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.

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 clean.

A related worry is that hanja enforce a certain conceptual schema and discourage changes.

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 syllables.

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.