[[!meta date="2014-03-09 13:56:00"]]
[[!meta title="Learning some Chinese characters"]]
[[!tag imported_PyBlosxom korea korean]]
I recently learnt about twenty Chinese characters as they are used in
writing Korean. In this context the characters are called *hanja*.
Korean is rarely written using hanja today, and studying them is
generally thought to be useful at very advanced levels of studying
Korean. I decided to learn a few when the school principal gave me an
elementary school hanja textbook recently, and though I've now stopped
because learning Korean vocabulary is a much better use of my time, I
learnt a few things that I want to write about.
[[!more linktext="continue reading this entry" pages="!blog/entry/*" text="""
One thing that attracted me to learning a few hanja is the mysterious
and attractive suggestion that thousands of years of Eastern culture and
thought are inextricably bound up with them. All the different dialects
of Chinese are written with the same set of characters, and Korean and
Japanese may be written with them too. I thought that an Eastern
conceptual schema might be a constant between these languages, to the
extent that the different grammatical structures of the languages might
not outright prevent someone literate in one of them from reading
something written in another. So far as I can tell this is true only for
some characters, mainly basic ones like *tree*, *fire* etc.
In reading a bit about how Chinese is written with Chinese characters, I
learned that new words are written by using the characters phonetically,
that is, choosing single syllables that are pronounced in a certain way
in other words and putting them together to make the new words. This
replaces one issue I had with hanja with another. I used to worry that
the system must be unreceptive to intellectual progress because it's not
practical to keep coining new characters that everyone then has to
learn. That means you're stuck with one conceptual scheme. But then
instead what you have is something extremely inelegant: concepts that
are really old get their own characters or pairs of characters, and new
ideas are weird bastardisations of something that might otherwise be
A related worry is that hanja *enforce* a certain conceptual schema and
A Korean friend of mine studies philosophy in a Korean university. I was
surprised to learn that hanja are used when studying Western philosophy.
Replacing Korean words with hanja is meant to disambiguate, and get at
the concept the original author is getting at, which the hanja is meant
to be closer to than the Korean word is. This has got something to do
with the fact that there are (many) more hanja than there are Korean
A similar strategy in English-speaking philosophy, when dealing with
material written in another language, is to just adopt the foreign word.
So we talk about eudaimonia and arete, Greek concepts rather tahn
flourishing or virtue, which are the standard rough translations. But
then using hanja would be useless when dealing with western concepts,
which are more foreign to Korean culture than Greek concepts are to the
English-speaking world. So I don't think I've properly understood why
hanja get used in universities.
Most of this post is barely substantiated conjecture. I've yet to meet
someone fluent in English who deals in hanja, so I've not been able to
get my questions answered.