Tag Archives: Chinese Characters


The Korean Constitutional Court ruled 6-3 that the limits on Chinese characters permitted in personal names (人名用漢字, 인명용 한자) are constitutional. These restrictions were first introduced in 1990, as family records maintained by the government were being digitized. The original list only included 2,731 characters. Over the years, the Court has gradually increased the number of permissible characters to 8,142 characters as of last year. Korean Family Law specifies that only Hangul and “commonly used” Chinese characters are permitted in personal names and that the Constitutional Court is to define which characters are allowable.

The restrictions on Chinese characters allowed in personal names was very controversial when first introduced and has been challenged a number of times ever since. In the most recent case, the challenger attempted to use the character 嫪(로) (“to long for”) to name their child. Since the character was outside the list of permitted characters, they were only allowed to record the name in Hangul. The family sued and argued that the restrictions on characters are unconstitutional, because they are a restraint on the freedom to name one’s child and their right to pursuit of happiness.

The majority of the Court, however, disagreed and concluded that the restrictions are constitutional. They noted that the number of people who do not know Chinese characters has increased, and that using rare characters will lead to errors in keeping digital records and recognizing people’s names, causing inconvenience for people with complicated names. The majority added that restrictions on Chinese characters permitted in personal names are “unavoidable” due to technological constraints. The minority countered, pointing out that any such constraints in digitizing records that might have been true in 1990 are no longer existent.

Currently, if any part of a name is not one of the Chinese characters on the list, then it is considered a “pure Hangul” name. Korean identification cards in such instances will only give the Hangul transcriptions, not Hanja and Hangul mixed. As such, although the percentage of Koreans with “pure Hangul” names has been reportedly increasing, this figure might be inflated. A subset of such names are intended to be combinations of “pure Korean” and Chinese characters. Earlier this year, a couple tried registering their daughter’s name as “贇별(윤별).” Even though 贇 is on the list of permissible characters, the couple was forced to register only in Hangul, because it was a mix of Hangul and Hanja. Another subset are cases like the one above, in which at least one character in the name is not on the list of permitted characters. The vast majority of Korean names are still entirely in Hanja.

(On a related note, I would like to also point out that “pure Korean” names in use now, while sometimes haughtily presented as “traditional,” are not anything like actual, historically used “pure Korean” names.)


Today, Korea is having its twentieth legislative elections. At polling booths across the country, Korean voters will vote for their candidate or party with a stamp marked with the Chinese character 卜(복). The reason why the stamp has this character are three-fold: historical, practical, and symbolic.

The first elections in South Korea were held in 1948 under the auspices of the US Army Military Government.  Voters at polling booths used a circular stamp or sign (“○”) with no circumscribed shaped inside to mark down their candidates of choice. Resources were so inadequate that people resorted to using the round edges of pen caps to indicate their votes. The Korean War from 1950 to 1953 devastated the country even further. In the elections immediately after war, voters used bamboo branches and even bullet casings to mark their votes. While Korea’s economy vastly improved in the following decades, the plain circular mark continued to be used.

The plain circular mark, however, had a few practical problems. When they are cast, the ballots on which the mark is recorded are folded. In many instances, this caused in the dye being transposed onto the contacting side, thereby resulting in invalid votes. In 1992, the Chinese character 人(인) for “person” was added and circumscribed into the circular voting stamp to remedy this problem. The addition of this character shape, however, did not completely resolve the issue with invalid votes, since the character 人 is somewhat symmetric. The dye transposed onto the folded side of the ballot was still indistinguishable from from the side where the mark was originally stamp.

During the presidential elections of 1994, another issue arose. The character 人 was seen as too similar to the si-ot ㅅ in candidate Kim Young-sam’s (金泳三, 김영삼, 1927-2015) name and ultimately viewed as favoring him. (Kim Young-sam would indeed later go onto win the presidential election, becoming the first civilian to hold the Korean presidential office in three decades.) To address this problem, the character 人  was changed to 卜(복). This alteration also finally resolved the issue of invalid votes resulting from the dye being transposed onto the other side of the ballot. Since the character 卜 is asymmetric, election talliers would be able to distinguish the transposed mark from the original mark.

The character 卜 also carries multiple meanings, highly pertinent to the rite of voting. It can mean “to foretell” (점치다), “to consider in detail” (상고하다), or “to count” (헤아리다). And this is why the voting stamps in Korean elections have the character 卜.

Sources (All in Korean):

I sometimes get asked by some of my older Korean (and even Korean-American) friends who are now of that age about Chinese character recommendations for their soon-to-be-born children. Cognizant that there is a whole field of experts and numerous conventions behind naming (作名法, 작명법) that I am unaware of, I politely decline to give them any suggestions and recommend that they confer with their family members.

Occasionally, I inform them that South Korea has a limit to which characters can be used in personal names (人名用漢字, 인명용한자), which increased from from 5,761 to 8,142 last year, so that they can go and look for characters for their children themselves. Some of my friends are actually surprised that there are any restrictions. I had just assumed that such limitations were natural and necessary, and so was surprised that they were surprised. I looked into it further recently, and turns out there is a bit of controversy over this issue.

The video above is a news clip from last year discussing the issue of “intrusion of naming rights” (作名權 侵害 漢字 論難, 작명권 침해 한자 논란). In the clip, one of the reporters reveals that one of the characters in his name is not on the list, 熚(필), which is pronounced “pil” and means “to blaze furiously.” Until recently, whenever he had to list his Hanja name on public documents, the reporter had to explain that the character consists of the 火(화) radical and 畢(필) body and had his name listed as “金필奎.”

The news clip then went over the brief history of the regulation of characters in names. The Korean Supreme Court first introduced the list of permitted characters in personal names with just 2,731 characters in 1990, as family records maintained by the government were being digitized. Over the years, the number of characters permitted increased. Characters included in the list were based in part on the frequency of characters in personal names that appeared in telephone directories of Seoul residents. The justifications given were that using complicated Chinese characters would be inconvenient to everyone in society and would be detrimental to the well-being of children with such names (e.g., harassment).

At that time, the new list was controversial, especially because there were characters in the list that were contrary to the government’s stated justifications. Chinese characters, such as 死(사) (“to die”), 盜(도) (“thief”), 魔(마) (“evil spirit”), and 禍(화) (“calamity”), that would never likely appear in actual personal names were on the list. Furthermore, with the expansion of the list last year, peculiar names such as “Pikton” (腷噋, 픽톤), “Goektung” (馘佟, 괵퉁), and “Hul’e” (欻恚, 훌에) were possible, thereby undercutting the justification of child well-being. Even with the increase, however, the reporter noted that the character 熚 in his name was still not included. While he stated that he personally was not inconvenienced, the reporter noted that there were many others that complained to the Supreme Court about the restriction. There were efforts made by a National Assembly member in 2012 to eliminate the restriction entirely, but these attempts failed.

In responding to these complaints, the Korean Supreme Court stated that allowing all 50,000 plus Chinese characters would invite chaos and observed that there are many characters that have not been standardized. (I would like to note the list of characters already allows for variants, including some simplified ones.) The reporter countered by pointing out that there are over 70,000 characters already digitized and that any technical limitations that existed in the 1990s are now obsolete.

As for me, I am still of the opinion that there should be some practical restriction, although not quite sure where to draw that line.

Further Reading:


  • It should be noted that limitations to characters used in names are not new, e.g., naming taboo (避諱, 피휘). In pre-modern times, people and even geographical places were renamed to avoid having the same character as that of the Korean king or Chinese emperor. It is a custom in some Korean families even today to avoid using the same characters (and even homonyms) as that of an ancestor within three generations.


Every year, countries in the Sinosphere (漢字文化圈, 한자문화권) that still regularly use Chinese characters (漢字, 한자) pick a Chinese character that represent the theme of the year. In China, the character 法(법) meaning “law” was picked to reflect the Chinese Communist Party’s initiatives to reign in corrupt officials. In Taiwan, the character 黑(흑) meaning “black” was selected to represent the scandals within the food industry where some restaurants used gutter oil as cooking oil. In Singapore, the character 亂(란) meaning “chaos” was chosen in response to many conflicts across the globe. In Japan, the character 稅(세) meaning “taxes” was tabbed to signify the Abe government’s move to raise the consumption tax rate from 5% to 8%.

Korea does not have a “character of the year” as the other countries listed. Instead, the Korean Professors’ Newspaper (敎授新聞, 교수신문) picks a four character idiom (四字成語, 사자성어) for the year. This year, out of 724 professors polled, 201 of them (27.8%) voted for the idiom 指鹿爲馬(지록위마) meaning “To call a deer a horse” (or more literally “To point at a deer and deem it a horse”). It refers to turning falsehoods into truths, and vice-versa, to deceive others, especially those in power. The idiom is a reflection of the many tragedies that occurred this year. It was chosen also to criticize how President Park Geunhye (朴槿惠, 박근혜, 1952-) and government officials mismanaged in reacting to these events. The idiom is in reference to an incident towards the end of the Qin dynasty (秦, 진, 9th century-221 BC) as recorded in the Annals of the Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇本紀, 진시황본기) of the Records of the Grand Historian (史記, 사기), which was written by Sima Qian (司馬遷, 사마천, 145 or 135-86BC):

八月己亥, 趙高欲爲亂, 恐群臣不聽, 乃先設驗, 持鹿獻於二世, 曰: “馬也.”
팔월기해, 조고욕위란, 공군신불청, 내선설험, 지록헌어이세, 왈: “마야.”

On the Jihai day (己亥, 기해) of the eighth month, Zhao Gao (趙高, 조고, ?-207BC) wanted to start a revolt, but feared that his ministers would not listen. Therefore, he first tried to test them, and took a deer as an offering to the Qin dynasty’s second generation emperor saying, “This is a horse.”

  • Zhao Gao (趙高, 조고, ?-207BC) – A corrupt and greedy prime minister and eunuch (宦官, 환관) in the Qin dynasty royal court, he played a pivotal role in bringing down the Qin dynasty and is vilified in Chinese history for his treachery.

二世笑曰: 丞相誤邪? 謂鹿爲馬.
이세소왈: 승상오아? 위록위마.

The second generation emperor laughed saying, “Prime minister, are you mistaken? You called a deer a horse.”

問左右, 左右或默, 或言馬以阿順趙高.
문좌우, 좌우혹묵, 혹언마이아순조고.

The emperor asked ministers on his left and right. Out of the ministers, some were quiet. Others stated that it was a horse in order to flatter and follow Zhao Gao.

或言鹿, 高因陰中諸言鹿者以法.
혹언록, 고인음중제언록자이법.

Some said it was a deer. Zhao Gao thus in secret had all those who said it was a deer ensnared.


Thereafter, all the ministers feared Zhao Gao.

As for the other choices in the poll, the idiom 削足適履(삭족적리) meaning “To cut off the feet and match to shoes” came second, 至痛在心(지통재심) meaning “Extreme pain exists in the heart” came third, 慘不忍睹(참불인도) meaning “So horrendous that no one can bare to watch” came fourth, and 四分五裂(사분오열) meaning “To divide into four and cut into five” came fifth. Last year’s choice was 倒行逆施(도행역시) meaning “To act contrary to reason,” another idiom based on the Records of the Grand Historian. 


Hanja-Hangul Study - Brain Activation

One of the many arguments in the Hangul exclusivity (–專用, 한글전용) versus Hanja-Hangul mixed script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) relates to neurology. Mixed script advocates point out that Hanja (漢字, 한자), i.e., Chinese characters, is more stimulative for the brain and therefore better for brain development. (Hangul exclusivity advocates say it is too difficult for children without any empirical basis.) This assertion has now been tested by a Korean university in a recently published neurological study on Hanja and Hangul comprehension. Researchers conducted two experiments and took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) images from brain of the test subjects.

The first experiment tested which parts of the brain were activated when Hangul and Hanja were presented to the subjects. There were twelve subjects, including six males and six females, with an average age of 28. The researchers used 150 disyllabic Sino-Korean words written in Hanja deemed to be of fifth rank difficulty on the Hanja proficiency exam (i.e., 500 characters) and 150 words written Korean words in Hangul. Subjects were presented these words in rapid succession: one word for each second in the first 30 seconds and then allowed to rest for the next 30 seconds. This process was repeated five times.

The fMRI images showed that when Hanja was presented, the Broca’s area on the left hemisphere, premotor cortex, superior parietal lobule, fusiform gyrus, and extrastriate cortex were triggered.  In contrast, when Hangul was presented, only the angular gyrus and the inferior frontal area were triggered. These findings suggest that Hanja and Hangul activate different parts of the brain. The researchers, however, cautioned on concluding that Hanja was superior to Hangul just because it triggered more parts of the brain. Instead, they explained that each script, one being logographic and the other phonetic, has its own characteristics. 

The second experiment tested the memorization of Hanja versus Hangul names. For this experiment, there were also twelve subjects, including seven males and five females, with an average age of 27. While researchers took fMRI images, the subjects were shown 40 names in Hanja and in Hangul, and then were asked to identify the 80 names in total mixed in random order 1 minute, 10 minutes, and 120 minutes after.

The task experiment data showed that subjects were much better at memorizing names in Hanja versus Hangul. With Hanja, subjects recognized names at a rate of 96%, 88%, and 79% out at each of the time intervals respectively. In contrast, with Hangul, subjects only recognized names at a rate of 52%, 28%, and 12% respectively. Researchers concluded that subjects recognized Hanja better than Hangul because Hanja is a logogram.

Based on the two experiments, the researchers reasoned that it is possible that since Hanja and Hangul trigger different parts of the brain, mixed script education might help students’ brain development.


Characters Permissible for Name Use to Increase

The Korean Supreme Court (大法院, 대법원) has recently announced that it will increase the list of Chinese characters permitted in Korean names (人名用漢字, 인명용한자) from 5,761 to 8,142 characters “to enhance the convenience of the people,” effective next year. The court first promulgated the list in 1991, only permitting some 2,731 characters to be used in names. Korean citizens were born after January 1 of that year could not have a Chinese character in their name that was not in that list. The explanation given was to limit the use of obscure, difficult characters and to allow for easier entry into computer databases.

The original list, unfortunately, was extremely lacking. One family clan in particular was especially affected, because its incoming generation then had the generation name (行列字, 항렬자 or 돌림) of 禝(직, Jik), a character not on the list. They filed a petition to include it, but the Supreme Court refused until now. In addition, there were many instances where parents would pick a rare character with some special meaning for their child, but only to find out that it was not on the list. There are also a number of famous figures in Korean history whose names would not have been permitted, such as the character 睟(수) in Yi Sugwang (李睟光, 이수광, 1563-1628), a famous scholar.

This is not the first time the list has expanded. It was increased to 3,079 in 2003 and then to 5,761 in 2005. (Note that there are over 40,000 characters in the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典, 강희자전), the vast majority of which were rarely used if only once or are no longer used.)

Some of the characters that have been added to the list include:

  • 侔(모, mo) – To be uniform, even (가지런하다)
  • 敉(미, mi) – To stroke or comfort (어루만지다)
  • 縑(겸, gyeom) – A type of silk (비단)
  • 晈(교, gyo) – Moonlight (달빛)
  • 婧(정, jeong) – To be thin (날씬하다); to be chaste (정결하다)
  • 夤(인, in) – To be careful (조심하다)
  • 唔(오, o) – The sound of reading (글 읽는 소리)
  • 氳(온, on) – Vigor, spirit (기운)
  • 耦(우, u) – To travel in line (나란히 가다)
  • 姺(선, seon) – To walk (걷다)

As for Korea’s neighbors, Japan has had a list of Chinese characters permitted in names since 1948. The current list only has 2,997 characters. To my knowledge, there are no such limitations in China.


January 4 Edition of Maeil Kyungje

January 4, 1993 Edition of Maeil Kyungje – Economic Daily


In commemoration of Hangul Day, which is on October 9, the Korean Gallup Poll recently ran an opinion poll on Koreans’ views on Hangul and Hanja and their role in Korean language and society. The poll was conducted last week from September 30 to October 2, and asked over 1,000 Koreans from various age, occupational, and regional backgrounds. The questions studied were:

  1. Whether not knowing Hanja has made life uncomfortable.
  2. Whether Hanja is “Korean” (우리) or “foreign.”
  3. Whether Hangul-Hanja mixed script should be used.
  4. Why Koreans should use exclusively Hangul or mixed script.
  5. Whether they favored the plan to reintroduce mixed script into school textbooks in 2018.

The Gallup Poll compared the responses from this poll with a similar one they did in 2002.


1. Whether Not Knowing Hanja Has Made Life Uncomfortable (54% Yes, 46% No)

Poll 1

The pollsters asked to those that did not know Hanja whether not knowing Hanja has made life uncomfortable. The poll results in 2002 showed that 70% of Koreans overall answered “yes,” but this year’s poll showed that it had dropped to 54% for “yes.” The data also show generational differences, ranging from 63% in the affirmative in the 60 years or above group to 48% in the 19-29 year age group. There were also differences in occupation. Those who worked in white collar professions answered 54% yes, while students and blue collared workers answered 45% and 47% respectively.

2. Whether Hanja is Korean or Foreign? (48% Korean, 47% Foreign)

Poll 2

The second question pollsters asked was whether Hanja was “Korean” (or “Ours”*) or “foreign.” In sum, 47% responded it was “foreign,” 48% “Korean,” and 7% were undecided or refused to answer. This is not that different from the 2002 poll. The data showed some generational differences. While those in their 40s and 60s answered that Hanja was Korean 51% and 53% respectively, those in their 20s, 30s, and 50s responded that it was 45%, 45%, and 42% respectively. There were also gender differences. 54% of women responded that Hanja is Korean, while only 41% of men answered that it was. In addition, 54% of those who had answer that not knowing Hanja made life difficult responded that Hanja was Korean, while only 40% of those who responded they had little difficult responded similarly.

*By “Ours,” the implication is not whether Hanja was created by Koreans. (Only the ultra-nationalist fringe unfortunately too common on YouTube believe that.) Rather, the question is about whether Hanja is apart of Korean culture.

3. Whether Hanja-Hangul Mixed Script or Hangul Exclusive Script Should Be Used (53% for Mixed, 41% for Exclusive)

Poll 3

The next question was whether Hangul-Hanja mixed script should be used or Hangul exclusive script should be used. In 2002, 55% of Koreans believed that mixed script should be use, 33% believed that exclusive script should be used, and the rest were undecided. This year’s poll reveals that the percentage of Koreans in favor of mixed script actually increased to 57%. There were age differences. Only 50% of those in their 20s were in favor of mixed script, but those in their 30s or above were more supportive, with 55% and higher. In addition, there were occupational differences. 61% of White collar professionals and 59% of those self-employed were in favor of mixed script, but only 52% of blue collar workers were in favor. Those who had previously responded that not knowing Hanja has made life difficult were overwhelming in favor of mixed script with 67%, while those who responded that they had little difficulty answered only 46% in favor.

4. Why Koreans Should Use Mixed Script or Exclusive Script

The fourth question asked those in favor of mixed script or the exclusive what their reason was. These respondents were separated based on their answer in question 3.

Poll 4-1

Among those who had responded that they were in favor of mixed script, 67% responded that their reason was that Hanja conveys meaning more adequately, 11% stated because they were used to it, 5% because Hanja and Hangul are intimately related, another 5% because of foreign relations with China, 4% for cultural reasons, 4% for education, and the remaining 4% responded miscellaneously, did not know, or refused to respond.

Poll 4-2

As for those who had responded that they were in favor of the exclusive script, 26% responded that it was because there are many people who do not know Hanja, 25% because Hangul is easier and more convenient, 23% because Hangul is self-sufficient, 22% because Hangul is Korea’s native script, 3% because of their worried that Hangul might be distorted, and the remaining 2% did not know or refused to respond.

5. Support for the 2018 Plan to Reintroduce Hanja-Hangul Mixed Script Textbooks (67% in Favor, 29% Against)

Poll 5

The final question was about the plan to reintroduce mixed script textbooks to third grade elementary school by 2018, which was announced by the Korean Ministry of Education on September 24. Respondents were overwhelming in favor with 67% for and 29% against. There were age differences, however. Only 59% of those in the 19-29 age group responded in favor. In contrast, 82% of those above the age of 60 were in favor. Large disparities appeared based on questions 2 and 3. Those who had responded that not knowing Hanja made life difficult were 76% in favor, but those that stated that it has made it little difficult were only 57% in favor. Furthermore, those who were in favor of mixed script were 84% in favor, but those who were for exclusive script were only 45% in favor.

Short Informal Analysis

The responses to the first question were the most interesting. The percentage of those who stated that not knowing Hanja made their life difficult decreased from 70% to 54% from 2002 to 2014. There could be a number of reasons for this decline. (While there was a 40% percentage difference in the sample size between the two studies, they both had more than 1,000 respondents. Therefore, upon just preliminary examination, the sample size is probably not an issue.) For one, these figures could be mere reflection of the decline in the use of Hanja in Korean print. Based on personal observations, use of Hanja in newspapers, which was already low at the turn of the millennium, have noticeably decreased even further since then. Even academic texts in some studies, such as the sciences, started shunning Hanja. Another could be confirmation bias among respondents themselves. Those who had responded that they had no difficulty without knowing Hanja were more likely to view Hanja as a foreign script and were less favorable of mixed script. In addition, as the Gallup poll notes, Hangul exclusivists are quite vociferous in their anti-Hanja opinions. (I would venture to say that these opinions are so strongly held that it might very well be that they have actually experienced difficulty because of their lack of knowledge in Hanja, but refused to answer that they did.) The same could be said about those who stated that not knowing Hanja has made life more difficult; however, it should be noted that knowledge of Hanja has shown to in fact increase vocabulary.

Another interesting part of the data were the responses to the last question on opinions about the reintroduction of mixed script textbooks. Although those who were in favor of mixed script were overwhelmingly in favor of the reintroduction, almost half of those against mixed script were in favor as well. Even the younger generation was in favor of it. This might be because many recognize that learning Hanja has become popular again after long neglect, and they expect the school system to catch up along with demand for the subject.


In sum, contrary to how some Hangul exclusivists are spinning this poll, these results do seem promising for Hanja’s future in Korea. Although the poll does show that slightly less Koreans think learning Hanja is as practical as about a decade ago, many still want it being used and taught more. Even I was rather surprised that more than half of Koreans were still in favor of mixed script, more than 40 years after it was actively discouraged by the military dictatorship. (President Park Chunghee had a five-year plan to abolish Hanja use entirely.) A poll by Korean newspapers in the 1970s I remember reading awhile back showed actually the reverse, with slightly less than half of Koreans wanting mixed script. Such sentiments will hopefully further increase its popularity.