Hanja Lesson 1: 大, 小, 中, 山, 門

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Before we start learning actual characters, you need to know how the Hanja system works. Only words of Chinese origin have corresponding Hanja characters. At first, there is no easy way to know precisely if a word (especially a noun) has a Chinese origin without looking that word up in a dictionary. Eventually, as you learn more Hanja characters, you will become more and more familiar with the words that can be represented in Hanja.

Most adjectives and verbs that end in –하다 have corresponding Hanja equivalents. Most adjectives and verbs that do not end in –하다 do not have corresponding Hanja equivalents.

For example:

  • 읽다: to read | This is a verb without –하다. It has no Hanja equivalent. There is no way to represent this word using Hanja.
  • 독서하다: to read | This is a verb containing –하다. The Hanja equivalent of “독서” is 讀書. The following are the meanings of each character:
    讀 = (독) reading, read
    書 = (서) writing, reading
    (Notice that the –하다 portion cannot be represented using Hanja characters.)
  • 똑똑하다: to be smart | This is an adjective containing –하다. There is no Hanja equivalent.

Knowing if a word can be represented using Hanja characters or not gets significantly easier as you progress through your studies. The more characters you know (and know the meaning of), the better you will get at recognizing when a word can have a Hanja equivalent.

Having even a rudimentary understanding of Hanja characters can significantly help one’s Korean studies – especially in the long run. As you learn more and more Korean vocabulary, the words will become increasingly more difficult and obscure. With some simple Hanja studying, it is possible to assume the meaning of a word even if you have never studied its meaning.

I’d like to give you an unrealistic example of how a learner can deduce the meaning of a Korean word without ever looking up the definition. I am only using this as an example, and I do not suggest learning these characters yet.

Mr. B has been studying Hanja lately. He has recently learned the two Hanja characters:

書 = (서) = writing, reading
店 = (점) = store

While walking around the streets of Seoul, he notices a word that he is not familiar with. Written on a sign is “서점.” As he knows “서” to mean “writing/reading,” and “점” to mean “store” from his Hanja studies, he deduces that the sign translates to “bookstore.”

The reason this example is unrealistic is because a Korean learner would most likely know the word “서점” before learning the respective Hanja characters for “書” and “店.” Nonetheless, situations similar to this do occur when a learner has a good base in Hanja.

Drawing Hanja characters is a challenge at first. Luckily, most people start with the most basic characters (both in meaning and scripture), so the hill does not start very steep. In addition, the stroke order and pen movements when drawing Hanja characters are very similar to that of Hangeul characters.

That being said, I would like to introduce you to the basic scripture rules of Hanja (or Chinese characters, for that matter). These rules will be sufficient for you to be able to write the characters introduced in this Lesson. I have specifically chosen characters for this lesson that are simple, common, and can be used to teach the basic stroke-order rules.

The first basic rule that you cannot start a character without is:

I will be referring to these rules by number throughout the lessons. I will introduce new rules as they become necessary.

  • 1) Draw lines left to right, and top to bottom.
    Just like the stroke order of “ㄹ” in Korean, you should never draw a line from right to left or bottom to top. For example, if you look at the stroke order of “ㄹ” in Korean:

Lesson 1 pic1

Notice that a stroke is never drawn right to left, or bottom to top. Without knowing this rule, most people would incorrectly connect strokes 2 and 3 by drawing a line right-to-left.

In addition, corners from left-to-right to top-to bottom (strokes 1 and 2 above) and top-to-bottom to left-to-right (strokes 4 and 5 above) are usually done without removing the pen from the paper.

Each Hanja character has an equivalent Korean name. These Korean names are used to indicate which specific character one is referring to in a conversation. The Korean name is usually composed of the Hangeul equivalent of the character being described by a Korean word. They don’t need to be memorized, although most of them are fairly intuitive.


= = Big
(Korean name:

One of the most common Hanja characters that you will see in Korea. When ordering at restaurants, you will often see this symbol (in addition to the other characters in this lesson) on a menu to distinguish between the different sizes of dishes you can order. Also commonly seen in stores/supermarkets to differentiate between different sizes of items.

In order to draw this, we need to learn some more stroke-order rules:

  • 2) Draw horizontal strokes before vertical strokes if they intersect
    Therefore, the first stroke of this character should be the horizontal one:

Lesson 1 pic2

For the remainder of the character, we need to use the following rule:

  • 3) For mirrored diagonal strokes, draw diagonally right to left before left to right.
    Therefore, the second stroke of this character should be the stroke going from the top to the bottom left (note that doing these diagonal strokes would be one of the only time that you draw from right to left).

Lesson 1 pic4redo

After introducing each character, I will provide a list of Korean words where that character can be found. When this is done, only the characters that have been introduced up to that point will be represented using Hanja characters.

As you can see below, the word “대학교” is written as “大학교.” Note that “학” and “교” do have Hanja equivalents – but because they haven’t been introduced yet, they are not shown. If a word has a letter than be represented using a Hanja character, most of the time the other characters can be represented using Hanja characters as well. One of the main exceptions to this is “하다” – which is found in many (many!) Hanja words – but “하다” itself cannot be represented using Hanja.

Common Words using this Character
大학교 = university
확大하다 = to expand, zoom
大통령 = president


= = Small
(Korean name:
작을 )

As with “大,” this character is very common in restaurants or stores to indicate the size of an item. While common in these applications, most words that use this character are difficult.

In order to draw this, we need to learn another stroke-order rule:

  • 4) Draw minor strokes last.
    Therefore, the first stroke of this character should be the major line in the middle:

Lesson 1 pic5

Followed by the two ticks on both sides:

Lesson 1 pic6

Common Words using this Character:
小규모 = small scale
축小하다 = to minimize
小인 = a child (small person)


= = Middle
(Korean name:
가운데 )

This is one of the easiest characters to recognize because it is a box with a stroke through the middle of it. Along with 大 and 小, you will find 中 in stores to indicate the size of an item. The direct translation of “China” in Chinese is “middle country,” which explains why you will see this character all over China and Chinese food restaurants.

In order to draw this, we need to learn more stroke-order rules:

  • 5) If drawing a box: draw the left side first, followed by the top and right side (in one stroke) and enclose it with the bottom line last, and
  • 6) Draw major intersecting lines after drawing the components it will intersect
    Therefore, the major stroke down the middle should be done last. The first thing we need to do is draw the box, which should be done by following rule #5 above

Lesson 1 pic7

Following that, the stroke down the middle should be made:

Lesson 1 pic8

Common Words using this Character:
中국 = China
中학교 = middle school
中앙 = the center/middle
中급 = intermediate/mid-level
中 = grammatical principle introduced in Lesson 33
= Also used as the present progressive: 공사中 = under construction/being constructed

Now that you know 小, 中 and 大, I want to share a story with you. One day, I went to the store to buy onions. At the store, there was a big pile of onions, some in smaller bags, some in medium sized bags, and some in very big bags. The prices were listed as:

小 1950 원
中 2500 원
大4000 원

Although somebody could probably figure this out without the knowledge of these characters, Korea is always ambiguous as a foreigner – and having the confidence of knowing exactly what the prices of these onions were made me happy. At that time, I wondered to myself “What if I didn’t know the meaning of these characters?”


= = Mountain
(Korean name:

This is also one of the easiest characters for people to learn (and especially to recognize) because the meaning is depicted in the actual character. All the stroke-order rules from above still apply. Note that it technically makes no difference if you start with middle line or the line on the left (which then continues to the bottom line). In cases where it is ambiguous as to which stroke you should start with, it doesn’t really matter where you begin. In fact, the stroke order is slightly different in Japanese, Chinese and Korean customs. Therefore, depending on who you ask in times like this – you might get different answers as to the correct stroke-order. However, my Hanja dictionary indicates that the middle line should be drawn first, so that is how I will present it:

Lesson 1 pic9You will see this character all the time on information signs directing people to various mountains. Most mountain names in Korean are named “__ __ 산.” For example:

설악山 = Seol-ak mountain
북한山 = Buk-han mountain
부山 = the city of Busan
울山 = the city of Ulsan



= = Door
(Korean name:
문을 )

Many of the famous sightseeing attractions in Seoul are old “gates” (doors) around the city. The names of these attractions/gates in Korea are usually “___ ___ 문.”

In order to draw this, we need to learn another stroke-order rule:

  • 7) When drawing a box with contents inside, draw the outline of the box (left, top and right) first, then finish the contents within the box before enclosing it with the bottom stroke.
    Therefore, the lines within the two boxes should be written before their respective closing strokes.

Lesson 1 pic11

Common Words using this Character:
門 = door
창門 = window
동大門 = Dongdaemun (major area in Seoul, refers to the “big east door/gate”
남大門 = Namdaemun (major area in Seoul, refers to the “big south door/gate”
광화門 = Gwang-hwa-mun (another major area/gate in Seoul)

These first five characters will get you started in your pursuit of learning Hanja. As the lessons continue, you will start learning more and more difficult characters.

Okay, I got it! Take me to the next lesson! Or,
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