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Chinese Characters and Korean Names

Almost a year ago I started listening to K-Pop for the first time in my life. It got me to watch my first K-Drama and from there I started learning more about Korean culture. Music maintained my interest in Korean culture at first, but with this new discovery, I’ve also become interested in learning the Korean language. I have just finished my second quarter of Korean and have learned a couple of interesting things about hangul (the Korean alphabet). I’ve learned how to read it and write it and in doing so I am able to identify whenever I see Korean written anywhere. However, there was a time that I came across a K-pop music video, “God’s Menu” or “神메뉴”, by Stray Kids and I noticed the title contained Chinese characters instead of hangul. I started seeing this frequently in many music videos from a couple of groups but mainly Stray Kids. This experience made me wonder why Chinese, and not hangul, would show up. Additionally, when learning to write my name in Korean, I also learned Chinese characters and not just the meaning of individual Korean words were taken into consideration when coming up with a Korean name. I didn’t know why this was the case until I started taking a class on premodern Korean history (Korea 180B). In that class, I learned that the Chinese characters that I was seeing are called hanja (the Korean name for Chinese characters). Further into the class, I learned that hanja carried over into the Korean language because of the influences of Chinese literary culture in premodern Korea. I also learned the role of social class in reading and writing in this time period. I will highlight one of the instances of importance in which hanja and what it meant for Korean elites, shown in the importance of carving signatures into rocks in sacred locations.

According to Carving Status written by Maya Stiller, “The size, script type, and placement of Kŭmgangsan’s autographic inscriptions highlight the different gradations of the “elite” in the late Chosŏn society” (Stiller 72). Those autograph inscriptions mentioned in the text were in what today’s world, specifically America, is the Forecourt of the Stars. This is where the handprints, footprints and signatures are cemented in honor of high status celebrities who have left an everlasting impression on not just Los Angeles, but to the entire world. One thing to note about the autographic inscriptions is how hanja is used instead of hangul. One significant detail to note is how “elites” were the ones to use hanja. The reason for this being how those who were able to read were considered to be more educated since only the elites learned hanja. On the other hand, hangul was considered to be a commoner’s language.

In one of the discussions in Carving Status Stiller compares the signatures of two men that are carved into the rocks of Kŭmgang Mountains, specifically about their size and placement and how they spoke on the person's status in society and their impact. She mentions, “Hong’s decision to carve much smaller characters confirms that, although near-elites could have hired engraver-monks to inscribe a very large and conspicuous signature like Yi’s, moral sanctions prevented such behavior in most cases” (Stiller 72). This is reminiscent of European countries where elites would have had painted portraits of themselves, while in Chosŏn this involved the carving of signatures.

The question remains of why carving signatures were so important during this time. Well, Yang Saŏn, a magistrate of several districts in Kangwŏn, was a master of wild types of calligraphy. His calligraphy is what made him stand out and because of his art, his work has allowed him to be “cherished and appreciated by later generations” (Stiller 72). The carving signature of Yang Saŏn is the only one that has carried through years and years and has given him his reputation in the literary world. For this exact reason elites sought after having their names engraved and everything up to the size of the carving was of importance. However, when something becomes abundant, it loses its value and becomes less appreciated. Tourists from around the world who were able to read and write traveled through the mountains to have their names engraved for the future generations who travel there to see, leaving not even a small piece of the rock intact. However, they would not have been written using hanja which would differentiate them from the original elite autographic inscriptions.

It’s interesting to see how carving one’s name into rock could influence so many people into doing the same thing to the point where space ran out in the rocks of the Kŭmgangsan Mountains. In addition, it is crucial to remember how a person's significance in regards to social class, status, social significance, can be determined based on the size and placement of their signature as Stiller explains the practice and social pressure of name carving. Even so, with the placement and size of name carvings having been such an important factor as well as the use of hanja, in which only the elites would have been able to read and write, no longer mattered and any commoner and even near-elites who might’ve only know how to read and write using hangul, would include themselves in the sacred place of Kŭmgangsan. However, at least a positive influence was left on the use of hanja in which those who would've been commoners in the past, now in the present, use it as a common way to come up with Korean names that hold a deeper meaning than it would using hangul.


Cover of Carving Status Creator: University of Washington Press


Georgina Flores (Business & Economics, UCLA '25), “Chinese Characters and Korean Names,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed October 1, 2023,