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):

Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country

A Chinese character dictionary arranged by tone and rime, the Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country (東國正韻, 동국정운) was one of the very first books published in the Korean alphabet. The still-in-use ㅉ and now-obsolete ㆆ (glottal stop) were originally intended for transcribing Korean and Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters. (Source)


On October of 1446, King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) promulgated the widely celebrated Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음), explaining the reasoning behind the creation of the new Korean alphabet. The preface begins with the following lines:

國之語音, 異乎中國, 與文字不相流通,
국지어음, 이호중국, 여문자불상류통,

The sounds of our country are different from that of China and its characters do not mutually conform to them.

故愚民, 有所欲言, 而終不得伸其情者多矣.
고우민, 유소욕언, 이종부득신기정자다의.

Therefore, whenever the ignorant have something that they wish to communicate, there are many that in the end cannot express their thoughts.

予爲此憫然, 新制二十八字, 欲使人人易習便於日用耳.
여위차민연, 신제이십팔자, 욕사인인역습편어일용이.

Because of this, I am ashamed, and have newly created twenty-eight letters. I intend that each and every person be able to easily learn and conveniently use them daily.

Almost every Korean schoolchild can recite the first sentence of the preface from memory. (They are actually reciting the vernacular version (諺解本, 언해본), which would actually not be published until 1459, well after King Sejong’s death, and only translates a small fraction of the original Classical Chinese edition.) Not every Korean schoolchild, however, knows or was probably ever taught that the King actually created twenty-eight letters, more than twenty-four currently in use, much less developments in Korean orthography since the famed King’s times. So, what happened to these four letters and what other orthographic developments occurred since then?

Spelling Rules of the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People

The Korean alphabet originally had twenty-eight letters, with seventeen consonants and thirteen vowels. This is three more consonants and one more vowel than the one currently in use. When first introduced, the alphabet was presented in a different order from today:

  • Consonants (17): ㄱ (g), ㅋ (k), ㆁ (ng), ㄷ (d), ㅌ (t), ㄴ (n), ㅂ (b), ㅍ (p), ㅁ (m), ㅈ (j), ㅊ (ch), ㅅ (s), ㆆ (ʔ – glottal stop), ㅎ (h), ㅇ (null), ㄹ (r/l), andㅿ (z). (Note the difference between ㆁ and ㅇ.)
  • Vowels (11): ㆍ (aw), ㅡ (eu), ㅣ(i), ㅗ (o), ㅏ (a), ㅜ (u), ㅓ (eo), ㅛ (yo), ㅑ (ya), ㅠ (yu), and ㅕ (yeo)

After explaining how these letters are to be pronounced, the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People laid out a few rudimentary spelling rules for assembling them into syllable blocks:

  1. For Initial Sounds, Seventeen Letters (初聲十七字, 초성십칠자) – All seventeen consonants can be as the initial sound of a syllable.
  2. For Medial Sounds, Eleven Letters (中聲十一字, 중성십일자) – All eleven vowels can be used as the medial sound of a syllable.
  3. For Terminal Sounds, Eight Letters (八終聲可足用, 팔종성가족용) – The general rule was that all consonants can be used as terminal sound of a syllable (終聲復用初聲, 초성복용초성). The Proper Sounds further specified that eight of the seventeen consonants are “sufficient” (可足, 가족) for use as terminals. These are: ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ. They were thought to be sufficient, because these eight could take the place of other consonants when pronounced at the end of a syllable (e.g., ㅅ for ㅿ, ㅈ, and ㅊ). The Proper Sounds also categorized all the consonants (except ㄹ) between those that can be used as plain, rising, and departing tones (平上去聲, 평상거성) versus those that can be used as entering tones (入聲, 입성).
  4. Pronounce by Combining Initial, Medial, and Terminal Sounds (初中終合成之字, 초중종합성지자) – Letters are to be combined to form syllabic blocks and pronounced accordingly.
    • Double Consonants (各自並書, 각자병서) – Six of the seventeen consonants can be doubled to form: ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, ㅆ, and ㆅ. (Along withㆆ, these were originally intended for transcribing Korean and Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters, as such sounds rarely occurred in native Korean words. While ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, and ㅆ are in use today, they did not originally denote the same consonants.)
    • Clustered Sounds (書, 합용병서) – Consonants can be combined to form consonant clusters (e.g., ㅄ). Unlike today, consonant clusters can be in the initial sound and the terminal sound position. Vowels can be combined to form diphthongs (e.g., ㅞ). 
    • Chained Consonants (連書, 연서) – To form light labial sounds (脣輕音, 순경음), the Proper Sounds specified the addition of the letterㅇ beneath the consonant (e.g.,ᄛ(l), ㅱ(w), and ㅸ(v)). Only the letter ㅸ was ever in use. The use of the letter ㅱ was limited to Chinese character dictionaries.
    • Diacritical Marks (傍點, 방점) – One dot (·) to the left indicated that the syllable was a departing tone (去聲, 거성). Two dots (:) indicated that the syllable was a rising tone (上聲, 상성). (This applied to both native Korean words as well as Sino-Korean ones.)

Overall, compared to modern Korean’s spelling rules, these were much simpler and nowhere nearly as specific. (Not to mention, at least one of the very first works in the new alphabet did not even follow some of these rules.) This is apparent in the implicit orthographic principle exemplified in all of the very first works in the new script that Korean was to be spelled phonemically. That is, words were to be spelled according how they were pronounced, regardless of any inflections to the root word. Phonemic orthographies are in general simpler than morphophonemic orthographies in use in modern Korean. Under morphophonemic orthography, words are spelled similarly though not entirely exactly to how they are pronounced so as to be reflective of the underlying etymological root. An example in English are the words “sign” and “signify,” which are pronounced very differently but are spelled similarly to reflect their same etymological root.

Incremental Developments from the 16th to the 19th Century


Collection of Characters to Teach the Ignorant (訓蒙字會, 훈몽자회) published in 1527 by Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). Note the change in font. (Source)

While not without opposition, the use of the new alphabet spread, then called either Jeongeum (正音, 정음) or Eonmun (諺文, 언문). (The name Hangul (한글) would not be coined until the 20th century.) The royal court received a few petitions in the new script. Confucian scholars translated various Classical Chinese works into Korean, often in mixed script, ranging from Confucian classics to Tang Dynasty poets. Diplomats and interpreters used Korean transliterations to learn foreign languages such as Mandarin, Manchu, Mongol, and Japanese.

Despite all this, partly because of push back from some of the elite, the Korean alphabet only attained a less-than-official status during this period. For example, texts written in the vernacular script (as well as Classical Chinese texts without signatures) were not recognized as proper evidence in court. Koreans who wished to either lend or borrow money had to write the contract in Classical Chinese for their agreements to be effective. Because of its less-than-official status, the government did not view Korean orthography as a priority. Consequently, Korean spelling rules only saw incremental changes, with most of the relatively drastic ones occurring by the early 16th century.

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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.