization is evil.  There are many systems to try to express Korean sounds to English speakers.  It drove me nuts at first that the same word could be romanized differently.  Example:  한글 might be ‘Hangul’ or ‘Hangeul’.

Romanization of Chinese appears even more complicated.  Peking and Bejing are the same city romanized differently.

From Wikipedia:

Pinyin, or Hanyu Pinyin, is the official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet … It is often used to teach Standard Chinese … and may be used as an input method to enter Chinese characters into computers.

pīnyīn literally means “spelled-out sounds”.  Hanyu Pinyin was developed largely by Russian sinologists in the 20th century.  Pinyin is in some sense a double romanization, from Chinese letters to Russian Cryllic alphabet, and from there to English equivalents of Russian letters.  No wonder some things get confusing in translation.

The pronunciation of a Chinese character could vary across the many dialects of Chinese and be romanized many ways.  The good news is the Chinese character remains the same.  That is why I want to learn the Chinese character.


Hanja is the Korean name for Chinese characters (hanzi). More specifically, it refers to those Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and incorporated into the Korean language with Korean pronunciation.

When I am learning Hanja, I am learning traditional Chinese characters used in 18th century, not modern, simplified Chinese.  I imagine it is a bit like comparing 19th century British writing (Jane Eyre) to 2oth century American.  There are differences.  Trying to make sense of Korean hanja while looking at a Chinese dictionary often has me scratching my head in confusion.

Writing Chinese letters

By learning the simplest characters and building blocks, I am learning how to see Chinese.  Instead of looking like a big bunch of squiggles, now I can see the parts that make up the whole.  Woman 女 is made of three lines.  I see a horizontal stroke (héng), a diagonal stroke (piě), and an angle stroke (piedian).  I have practiced writing this character.  I can recognize when I see 女, so it becomes easier to remember. (read more at Writing Chinese Characters)

practice writing Hangul and Hanja

Chinese is no doubt a lot harder for me to write than Hangul.  Hangul has just 24 letters.  Still, learning the Chinese brush strokes should overlap to being able to write Hangul better.  It will take years for me to try to write Chinese letters.  I am not yet even confident making the 8 basic strokes.  Yet, I am trying, and learning as I overcome my fear of trying to write Hanja.

I don’t remember how difficult it was to learn to write English letters.  I am sure I was as awkward at it as I now am trying to write Chinese.  Writing Korean letters seemed hard at first a year ago, and now it is second nature.  Plus Chinese seems to have the glorious advantage of not flipping letters on me, as English and Korean letters do to this dyslexic.

I am woman

womanI am reminded that learning Hanja is not the same as learning Chinese language.  I downloaded a Chinese game to my phone.  The first question was 我  是 女人.

I could see 女 woman and 人 person, but do not know the characters 我 and 是. Trying to look it up in the dictionary proves challenging. I finally discover 我 wǒ (I; me; my) and 是 shì (indeed, yes, right; to be; demonstrative pronoun, this, that).


In Korean, I would express “I am woman” something like 저는 여자입니다 joenuen (I) yeoja (woman) imnida (am) .   It is hard to see how knowing 我  是 女人 is going to help me much with learning Korean.  I’ll keep the habit of learning one Hanja character a week, focusing on the Korean words these Chinese characters are related to.  My friend Cimi, on the other hand, would be better served learning how to say “I am woman” in Chinese.

Of course, it might help Cimi knowing 女 so she can find the women’s rest room.  🙂




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