How can I know when to use Hanja over Hangul, or vice-versa?

Answers giving a bit of history/thorough explanation would be greatly appreciated.

4 Answers 4


Out of 510,000 words listed in Korean Standard Dictionary published by National Institute of the Korean Language, approximately 290,000 words (57%) are composed of Chinese characters. However, it is very rare to see Chinese characters in Korean newspapers as not many Korean words are difficult to understand without reading their Chinese counterparts.

However, there are some words that are homonyms with different Chinese characters.

  1. 선물 can mean either futures (a product traded in stock exchange) '先物' or present or gift '膳物'.
  2. 이사장 can mean either a president (CEO) whose family name is 이 (李) in '李 社長' or '理事長' (chairman of the board of directors).

  3. 연패 can mean either a consecutive win '連覇' or consecutive loss (defeat) '連敗'.

There are more examples where Chinese characters are needed side-by-side to make the meaning clearer. It is really difficult to tell the difference unless there is sufficient context.


I can imagine only these situations...

  • If you want to be a lawyer in Korea. Some law terms are written in ancient Korean (and getting replaced with Hangul representation)
  • If you want to study ancient Korean history.
  • If you have academic interest in historic Korean language.

Usually, you have no need to deal with Hanja unless you are dealing with some very ancient stuff in Korea. Hanja is an almost completely dead system in daily life, and will decline more, and will likely disappear.

Though many Korean words (not all!) can be decomposed into some Hanja components, you don't have to memorize the shape of Hanja to decompose them. You can do it at a phonetic representation level, and that's what most Koreans do. Only old guys (over 50) have trouble distinguishing homonyms without Hanja. Younger people always prefer to provide more context.

I don't remember the last time I saw Hanja characters in any document, signboard, book or anything else. Most (especially younger) Korean people hate Hanja. Many people think it's useless, and that's why Hanja is declining.

Instead, what I see everyday is Hanzi or Kanji for Chinese and Japanese tourists. Not Hanja. These systems share many shapes, but have some differences in details because they diverged hundreds of years ago...

  • 1
    Hanja is used sometimes. In menus to denote size (소·중·대), when denoting sex (남녀), when abbreviating country names (한·미), when writing or signing names. A lot of signs also use hanja for the aesthetic effect. But no one is expected to write hanja or read any hanja except the most basic ones. Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 9:07

One example of where Hanja might be used is to disambiguate homonyms. For example, 사과 can mean an apology, or an apple. The Hanja - 謝過, or 沙果 - might be used to clarify which is meant.

  • 2
    Might be a rather contrived example - would be happy if someone could think of a better one! Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 8:14
  • Doesn't seem contrived at all! This is pretty much the primary use case for hanja.
    – user12
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 12:31
  • @dotVezz I think Rathony's examples are probably better though! Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 12:37

Pretty much never. Some newspapers use hanja to clarify homonyms (장기: 長期 long-term, 臟器 viscera, 將棋 Korean chess, 長技 specialty, etc.) but usually it's not hard to figure out the meaning through context.

It does help to learn some hanja, though, because you can sometimes figure out the meaning of a word by guessing the hanja. Also, some of the basic hanja is ubiquitous, so you should definitely learn to recognize them:

All the numbers, 日 (일 day), 月 (월 month), 年 (년 year), etc

小 (소 small), 中 (중 middle), 大 (대 big), 牛 (우 cow), 魚 (어 fish), 肉 (육 meat), 湯 (탕 broth), 正 (tallying), etc — common in restaurants

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