Hangul-Hanja Mixed Script Is Not a Japanese Creation


Songs of Dragons Flying to Heaven (龍飛御天歌, 용비어천가), the very first work published using Hangul. Note that the very first verse is in mixed script. (Source)


With the announcement that Hanja will return to elementary school textbooks by 2018, there has been a flurry of denouncements around Korean print media. One of the frequent arguments that Hangul supremacists and exclusivists use against Hangul-Hanja mixed script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) is that it is a legacy of Japanese colonialism (日帝强占期, 일제강점기 1905-1945), and therefore Hanja education also ought to wholly eliminated. An argument along these lines can be found in an op-ed in the Hankyoreh from March 3, 2015:

한자혼용이나 한자병기는 일본 식민지 교육으로 길든 일본식 말글살이다. 일본은 1910년 강제로 이 나라를 빼앗기 전부터 일본식 한자혼용 말글살이를 퍼트렸고 식민지로 만든 뒤에는 일본 한자말을 한자로 적고 일본 글자를 함께 쓰는 교과서로 교육을 했다.

Hanja mixed script or Hanja mixed writing is Japanese-style writing introduced by Japanese colonial education. Hanja-mixed script started becoming widespread before 1910 when Japan forcibly stole our country, and when Korea was made a colony the Japanese colonial administration educated Koreans using textbooks with Japanese-style Hanja words and Japanese letters.

The misconception that mixed script is a Japanese creation is unfortunately widespread. What is worse is that Hangul exclusivists and supremacists frequently employ arguments connecting Hanja with the Japanese colonial period. For example, they have characterized the statistic that 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is Sino-Korean (漢字語, 한자어) as a “Japanese lie” — even though it is well supported by various sources.

Hangul-Hanja Mixed Script Predates the Japanese Colonial Period


Vernacular Translation of the Analects (論語諺解, 논어언해), published in 1590. Many of the early works using Hangul were Korean translations of Confucian classics. Note the mixed script. (Source).

Hanja-Hangul mixed script is often portrayed as being a Japanese legacy because of its similarity to Japanese orthography. Though its use did increase during the early 20th century century and its increase then partly may have been because of the Japanese, Hangul-Hanja mixed script has had a long, continuous history in Korea. Indeed, the very first work using Hangul, Songs of Dragons Flying to Heaven (龍飛御天歌, 용비어천가), commissioned by King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450), was in mixed script. Other well known figures in Korean history that wrote some of their work in mixed script include King Sejo (世祖, 세조, 1417-1468, r. 1455-1468), Neo-Confucian scholars Toegye Yi Hwang (退溪 李滉, 퇴계 이황, 1502-1571) and Yulgok Yi I (栗谷 李耳, 율곡 이이, 1537-1584), and the bamboo-hatted vagabond poet Kim Satgat (金笠, 김삿갓, 1807-1863). 

Pre-modern Korean translations of Confucian works even employed a form of Hangul-Hanja mixed script that is seldom seen today in which most of the substantive words were written in Hanja but the grammatical words in vernacular Hangul. This form is more similar Japanese orthography than the typical form; however, even this has historical precedent. Yulgok Yi, whose face graces 5,000 Won currency notes today, translated the Analects (論語, 논어) in this manner:

有朋自遠方來, 不亦樂乎?

朋(붕)이 遠方(원방)으로브터 오리이시면 樂(낙)흡디 아니랴?

If a friend comes from afar, is it not delightful?

Note that all the terms written in Chinese characters could have been translated into “pure” Korean, and other early Korean translations did. (Further note that Yulgok Yi I lived more than three centuries prior to the colonial period.)

  Today’s Korean Spelling Rules,
A Forgotten Legacy of the Japanese Colonial Period

Japanese Era Korean Textbook

The Korean Language Reader (朝鮮語讀本, 조선어독본), a colonial era Korean language textbook, published by the Japanese colonial administration (Source)

If Hangul supremacists and exclusivists wish to continue playing the “Japanese card,” then they ought to take a hard look at their own history — because two can play at this game. They conveniently forget that the very spelling they use in their arguments only dates back to the Japanese colonial period. While the Japanese colonial administration (朝鮮總督府, 조선총독부) did discourage the use of Korean especially after 1938, it also saw Hangul as a useful means to disseminate propaganda and sought to regulate its use.

Prior to the Japanese colonial period, there were no attempts at standardizing Korean spelling. The first were by the colonial administration, which issued two standards: the 1912 Primary School Use Korean Orthographic Rules (普通學校用諺文綴字法, 보통학교용언문철자법) and the 1930 Korean Orthographic Rules (諺文綴字法, 언문철자법). Notable changes in the 1912 rules include the abolition of the Arae a (ㆍ) and elimination of /j/-initial diphthongs in palatalized syllables (e.g., 댜 → 자, 쟈 → 자, 샤 → 사, 탸 → 차). The 1930 rules standardized the names of Korean consonants recited by Korean schoolchildren still to this day (i.e., 기역, 니은, 디귿), changed spellings of tense consonants (된소리) (e.g., ㅽ → ㅃ), and formalized final consonant spellings (받침) (e.g., ㅄ in 값).

These two standards heavily influenced the 1933 Orthographic Rules (한글 맞춤법 통일안), the basis for modern day Korean spelling in both North and South Korea. One well-documented reason why the 1933 rules are so similar to the 1912 and 1930 rules is that the organization that created them, the Chosun Language Society (朝鮮語學會, 조선어학회), collaborated with the Japanese colonial administration in coming up with the 1930 rules. That is, the very same people that sat on the colonial administration-led committee that promulgated the 1930 rules also formulated the 1933 rules.

Moreover, the society’s activities were not limited to just drafting benign spelling rules. Some of its members were pro-Japanese collaborators (親日派, 친일파). For instance, Jeong Inseop (鄭寅燮, 정인섭, j. 東原寅燮, 1905-1983), a leading member of the society who actively helped write the 1930 and 1933 rules, is formally recognized as a collaborator by a Korean government commission because of his pro-colonial propagandist activities. Other members of the society, while not on the government’s formal list, have been accused by Korean historians as being pro-Japanese collaborators. Not to mention, the term “Hangul” (한글) was coined by the independence activist turned collaborationist Choe Namseon (崔南善, 최남선, 1890-1957). (Against this backdrop, today’s successor to the Chosun Language Society, the Hangul Society (–學會, 한글학회) ironically peddles itself as the purveyor of Hangul.)


With Hanja education becoming popular once again, some Koreans are reacting with unease viewing it as a threat upon cultural identity. In their knee-jerk response, many Hangul supremacists and exclusivists argue that Hanja education ought to be eliminated because in their eyes Hangul-Hanja mixed script is legacy of the Japanese colonial period. Not only is this assertion false, its gratuitous invocation of the “pro-Japanese” label too common in general Korean discourse today needlessly detracts from actual, real grievances from the painful memories of that time period. Japan committed many atrocities on the Korean peninsula during the colonial period, but imposing mixed script and Hanja education was not one of them.

  1. Good points well made!

    I’d certainly support mixed script for Korean; such a system arguably suits Korean better than it does Japanese because Korean doesn’t have to contend with so many multiple readings of the characters.

    Either they should re-introduce mixed script and/or at least develop some upper case letters for hangul! Maybe this is because it’s not my native language, but reading pure hangul feels to me like reading English in only capital letters; it’s slow to scan a page and pick out words.

    And even from the ‘pure Korean’ and hangul nationalist perspectives I think mixed script could be preferable. That is, if they want to actively distinguish and ultimately reduce Sino-Korean vocabulary (which I don’t support), it needs to be visible to be aware of it. Writing Sino-Korean words in hangul, as they do now, doesn’t change the fact they are Sino-Korean.

    I agree, too, the modern orthography rules limit the full versatility of hangul. I’d even say it might be one of the reasons that Koreans struggle with foreign languages (relative to the amount they study).

    (Note: I think the creation of the term ‘hangul’ is usually attributed to Ju Si-gyeong rather than Choe Namseon).

    • 歸源 said:

      One of Hangul’s characteristics that Hangul supremacists/exclusivists often point at as an example of its “superiority” is the similarity of consonant shapes and the association of those shapes to phonetics. I usually counter by arguing that it is actually one of its problems: they are way too similar, making it difficult to distinguish among the shapes. For this reason, I find mixed script (and also English and Japanese) easier to read, because the symbols used are more varied and typically the more “important” words would be in Chinese characters. It would seem obvious that the more similar the shape, the more indistinguishable even if not the same. Indeed, this is actually a well-known problem in computer vision, formulated using statistical methods (e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principal_component_analysis).

      As for Hangul nationalist perspectives, I would like to add that I am unaware of anyone that wishes to go back to pre-1912 orthography, although I have read that in the 50s and 60s there were some that wanted to eliminate double-consonant finals.

      Also, I have read various people are attributed to creating the term “Hangul.” Choe Namseon’s name appears often too.

  2. Alice Cheang said:

    Thank you for this article, well thought out and backed by solid research. Even it had indeed been an invention of the Japanese colonial regime, Hanja-Hangul mixed script should not be set aside– so long as it serves a good and useful purpose. How much the more so (何況) when, as you have convincingly shown, mixed script predated the Japanese occupation by several centuries.

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you for your compliments.

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