2 – Get a life 生

(Originally published January 2013)

What do birthdays, teachers, students, younger siblings, beer, and your local Korean market all have in common? Let’s find out!

In this issue we are going to take a look at the Hanja character for “Life”. It is pronounced 생 and looks like this:

It didn’t always look like this though. Three thousand years ago, much of what we now call Han characters looked pretty different. Ancient Chinese oracles would bake turtle shells and bones until the heat made them crack, and then make predictions based on the pattern of the cracks. It was their way of communicating with spirits. The results were then etched on to the turtle shells and bones. These inscriptions, which are often called “Oracle Bone Inscriptions” or “Oracle Bone Characters” are the earliest known forms of Hanja characters. The character for “Life” began as one of these characters.

The idea of life was represented by drawing a plant growing from the ground. Three thousand years ago it looked like this:


Some time later, characters were engraved on bronze plates and bells and the character looked like this:


By the time of the Han Dynasty (two thousand years ago) characters were being simplified into a form that would be easily written using brush strokes, and our character for life had evolved from a drawing of a plant into this:

Now let’s take a look at some everyday Korean words that use this character. You may already know many of these words.

The first word we will look at is the Korean word for student, 학생.

학 comes from the Chinese character for “learning”:

A student is one who spends that part of their life learning, so learning + life = Student:

+ = 學生
Learning Life Student

A teacher (선생) is usually somebody who is older than you. In other words, they started life before you. The character for “before” or “first” is pronounced 선 and looks like this:

We put this character together with “life” to get the word for teacher:

+ = 先生
Before Life Teacher

Koreans address teachers as선생님. The 님 at the end it means “honorific”. It is similar to how we call a judge “The honorable so-and-so” in English. It is like saying “Honorable Teacher”.

The Chinese character for “day” is pronounced 일 and looks like this:

Can you guess what word you get if you add this to the ‘life’ character?

+ = 生日
Life Day Birthday

What about the Korean word for “life” itself –생활? The second character, 활 has a similar meaning to생 ; it means “living” or “alive” and looks like this:

It is worth remember at this point that although sometimes Hanja characters can be used by themselves as words, they are most often combined with another character to make a word. In that sense the Hanja characters are ‘ingredients’ that combine to form a Korean word. So although the character for 생 means life, by itself it isn’t a word (in Korean anyways).

+ = 生活
Life Living Life

If you have younger siblings, then you probably spent much of your life with them while growing up. Even after your older siblings have left the house, your younger siblings would still be there. The Korean word for younger sibling is 동생. The 동 comes from a Hanja character that means “same”:

+ = 同生
Same Life Younger Sibling

A younger brother is called남동생. The남 sound means ‘man’:

+ + = 男同生
Man Same Life Younger brother

A younger sister is called 여동생. The 여 sound means ‘woman’:

+ + = 女同生
Woman Same Life Younger brother

Those are just a few examples of some beginner Korean words that have 生 in them. There are many, many more, which is why learning what 生 means is so useful.

There is another meaning for 生, and that is “Fresh”. You will find this meaning most often related to foods. For example, 生맥주 means ‘Draft beer’, because draft beer is fresh!

Just for fun, I took my daughter and my camera to Zion market to find as many foods as I could with 生 on the label. Yes, I took my daughter on a Hanja scavenger hunt. I cheated and went straight to the beer section first because I already knew that Japanese beers always have 生 on the label:


Here are some more foods that we found with生 on the label:





Here is a very stylized version of 生 with thick brush strokes:


So next time you are out shopping in a Korean market see if you can find the character 生, in other words, see if you can get a life!


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