(Originally Published December 2012)
The simplest Hanja character must be the character for the number 1. It is pronounced 일, and it looks like this:
Yep, it’s just a line. The numbers two (이) and three (삼) are just as simple:
The characters for one, two, and three are so simple that once you have seen them, they are almost impossible to forget. The numbers four through ten aren’t as easy to remember, but they aren’t too complicated:
Four (사): 四
Five (오): 五
Six (육): 六
Seven (칠): 七
Eight (팔): 八
Nine (구): 九
Ten: (십): 十
Numbers can seem a little boring, especially if the goal of learning Hanja is to increase one’s vocabulary. But even numbers have a funny way of sneaking inside every day vocabulary…
Take another look at the character for Ten (십):
십자가, the Korean word for “cross” gets its name from the fact that a cross looks like the Hanja character for ten. The자 means letter or character, and the가 means shelf (in the olden days, long wooden poles were mounted on a wall and used as a shelf). So the name means “Wooden poles that look the ‘ten’ character”.
십 – 十 – Ten
자 – 字 – Character, or Letter
가 – 架 – Wooden poles used as a shelf
The 자 that means “letter” or “character” is the same자 that is in the word 한자 itself. The 한 in한자 refers to the Han dynasty of China. So 한자 literally means “Han Chinese Characters.”
If the character for ten could be hiding in an everyday word like십자가, what other words might have numbers hiding in them?
Let’s go back to that single stroke, the number one. As it turns out, there are quite a few everyday words that have this character in them:
일등 (一等) First place
일반적 (一般的) general, usual, average, ordinary
일생 (一生) one’s (whole/entire) life, a lifetime
일월 (一月) January
일주일 (一週日) One week
일회용 (一回用) Disposable
제일 (第一) The most, the first
통일 (統一) Unification, or Reunification
Let’s take a look at another example of numbers hiding in everyday words. I’ve always had a hard time keeping the word for uncle (삼촌) and cousin (사촌) straight. They sound so similar that I could never remember which was which.
Both words end in촌, which means “degree of kinship”. Remember the characters for three and four?
Three: (삼): 三
Four (사): 四
As it turns out, the word for uncle- 삼촌, literally means “3rd degree of kinship.” What that means is that you are separated from your uncle by three steps. You are the first step, your dad is the second step, and your dad’s brother is the 3rd step. He’s the third 촌, or the삼촌.
Suppose your uncle has a kid. That kid, your cousin, would be the fourth촌, or사촌!
Thanks to Hanja, I now have a way of remembering the difference between 삼촌 and사촌.
A few other common words that use the number 4(사) are:
사계절 (四季節) The four Seasons
사방 (四方) All 4 directions, or “every side”
Unlucky number 4
In Korea (as in China and Japan) the number 4 is associated with death. This is because both the Hanja character for death and the Hanja character for four are pronounced사.
The character for “death” looks like this:
The most common word that uses this character is사망 (死亡) 하다, which simply means “to die”. This may seem like a silly reason to fear the number four. Nonetheless, superstitions being what they are, many buildings in Korea do not have a 4th floor!
Now let’s take a look at the character for one hundred. It is pronounced백 and looks
This character can be found in the word for department store, 백화점, which literally means “Store of a hundred products”.
백 (百) One Hundred
화 (貨) Goods or products
점 (店) Store
Finally, let’s take a look at the character for ten thousand. It is pronounced만 and looks like this:
This character is found in the Korean equivalent of “Hooray”, which is “만세”, which literally means “Ten thousand years.”
만 (萬) Ten Thousand
세 (歲) Years (or age)
Of course Hanja numbers are used for more numerical purposes- minutes, months, and years are all counted in Hanja numbers. For any questions, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to email me at email@example.com. And be sure to join us next month when we see how many Hanja characters evolved over thousands of years from simple,
easy to recognize drawings.
A Closer Look:
Let’s take a closer look at some of the other uses of Hanja numbers. First, here is a list of the numbers one through ten thousand:
일 一 One
이 二 Two
삼 三 Three
사 四 Four
오 五 Five
육 六 Six
칠 七 Seven
팔 八 Eight
구 九 Nine
십 十 Ten
백 百 One Hundred
천 千 One Thousand
만 萬 Ten Thousand
To say what year it is, you first say the number of the year (like 2012), followed by the Hanja for “year”. The Hanja character for year is pronounced 년 and looks like this:
So the year 2012 would be said이천십이년, because 이천십이 means 2012, and 년 means year (notice that “twelve” is actually said as “ten-two” in Hanja).
이 천 십 이 년
二 千 十 二 年
Two Thousand Ten Two Year
Next year will be 2013년:
이 천 십 삼 년
二 千 十 三 年
Two Thousand Ten Three Year
Months work in exactly the same way. The Hanja for month (and moon) is pronounced 월 and looks like this:
Put월 after the numbers 1 through 12 and you will have the months of the year:
일월 一月 January
이월 二月 February
삼월 三月 March
사월 四月 April
오월 五月 May
육월 六月 June
칠월 七月 July
팔월 八月 August
구월 九月 September
십월 十月 October
십일월 十一月 November
십이월 十二月 December
The days of the month follow the same pattern, in that it will be the number, followed by the character for day (or sun), 日 (일).
Thus, the 13th would be:
And the 25th would be:
So if you wanted to write out the complete date, for example November 5th, 2012, you would write in the order Year-Month-Day. Most often, numbers are just written using Arabic numerals, so the date would look like this:
2012年 11月 5日
Unlike most Hanja characters, which are usually just spelled out in Hangul, the date is often written using the actual Hanja characters for year, month, and day, as shown above. Forms, schedules, calendars… you can expect to see these characters a lot.
There are of course many different ways that Hanja numbers can be used. It is worth noting that there is a native Korean numbering system that is also commonly used. There are some guidelines for knowing which numbering system to use, but that is a subject which would fall outside of the scope of this article. Suffice to say it can be confusing at first, but over time it gets easier.