Why were Chinese characters still used in the 20th century?

Recenty I watched a classic black and white Korean film from 1956, called The Wedding Day. The opening credits, with the name of actors, director and other contributors, were all in Chinese characters.

I have a question here. Since that brilliant king invented (or asked someone to invent) the brilliant hangul alphabet, why are credits in those films still in Chinese characters? And why do Wikipedia articles about Korean artists list the Hanja writing alongside the Korean?

I understand, from what I wrote, that scholars and noblemen still used Chinese as a culture language, much like the Indians use English for snobbish reasons, and like Russians used French, before the Revolution.
But now? This film is from 1956. Were Chinese characters used until then in “official” circumstances?
I know that until recently a number of Chinese characters were taught in school, and in Five Children the teacher gives the kids an assignment to copy 100 times a sentence in Chinese characters.

I also know that hangul simplified the pronounciation, so that many different words which are written differently in Chinese are written the same way in hangul. As in “bae” meaning boat, praying at a Buddhist shrine and many other meanings, wildly different from each other. Alright, one can understand from the context, I suppose, but still why make a system with such “holes” in it?

I’m a bit curious about that.


Interesting question.
Could it be that there was a layman’s and a scholar’s thing that survives until today?
I’d like to know what the native speakers have to say.

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Up until the 80s???
I want to say the official script was like how Japanese works. For things that can be expressed in Chinese characters (cognates) they were and then all the markers were in Korean.

The traditional characters functioned as an intellectual lockout. Despite the fact that the King mandated the common language (what he invented) be tested in the civil service exam to end info lockout. I don’t think it was able to stay past his reign.

I take it as people are mean and wanted to consolidate their power over others so this kept to chinese. Those in power had no incentive to make things easier for the underlings…

p.s. this mixed script basically completely stopped being used day to day around 1900-ish turn of the century.


Maybe it’s a bit like Latin for certain professions?

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Although Hangul was invented soo long ago, it was hard to break through because the Hanja was associated with the Confusian teachings but also with the Elite or Nobles. Here are interesting developments of the language usage. Surprisingly N. Korea adapted Hangul and rejected or banned Hanja much earlier as of 1949. I think also that economical growth has pushed the Hangul forward as it is easier to use and to learn.



I know, I’ve read this article some time ago.
However, see, that film was made in 1956 and all the credits are in Chinese.
And of course, as I said before, many Wikipedia names of Korean people have both Hangul and Hanja, for some mysterious reason.

Oh that is no mystery.
When you register for personhood aka tell the neighborhood government kid has been born there are two blanks. One is for traditional chinese the other blank is for the Korean script.
People are named deliberately based on the traditional characters. Take the Princess Deokhye for example. Her childhood name is Yi Bok Sun (rev rom. pronounced soon).
The Bok is lucky, 福. The pinyin would be fu?
The next character 純 is purity.

Most of us are named this way. Some people have pure Korean names like celebrity Kim Sarang. There are exceptions like that girl who got abducted with 30 characters…

I also have my Korean name from traditional Chinese.


Why is that?
Isn’t it like keeping an abolished status?

it isn’t abolished. Like 90% of Korean consists of Chinese cognates… how can I explain this…


I’m not Korean, so I shouldn’t really have a voice in this, but I am Vietnamese. Pretty much all Asian (not South) used Chinese characters in the historic times because China had so much influence in these countries. Now, to answer your question, I think it had something to do with the end of the Joseon dynasty and the beginning of a revolution (or whatever it’s called when you change from a monarchy to a democracy/have a president). But the Japanese and Chinese still had a strong influence in Korea after WW2, and I believe the Japanese still use Chinese characters, so this might’ve been why Korea still used hanja (Chinese characters). What Sophie said is also correct. Cognates. If the languages had cognates, wouldn’t it make sense to use the same alphabet/writing system? For example, English/Spanish/French are relatively similar to each other, so we use about the same alphabets. Thai/Cambodian sound alike and have cognates, so their writing systems are similar. I think this was the case with Korea using Chinese characters. They had so many cognates and similar words that they just decided to use hanja. And after using hanja for thousands of years, it was normal to use it. This goes for Vietnam as well. We have our own alphabet, but we used to use Chinese characters to write because of the Chinese influence and rule over VN. That’s why I’m able to translate my name into Chinese then to Korean, too.

Hope this helps. :slight_smile:


Traditional Chinese for Asia was the standard script (for about 2 millenia or so in Korea) because there was no other written script. It’s like cyrillic!!! It is like cyrillic!

A lot of Eastern European countries have their own languages yet A LOT A LOT A LOT of countries use cryillic! @irmar I got it!!!


This was an interesting thread to read. (I’m such a language nerd!)

Slightly off topic, but are you a fan of CN Blue??

Oops! Caught. Noooo, er… I just typed any random name that first came to my mind… ehh…

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There is some truth in what everyone has already stated.

The same Hangul word having multiple meanings, which can be clarified Chinese characters, which shows the root meaning behind the word - cognates/like Latin to English;
Thousands of years of Chinese influence;
Scholarly pompousness;
Deeply rooted Confucius/cultural reference in Korean culture/tradition;

I believe it’s still widely used in higher education, along with English.

As for me, the only time I’d go for it is to clarify the meaning when the meaning is a bit ambiguous.

Like sophie said, most Korean names have a Chinese meaning behind it. So it’s important to know how to write your name in Chinese, unless if you have a pure Korean name, such as Sarang, Haneul, Song Yi, etc., which is becoming more and more popular, by the way. But majority of Korean names still have Chinese characters behind it. Even for my son’s Korean name, who isn’t even born in Korea, I wanted to use a pure Korean name but my mother-in-law was against it and gave him more traditional Korean style names with associated Chinese characters that had good meaning behind it.


this is very interesting and I cannot imagine the difficulty, I can read somewhat korean characters they have clear lines and structure, but looking at chinese characters or drawings is just a nightmare for my eyes… how can one memorize so many different drawings of even similar meaning…


All Koreans are required to learn Chinese characters. I hated it when I was young and I lost almost all of it. But even if you don’t know how to read and write the actual Chinese characters, you can still retain the meaning behind it.

For example, the word consider the word 무료 (無料) (Moo Ryo) (“No” Charge/Free). Now, I forgot how to write that in Chinese - I just looked it up and copied and pasted Chinese characters. But I know word Korean word ‘Moo’ has several meanings, and one of them is Moo as in 無 in Chinese, meaning “nothing,” “no,” “non-existing,” etc. Even though I don’t know the actual Chinese character, I know many Korean words that have that word in it - 무자비 (“Moo” Jabi - “No” Mercy or merciless/ruthless), 무죄 (“Moo” Jwe - “Not” guilty/acquitted) , 무책임 (“Moo” Chaekim - “Not” responsible/irresponsible), 무지 (Moo Ji - “No” Intellect/ignorant), 무한도전 (“Moo” Han Do Jun) - Unlimited (“No” Limitation) Challenge or Infinite Challenge), etc.

So you can see that if you know a lot of Korean words and know the meaning behind the root character, you can tell the meaning of the word, even without knowing the actual Chinese character. The same thing with the second character of 무료 Moo “Ryo.” The word 료 or 요 (Ryo or Yo, depending on where this character is positioned in a word), means “fee” or “charge” and even if you don’t know how to write that in Chinese, you can also know the meaning of 요금 (Yo Geum), which is means “charge money” or “fee.”

Here’s another example. 무관 (Moo Gwan) could have several meanings. It could mean irrelevant/ “No relevance” (無關), A military officer position in the olden days (武官), Not holding a position in Court) (無官), or it could also mean No Crown (for the king) (無冠). They are all spelled and pronounced the same way in Korean, and most people can tell the meaning by the context. But if you knew the Chinese root characters behind it, the meaning is really clear and there is no question behind it.

I’ve seen a lot of subbers making mistakes when translating and using another meaning of the same word. So it certainly helps if you knew Chinese. But like I said, if you are fluent in Korean, you can pretty much get by without knowing Chinese.


I take joy looking up words to find the traditional chinese characters. It’s like looking up the etymology of words in English and finding the French, Latin, Greek or Old English roots.
There are many patterns like Ajumma2 just said and I am a master of patterns.
It helps deduce even more. Like more bang per buck?

Korean is a separate language all together so we come across it in the transliteration of cognates mostly. It is also highly contextual.



I agree it’s important to be able to trace the roots of words to understand the meaning, especially if it is an old language that has evolved.

What I don’t get is the need to keep using an older alphabet (in this case, chinese). I’ve read that japanese is difficult to read if you use one alphabet only, but I didn’t know it’s the same for korean! I thought the hangul letters could be used to write a long text, without the need for clarifications.

That sounds more like love of linguistics than everyday need of a second set of letters.
(master of patterns, hehe, this is going to be your nickname now… :wink: )

Ίσως να είναι κάτι σαν το μπέρδεμα καθαρεύουσας - δημοτικής στα δικά μας δημόσια έγγραφα.
(trying to figure it out by using a parallel in greek)


Ναι μόνο που δεν χρειάζεται να μάθεις καινούργιο αλφάβητο! Ούτε καν για τα αρχαία!

Translation for non-Greeks:
Christina was drawing a parallel with Greek. Where you have

  1. ancient Greek,
  2. “katharevousa” (a made-up ancient sounding modern Greek used until 1976 in schools, newspapers, official stuff) and
  3. modern Greek (as actually spoken from 1600 onwards, with some changes of course).

But I was replying that is not the same case, as in Greek languege all three use the very same alphabet, so for us it’s easier. The root words, from ancient Greek, are still used in modern Greek, that’s why ancient Greek cannot be called a dead language.
Not only that, but it’s our OWN alphabet, not the alphabet of some conqueror, so we can proudly use it and cherish it. So I suppose we’re luckier than Koreans.



I was thinking of the chinese characters in terms of words, of vocabulary not letters. Therefore, I found parallels in the usage of words.

But what you’re saying makes sense.