Was Seoul always called Seoul?

Should this be “Greetings Gyeongseong, we are Gyeongseongers”?

Even Old New York, was once New Amsterdam. Why they changed it I can’t say. People just liked it better that way! -They Might Be Giants

So go the lyrics in the chorus of a popular song about the name change of the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). The quote can easily be remedied with minimal research. Wikipedia says that in 1664, New Amsterdam was surrendered to the British and renamed “New York”. So we have the reason and the date.

What does this have to do with Korea at all?

Plenty, actually.  You see, I live in a city called Seoul.  It is unique in that it is a major place name in Korea that cannot be written in Chinese characters.  Busan is 釜山 (“Cauldron Mountain”), Gwangju is 光州 (“Light State”), and Pyongyang is 平壌 (“Peace Land”).  Seoul, on the other hand can only be written in Hangeul, or phonetically.  In Korea, Seoul is written as 서울.  Outside of Korea it’s usually written as Seoul.  Japanese cities all have Chinese characters, so the Japanese get around the problem by writing the name of Seoul in katakana (ソウル) , as they write the names of other cities that don’t have official Chinese characters.

What about the Chinese?  Don’t they HAVE to use Chinese characters to write the name of the city?

In 2005, Korea wanted to make a Chinese-specific name for Seoul, and came up with 首尔 (uh… “you first”?  That might be a strange name for a city, but the characters weren’t chosen for meaning, but for sound in Mandarin Chinese.)  Shǒu’ěr is how it would be pronounced in Chinese.  Before 2005, they simply called it by an old name, 漢城 (er… “Chinese City”).

(Edit: Dear commenters. I KNOW that 漢城 was never intended to mean Chinese City. I’m just saying that this is what it translates as in current meanings of the characters. Stop arguing with me about what it might have meant in the past.)

So wait, Seoul wasn’t always the name of the city?

No, not at all.

During the Japanese colonial era, the name for the city was Keijo 京城 (“Capital City”), pronounced “Gyeongseong” in Korean.  Before that, it was called Hanseong 漢城 (“Chinese City”) and also Hanyang 漢陽 (“Chinese Light?”)  The city wasn’t always the capital of the country, so it is quite understandable that the city’s name changed.


Edit July 26, 2013: I’ve translated Hanseong 漢城 as”Chinese City” which might suggest that I think this name was given to the city out of deferential respect to Korea’s historically more powerful neighbor to the north, but the city was named after the river it sits on, the Han river.  Another translation of  漢城 could be “City on the Han river.” But then we have to ask ourselves how the river got its name to answer the question of whether this is in deference to the Chinese.  I don’t feel like researching that, but there is a movement to change the name of the river漢川 (Chinese River) to 韓川 (Korean River).

Well, what does Seoul mean then if it can’t be written in Chinese Characters?

Absolutely nothing!  Okay, that’s actually not totally true.  The best answer I have heard is that the name Seoul is an abbreviation of an ancient (meaning pre-Chinese domination of Asia) Korean word that means capital city.  It’s an indigenously Korean word from the time before Chinese Characters infiltrated the Korean language.  I have a little trouble believing this, however, because Hangeul was made in the 1300’s, long after Chinese characters had infiltrated the language.  How would anyone have had any record of this ancient word?  If such a record exists, it would have had to have been written in Chinese Characters!  And these characters’ pronunciations can change over time.  So at best, “Seoul” is the current reading of Chinese Characters that were used hundreds or thousands of years ago to approximate the pronunciation of an ancient Korean word.   That’s not too accurate if you ask me, but then again, my understanding of investigative linguistics for languages without writing systems (as Korean was in ancient times) is sorely limited.

So anyway, when did Seoul become the name of the city, and why?

This is the problem that I’ve been having for quite a while.  I’ve asked many many many people about when the name Seoul came into effect, and what the reasons were.  Most Koreans that I have asked simply don’t know or don’t care.  Those who claim to know can’t give me a straight answer, or give me false answers.  An answer I am looking for would have the date and the reason.  Unfortunately, nobody seems to know the exact date, and the reasons are varied.

This letter from a British POW says he’s in Keijo, Chosen, Japan.

It’s pretty clear that the Japanese officially changed the name from Hanseong to Keijo 京城 (Gyeongseong).  Afterall, the city was the “Capital City” of their newly acquired colony, and calling the city “Chinese City” might only have lead to confusion.  Japan was already calling it’s own capital Tokyo 東京 (“East Capital”) instead of its original name, Edo.  Their former capital Kyoto京都 (“Capital District”).   It made sense in that calling the city “Capital City” wouldn’t confuse people with the names of their already established capitals.  This name change happened in 1910, when Korea officially became a colony of Japan. (Again, date and reason.. pretty clear.)

So.. here’s where the hard part comes, finding out who chose the name Seoul, when, why, and when the name was officially changed.

Here’s how a typical conversation has gone when I ask for clarification on the matter, even from graduate level history professors.  This isn’t a real conversation I’ve actually had, but it might as well be, as this is how they often go down.

Me:  Why is this city named Seoul, and when did it start being called Seoul?

Professor:  Seoul is an indigenous Korean word.  It is so unique that it can only be written in Hangul.  It is a totally Korean word.

Me: Yes, I know that, but why is the city named Seoul, and when did it start being called Seoul?

Professor:  It can’t be written in Chinese Characters and it comes from an original Korean word that meant capital.

Me: Yes, I know that, but why is the city named Seoul and when did it start being called Seoul?

Professor:  It’s an ancient word, from before the time that Chinese characters came to have an influence on all Korean words.  You see, almost all Korean nouns are actually based on Chinese characters.  Train, for example is “Ki-cha” which means “machine car”.  Baseball, for example is “Ya-gu” which means “field ball”.

Me:  Yes, I understand, but why is the city named Seoul and when did it start being called Seoul?

Professor:  Well, the city was called Gyeongseong before, when the Japanese were here, and before that, it was called Hanseong, and Hanyang.


Professor: Well…  It’s a native Korean word.. and.. (etc)

As you can see, nobody I have come in contact with seems to know about it.

The OBVIOUS answer would seem to be that the name Seoul was crafted after the Japanese were defeated in 1945 so that Koreans wouldn’t have continued to call their capital city by a Japanese name.  The Korean from the Ask a Korean blog gave me an answer that pretty much said just that.   (I later found this answer to be not completely true.)



A 1937 US immigration document called the city Seoul, Chosen

How is it not true?

Well, while researching for a totally unrelated topic, I came across the picture to the left.  As you can see, an American document from the era that Japan was in control of Korea calls the city Seoul.  Perhaps the Americans were smelling that war was coming soon and called it Seoul to spite the Japanese.  But, this at least proves that the name was older than 1945.

This map made by the Japan Tourist Bureau has both names.

Another document, a tourist map made by the Japan Tourist Bureau, shows both names, further suggesting that Seoul isn’t a name made by revolutionaries or members of the independence movement, if a Japanese government agency is willing to use it.

So it’s pretty clear that the “when” answer to the question is sometime between 1910 and 1937 at the latest.

(Edit:  Thanks to some new information from an anonymous reader, it appears the name Seoul is much much older, even being used as early as 1882 in a New York Times article! So, the when question is pushed back much earlier, and now perhaps the idea that the city was going by the name Hanseong at the time could be false.)

Even if we accept that Koreans didn’t like the name Gyeongseong (which we don’t know for sure).  The question remains, why did they change it to Seoul?  If the purpose was to remove Japanese influence, then why didn’t they just go back to what the city was originally called, Hanseong?  My speculative guess would be that this is because they wanted to have a name for the capital city that had no foreign influence, so as to project the idea of true independence.  Though again, this is speculative.  Nobody seems to be able to explain it to me.

I also used to question why the Gyeongseong name has lived on.  There’s still a Gyeongseong High School, for example.  The road between Seoul and Busan is called the Gyeongbu expressway (Gyeong for Gyeongseong, Bu for Busan).  However, I’ve decided that the name of a high school is a lot different than the name for a capital city, and calling the road Gyeongbu means it goes from the capital to Busan, not necessarily that the capital is named Gyeongseong.  (This would be similar to how people call the beltway around Washington, DC as “The Capital Beltway”.)

Well, this is still a mystery to me, so if ANYONE can give me any insight, that sheds light on the situation, I’d be eternally grateful.  (I’ve already checked the wikipedia page, there isn’t any information about exactly when the name Seoul was made, but it lists speculations about its etymology.  We know for sure that the name was officially changed to Seoul sometime between 1945 and 1948, when the Republic of Korea was founded with Seoul listed as its capital.)


44 Responses to “Was Seoul always called Seoul?”

  1. Gina Joy Says:

    You need to find out how old that song is about the guy who could ride a horse to Seoul and bring back silk shoes.

  2. I’ve already asked myself why Seoul is called like that because on my books I’ve noticed that there aren’t chinese ideograms for Seoul but a -. Same question about the name of the country, why Korea isn’t called Hanguk all around the world? Fortunately I easily found an answer to this one.
    Doing my researchers on why Seoul is called like that I can only think about a changing pronunciation as time passed by.
    Someone suggests that the word Seoul derives from the Silla kingdom. Silla was written with chinese ideograms that in Korean sounded like Seorabeol. Then the pronunciation of Seorabeol might have been changed into Syeobeul 셔블 which means “royal capital city” and then into Syeoul 셔울 and finally into Seoul 서울.
    Phonetical changes are very common in living languages that’s why I think this is the most believable reason why Seoul is called like that but actually I’m still wandering why this word has been chosen suddenly in 1948. Maybe because it was called like that from all people except from medias?

    Ah…! Hangul hasn’t been invented in 1300 but in 1443 personally by king Sejong 세종 and some linguists but it was called Hunmin chongum (“right sounds to educate people”). The word Hangul has been invented in 1913 by Ju Si-Gyeong 주시경 and accepted in 1932.

    • LOL thats what I got when I researched about it XD but I wasn’t sure if it was reliable :S Yeah, I get questions too lol

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Melly, you’re a cunning linguist! Yes, I’ve heard the theory about Seorabeol for Silla’s capital. That’s probably what I believe the most as for the origin of the city’s name. It still doesn’t answer the question when the name started to be used, and for what purpose.

      Someone suggested that I ask my old professor from my undergrad days. I’m tempted to at this point.

  3. I did a bit of surfing and tried to find the origins of Seoul. There isn’t any exact reference to where the name came from. There’s only different type of theories about how the name Seoul originated :S…

    Not sure, (pretty much making it up) but I think Seoul was just another word to describe the capital city… because the name came out of nowhere. Still, there is a record of the word being used in 1882 like in your blog lol

    Wow this was a very interesting and brain hurting(in a good way=D) blog post haha since I never asked myself this question :S

  4. Oh, interesting!
    I’ve never wondered why Seoul is used in pure Korean unlike other cities’ name in Korea..!

  5. in a book that gave me the KBS on the historicity of Korea (very brief) explain that during the time of the great empires of capital changes its place as the king that the governor at that time.
    Which is not very confusing ago

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      The time of the great empires? Do you mean 대한제국? So during that period is when Seoul got its name?

  6. You are really self-righteous to think that you know more about Korean history than a Korean professor. Just because things aren’t written does not mean that they don’t exist. There are many languages that have died out as a result of no written language, but they still remain in the minds of speakers. Oral language existed before written language, so that does not invalidate the claims of the professor. Why are names adopted? Because people just decide to for some reason. Some names are so old that people forget how they were created, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      This is just trolling at it’s finest. I’ll go through your points one by one only because I am amused.

      You are really self-righteous to think that you know more about Korean history than a Korean professor.
      I never made that claim. I only said that the professor couldn’t answer my question.

      Just because things aren’t written does not mean that they don’t exist.
      What did I say doesn’t exist?

      There are many languages that have died out as a result of no written language, but they still remain in the minds of speakers.
      If they have speakers, then they have not died out. I don’t even understand what you are talking about.

      Oral language existed before written language, so that does not invalidate the claims of the professor.

      What claims? I asked a when and why question. He didn’t answer when, nor did he answer why. I don’t dispute anything else he said, so I don’t know why you think I am trying to invalidate him.

      Why are names adopted? Because people just decide to for some reason.

      Do you mind telling me what that reason is? That’s what I’ve been trying to find out! Is it a closely guarded secret or something?

      Some names are so old that people forget how they were created, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

      I know they exist. I don’t think I’ve ever disputed that. In fact, in the article itself I’ve demonstrated that the name Seoul has existed much longer than anyone previously thought. What I want to know is WHEN exactly the name was made, and why they decided to go with Seoul instead of keeping it Gyeongseong, or reverting to Hanseong. That’s all. If you’ve got any insight on any of that, please, be my guest and explain.

  7. Sometimes, names are so old that the reason for them is forgotten. Sometimes, things are just unknown. But you can’t accept that. You have to find a reason for everything or else it is invalid. History gets forgotten. That is part of life.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      No, I have to find a reason for everything because I am curious and inquisitive. There isn’t anything invalid about it. I don’t know what your problem is. Why do you hate me so much? Did some guy on the internet using an alias similar to mine hurt your pride?

  8. Hi. Great post. I’ve been been wondering about the name of Seoul too.

    First, I would like to comment on the name Hanseong.

    The meaning of the character ‘Han’ (Hanseong) has changed in meaning throughout the years. In the past it was in reference to the Han dynasty and synonymous with ‘large’ or ‘mighty’ or something to that extent. The Han river was therefore the mighty river and Hanseong meant the city on the mighty river. The character Han was used throughout the sinetic world and didn’t carry the ethnic connotation it does today. In the 19th century concepts such as race and ethnicity came to China from the West and Japan and early Chinese nationalists selected the word ‘Han’ as the name for the newly conceptualized ‘Han’-Chinese race.

    The new ethnic meaning of Han naturally leads people to conclude Hanseong means ‘city of the han-Chinese,’ and certainly was one of the main reasons Seoul asked China to stop using that name. It’s not hard to see how calling Seoul ‘Hanseong’ can reinforce the habit by many Chinese to see Korean history as nothing but a tributary vassal state. Of course the Chinese name change came a sensitive time in China – Korea relations (Kokuryo and Dano-o festival issues) and many Chinese were offended and saw the removal of ‘Han’ as some anti-Chinese thing. The Chinese press didn’t do a good job explaining that Hanseong had not been the name of Seoul for over 100 years and some Chinese believed Seoul was changing it’s name to sound more English..

    Anways, this is neither here nor there on where the word Seoul actually came from. If i had to guess I would say that Seoul was used by locals in tandem with the more official names of Gyeongseong and Hanseong. Nationalist will always want to believe that Seoul is a name rooted deeply in Korean history, but I doubt it. The use of Seoul in that 1882 newspaper is really confusing though. Korea was a closed kingdom at the time with almost zero contact with the West. The West furthermore has not always cared so much about the correct names of places around the world…

    If Seoul does indeed come from the old Korean word for capital, maybe the same time Westerners started calling Korea ‘Corea’ they also used the word Seoul and transmitted it back later. Would have to research and see if Seoul pops up on any old French documents or whatever. The outside influence on the name of Seoul would definitely be something people would want to forget. Also, the main antagonists at the time of the official name change of Seoul were the Japanese and the Chinese. If Seoul was being used by Westerners yet originally from some old Korea word then I don’t see why it wouldn’t be considered. Its almost like some present day nationalists in Taiwan which want to name changed to Formosa…

    Anways, even though this probably isn’t what happened, I do love a good conspiracy…

    • Anonymous Says:

      Nice additional information on the word “Han” and I want to add to that by explaining the earlier name of the city “Hanyang 漢陽”.

      Although the “陽” – “yang” here derives from “陰-陽” “ying – yang”, which can mean “darkness – brightness”, it did not mean “light” or “sun” here.

      In ancient China (probably before Han Dynasty), “ying” and “yang” were used to mean “south” and “north” respectively in naming cities, typically along a river. Eg. 洛陽, 淮陽…

      Therefore “漢陽” would translate to “North of the Han River”. Hope you find this little info of interest 🙂

  9. You have posted on other forums under “Seoul Searching”. You pretended to be a Korean British girl at one point. It’s undeniable. The tone and voice of your writing is the same. And then, you send a bunch of trolls to that forum.

  10. The name “Seoul” meant “capital” from the 15-th century, as it can be seen in Yongbiŏch’ŏnga. During that time it was pronounced like “Syofŭl”; unfortunately I can’t write the original name because old Korean is not a part of Unicode

  11. Folks could the answer simply not be staring us in the face? Korea is where approximately 40% of all the worlds megaliths used to lie. In recent years a large portion of these have ignorantly been destroyed for road building etc. Ask yourself what acient people also used megaliths. Ask yourself if you think these people were spiritual? Ask you self what happens when you die? where does your seoul (soul) go? Does it join the spiritual world? It’s funny how in traditional korean music they have a instrument just like the irish bodhran, except it is double sided…. Free your mind people

  12. seo…

    […]Was Seoul always called Seoul? « Eugene is huge![…]…

  13. I came across your blog looking for the same answer. But because I had read that “Seoul” derives from “Srivasti”, the name of an ancient Indian city in which the Gautama Buddha spent much of his time. “Srivasti” became the Chinese “Sarobol” which became “Seoul”. You can find this theory on some websites about Buddhism in Korea. I like the theory, love it that that Ancient India – Modern Korea link might exist.

    • That is certainly a connection worth exploring because there is a theory that one of the ancient queens was from India. Look it up I don’t feel like researching right now. The name is also based on the word Soraebol which was the name of the capital of that kingdom if I am not mistaken.

  14. There are several inaccuracies in your blog post. As a previous commenter noted, Hanseong/Hanyang does not translate into “Chinese City” or “Chinese Light”, but rather, “City on the Han River” and “North of the Han RIver” — Han, in this case, gaining its meaning from a more archaic meaning of the character that means great or large. Contrary to what you (or others) might believe, these names do not bear influence from China.

    Furthermore, as previously mentioned, “Seoul” derives from an ancient Shilla word meaning capital city, “Seorabeol”. That name was used for Shilla’s capital cities, including, most notably, the city today known as Gyeongju. “Seorabeol” went through several transformations throughout history before settling on “Seoul” by the time the Joseon Dynasty rolled around, when the name was appropriated by that dynasty’s capital city.

    As a side note, I have no idea why you would doubt the existence of native words, simply because Hangul wasn’t invented until the 1400s (despite the fact that there was a way to write these words down in classical Sinic script). For someone who appears intelligent, I’m confused as to how it would escape you that languages are spoken and thus passed down orally. Yes pronunciations and sounds change, but this happens in all languages.

    What you should know about place names in pre-modern Korea is that they were not always so static as they are today. During the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul was known officially and ceremonially as both Hanyang and Hanseong. Informally, it was referred to as Gyeongseong,which, as you pointed out, means capital city – the Japanese did not make this name up, as you posit; they merely adapted one of the city’s name when they colonized the country. This is also why Gyeongseong is not politically charged, as you might expect, and is still used in certain contexts to refer to Seoul, as you mention. Colloquially, the city was long referred to as Seoul. These names were generally interchangeable. In 1948, following World War II and its independence from Japan, the government decided to make Seoul the official name of the city, considering that it is a native Korean word and one that was already in use both by its own citizens, and by those outside the country (as evidenced by the 1882 NYT article).

    • Hi there. I appreciate the analysis of my article, however I stand by my translation of Hanseong as Chinese City. I agree that it is based on the name of the river, but I have yet to stumble upon any information as to how the greatest river in Korea got its name. It is clear that the river was called other things in the past. While I don’t suggest anywhere in my blog post that any Chinese influence went into naming the city Hanseong or Hanyang, which you incorrectly assumed, I am open to the possibility that the river’s name has Chinese influence. The purpose of translating the characters for this blog post was to show what these places mean, and given what the characters literally mean, that’s how I translated it. Perhaps I should add something that includes this information.

      I do not doubt the existence of native words. I doubt that we can know exactly how they were pronounced. Please read what I wrote below.

      ” So at best, “Seoul” is the current reading of Chinese Characters that were used hundreds or thousands of years ago to approximate the pronunciation of an ancient Korean word. That’s not too accurate if you ask me, but then again, my understanding of investigative linguistics for languages without writing systems (as Korean was in ancient times) is sorely limited.”

      I acknowledge that my knowledge of the subject is limited. But I stand by my doubt because given a specific chinese character, it is difficult to know how people pronounced it before hangul because there were no tape recorders and there is no alphabet to show us how it was pronounced. Certainly the meaning of a character can remain static over time, but pronunciation likely won’t.

      With an alphabet, however, we can know how things used to be pronounced, especially if there was no standardized spelling, but even if there is, we can still know how certain words were pronounced ages ago.

      Take the English word “knife” for example. Why is there a k? Without researching the true answer (because I don’t have time) I would surmise that either in ancient English, the k was pronounced, or it comes as a loan word from another language (perhaps German) in which the K is pronounced, but the English dropped it for some reason.

      So to reiterate, I know that native Korean words exist. I don’t know that we know exactly how they were pronounced, but we can guess based on what we know about how characters might have been pronounced. As Hangul hadn’t been invented until the 1300s guessing how Chinese Characters would have been pronounced pre-Hangul would be difficult (but I acknowledge, not impossible).

      I don’t think I suggested that the Japanese made up the name Gyeongseong, but that they made it the official name for the city. I don’t know for sure that they didn’t, but I can accept that it might have been used informally before 1905 in the same way that “The Nation’s Capital” is used in America to mean Washington DC. “The Nations Capital” is not an official name.

      The point of the post is that Korea, which seems to be very prideful of its history does not have any information about this published (at least in English) and most Koreans don’t seem to know either… including history professors. But then again, if someone were to ask me when Washington DC began to be called Washington DC, I wouldn’t be able to tell them.. but I would be able to quickly look it up.

      Thank you for your insight, but the origin of the name Seoul remains a mystery beyond very vague explanations. For the record, I was aware of the Seorabeol explanation before I wrote this article, but did not include it because that’s not the answer to my question. My question is not “What is the origin of the name ‘Seoul’?”. My question is “Why is this city named Seoul, and when did it become Seoul?” Meaning, why did they decide to change it from what it was previously called, and what is the earliest that the name was in use.

      From my limited research for that article, we found that the when is 1882 or earlier. The why is unknown except for speculations that people had always called it that (or a parent word like Seorabeol) interchangeably with whatever the official name was, or revolutionaries wanted a name that removes all foreign influence (foreign influence meaning that it can be written with Chinese Characters.)

      Your continued readership is appreciated.

      • I’m not exactly sure where your confusion about the pronunciation of native Korean words comes from. There are multiple ways to record pronunciation literally; for example, before there was Hangul, there was Hyangchal, Gugyeol, Idu: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idu_script, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyangchal, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gugyeol

        As an aside, perhaps it should be noted that in Korean, the actual meaning of a name is more important than its pronunciation. For example, there is ample evidence that the name of the ancient kingdom today known as “Shilla” would most likely have been pronounced something along the lines of “Saro” or “Sara” — however, the modern rendering of the characters that comprise that kingdom’s name is “Shilla”, and so that is what we use today to refer to the kingdom.

        In response to your question, “Why is this city named Seoul, and when did it become Seoul?” — please read this (if you’re able to read Korean). http://blog.daum.net/_blog/BlogTypeView.do?blogid=08wbd&articleno=15968155&categoryId=426917&regdt=20100429153828#ajax_history_home

        I believe your doubt is founded on the belief that the generally accepted explanation for the name “Seoul” is merely speculative, when it is not. There are historical records that explain the nature of the word Seoul (which I outlined in my previous post) — the blog post above references the Samguk Yusa. It is general knowledge (for example, among individuals who were alive during the Japanese Occupation period, and would have use Seoul, Gyeongseong, and Keijo all interchangeably) that Seoul was always the colloquial name for the capital city.

        I hope this answers your questions.

        • Hi, thanks for posting again.

          I think you are having an issue understanding what I meant.

          I’ll try to state it more simply.

          1. “Seoul” is touted as an indigenous Korean word. As such, it can’t be written in Hancha… at least not in any way that gives it any meaning.
          2. By default if it can’t be written in Hancha, logic suggests that only Hangul is adequate.
          3. Hangul was invented in the 1300s.
          4. The name Seoul postulated to be derived from an ancient Korean word, Sorabeol, which predates Hangul.
          5. The only way to transcribe Sorabeol would be to use Hancha. [the page you linked to on wikipedia supports this: “Hyangchal (literally vernacular letters or local letters) is an archaic writing system of Korea and was used to transcribe the Korean language in hanja. Under the hyangchal system, Chinese characters were given a Korean reading based on the syllable associated with the character.”]
          6. The pronunciation of a chinese character can change over time, while the character itself remains unchanged in how it is written.
          7. Through the use of logic, we can only be certain that Seorabeol, is A pronunciation, not THE pronunciation of the Chinese Characters used to write it.
          8. That pronunciation in previous periods was likely different. (you illustrate that yourself, suggesting that Shilla might have been called Saro or Sara.

          Going back to my original statement:
          ” So at best, “Seoul” is the current reading of Chinese Characters that were used hundreds or thousands of years ago to approximate the pronunciation of an ancient Korean word. That’s not too accurate if you ask me.”

          To dissect that statement, in a nutshell. “Seoul” or “Sorabeol” as we would read it today likely isn’t how the word was pronounced in ancient times, so to suggest it is a pure untouched Korean word, free from foreign influence (especially when it required Hancha to write before Hangul existed) is folly.

          I will concede the point though because this article doesn’t mean to suggest that the only correct way to pronounce something is to use its archaic pronunciation. The only purpose of that statement was to say that if it is a native word that means capital, and if this is a point of pride, then surely the modern reading of characters chosen 1000s of years ago to approximate how it sounded back then gives us little insight as to how it may have been pronounced in the past. Thereby, it is not a word untouched by foreign influence (if you are of the belief that use of Chinese Characters is foreign influence… but if you are not, which is totally okay, then not having Chinese Characters isn’t special at all.)

          I see in the second thing you linked that they refer to Hanyang as the “New Seoul” which if Seoul isn’t a name, but merely a word meaning capital, makes perfect sense. Later it says that in the 1940s the name of the city was officially mandated as Seoul by the US Military Government following WW2.

          What my article establishes though is that the name was used long before then. So officially we know it became Seoul in the 1940’s.

          But now you (and what you linked) are suggesting that it has been called Seoul colloquially since the capital was moved here a long long time ago. I can accept that. It’s certainly more concise than any other answer I have ever gotten.

          So it’s called Seoul because it is the capital, and it became Seoul colloquially once the capital was moved here. Fine..

      • I admire your persistent quest to find an answer to your question about the name “Seoul,” despite all of the cloudiness of foreign influences, the lack of a native writing system (especially an alphabetic system rather than a pictographic writing system). Without any formal education in linguistics, all I have is my obsessive curiosity and voracious appetite for Korean history and language to back up my thoughts/musings, which I hope add to your discussion about the name Seoul, as well as its other appellations. So here are my two cents:

        The name Seoul seems to be indeed a native Korean word, likely very different from its root, which evolved over hundreds, if not thousands of years. This process of change is natural in all languages, and for us English speakers, all we need to do is look at an original version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English, to see how much words, their spellings, and their pronunciations can change over time. English words were influenced by both internal and external forces, such as the influence of French on the English language since the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. Not only were many Latin-derived words incorporated into the English language, but the pronunciation of preexisting English words was also probably affected by the foreign invasion. Even though we use (generally) the same alphabet as was used at that time, linguists know that our modern pronunciations of English words differs sometimes significantly from before. Thus is the natural evolution of languages. A similar process likely occurred with the name Seoul, though as you point out, probably more significantly so because of the awkward use of Chinese characters to approximate native Korean words. Not only do the pronunciations of those characters change over time, but the pronunciations of those characters vary significantly depending on which part of China they are used. Additionally, whatever regional Chinese pronunciation was adopted, it was adapted to the native tongue of the Koreans of the time, much the way English speakers adapted the pronunciation of words like champagne (French pronunciation shamPANye). With all of those factors, even with all of the linguists’ theories about where the word Seoul came from and how it was pronounced, I have little faith that we can discover what the original native Korean word was or sounded like. Therefore, it’s only intellectual masturbation (which I quite enjoy), that we are able to do with this issue.

        I also have encountered a similar vagueness about the meaning and origins of the name Seoul when I ask Koreans. The only thing that Korean people consistently respond to that question is that it is a “purely Korean” (not originally coming from adopted Chinese words) and that it means capital. People do not assert that it specifically refers to the current capital of South Korea, but only that it means “capital” in the general sense.

        Regarding the other names of the city, it is indeed a sore point for Koreans that the name has been called 漢城, 漢陽, and 京㙎. Hanseong and Hanyang, whether they refer to the Han River or not, are almost certainly referring to China. Other interpretations of the character Han likely come from the fact the China was considered “great.” Also the Han River used to be used as a trade route for trade with China. It is not currently used as such because the mouth of the river is at the border of North and South Korea. Perhaps that is why the name of the river refers to China. It is important to note, however, that the Han River was called 대수 带水 by the Han Chinese commanderies during the Three Kingdoms Period, 아리수 阿利水 by Goguryo, 욱리하 郁里河 by Baekche, and 아하 泥河 by Unified Silla. We see the name Han River during the Chosun Dynasty, which came about after the Koryo Dynasty, trying to legitimate itself by making a close relationship with Ming China, even making neo-Confucianism the state “religion.” At that time, emphasis on the relationship with China was extremely important for establishing the power and legitimacy of the new regime, exploiting the Sino-centric international system of the time. In modern-day Korea, that archaic relationship is no longer relevant. In the current modern context, the implication of the name Han River and Han City do the opposite of their original intention centuries ago, and now they undermine the independent legitimacy of South Korea. Therefore, there are many reasons for doing away with the names Hanseong, Hanyang, Keijo, and Kyeongseong, as well as changing the Chinese character for Han of Han River to the character Han meaning Korea. Hanseong not only implies that the city is Chinese, but also the character 城 성, which we now translate as walled city or castle, used to actually mean city of a vassal state. Keijo or Kyeongseong, despite meaning capital, still imply a subservient status to the city. This is why we do not see that character used for ANY of the capital cities in China or Japan, and this is also why calling Seoul “Keijo” was of no threat to Japan – it was a capital city, but as a vassal capital to the greater empire of Japan.

        It is interesting that nobody in Korea can clearly describe the etymology of the word Seoul, but the response and the core sense of the word as being a native word for capital is so consistent. We have not idea how far back the use of the word pronounced Seoul (not Seorabol, Syeul, or any other variant) goes. Though we have written proof of its use in 1882, this means that it was likely used in the vernacular as the word for capital for a while before that. It is a daunting, if not impossible task to find when the Korean word for capital took on the current pronunciation of Seoul, but I admire your diligent and persistent search. Whenever the name/word arose, I understand why South Koreans feel it is so important for their nation’s capital to be called as such.

        To Yujin the Giant, good luck in your search. I will be following to see what treasures of information you find!


  15. Just came across this post while I was asking the same question. Really good, detailed post! The Japanese tourism guide is particularly interesting. I hope I can find out more about it in Seoul as there doesn’t seem to be much written about it in English.

  16. You know, for kids! Says:

    I suspect that Seoul was a common name for Hanseong even before the name was changed to Gyeongseong/Keijo.

    For example, the capital of the Ottoman Empire was Constantinople, but most people called it Istanbul. The official name was later changed to reflect popular usage. Even before that, Byzantium’s name was Nova Roma (New Rome), but since it became associated with Constantine, it was popularly called Constantinople (Constantine’s city). The name was changed to Constantinople later, but the term Constantinople existed before it was changed to it.

  17. The hanja 漢 does not mean Chinese. Of course if you open a modern dictionary of Chinese and flip over to its definitions it will say ‘Chinese’, but that is a meaning you will only find in a modern dictionary. Meanings of Chinese characters are not fixed but do in fact shift over time.
    Originally the graph was used as the name of a river (yes, also called the han river. Also explaining the water radical on the left of the character), and consequently it was attached to a dynasty which started off as a small state near that river. It was not till modern history that this graph came to denote the chinese people themselves (before that the Chinese just called themselves people and everyone else barbarians…)
    Thus when this graph was used to name the hangang river that passes Seoul, the meaning Chinese was definitely not what people had in mind. More likely it was used as a transcription of a native word ‘han’ meaning strong or big.

  18. Seoul ‘s 漢城 doesn’t mean ‘Chinese city’.

    In Korean word ‘Han’ is meaning ‘big’ or ‘king’ or ‘great’.

    And that Chinese letter just sound of writing, mark.

    So correct meaning of Han seong (漢城) is not ‘Chinese city’, it means ‘Big city’.

    • Past The ‘Han river’ was called ‘Ari river’. and ‘Ari’ meaning in korean word is ‘big’.
      Han river, Ari river same means big river or great river in English.

      And ancient Korean called their king ‘eoraha’ or ‘Kahan, Kan, Han’ same means ‘ big or great’. Same word in Chingiz khan’s khan.

      And now Korean calls Korea ‘Hanguk’. Same means ‘great country’.

      It is difficult to understand Korean writing system to foreigner. but This is right answer.

    • I’ve already addressed this

  19. Hello,

    The definition of “Chinese” in the word “Han” is actually secondary. “Han” is the name of a river in China, 漢水 (“Han River”); the Han Dynasty was named after the river, and the dynasty was later associated with legitimacy, since it was followed with a period of internal division. Every successor state wished to emphasize their connection with the Han Dynasty. Eventually, the word Han came to symbolize the Chinese as a nation.


    • If 漢城 really meant “Chinese City”, it might have been called 華城 or 夏城.

      • Here’s an excerpt from Kang-hsi Dictionary, published in 1716.

        1. Name of a river.

        2. The Milky Way.

        3. Another name for Han-chung, the name of a commandary, established by King Hui of Ch’in.

        4. Han-kou, the name of a place.

        5. Name of a prefecture, belonging to Cheng-tu Municipality.

        6. Half-han, an adjective.

        7. According to “Records of Stop Ploughing”, a modern term for men without nobility or degrees (of academic distinction).

        8. In Goguryeo language, equivalent to “white”. [In the cited source, the word “Han” is only used as a phonetic approximation and does not represent the character 漢.]

  20. […] Was Seoul always called Seoul?. Yujin is huge. […]

  21. I have wondered about the same thing Hendrick Hamel who was in Korea between 1653 and 1666 wrote that the Koreans called their city Sior which was the closest he could write the Korean name in Dutch. Also on old western maps it was sometimes written like that nevertheless Koreans now insist it was Hanyang or Hanseong. I have done a lot of research on both subjects and it leaves me baffled. On the link provided below you can see what proof I have.

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