Hangul or Hangeul is the name of the alphabet used by both North and South Koreans today. Many language experts consider Hangul as a highly efficient writing system. Easy to master, when it was first put to use, Hangul was made up of 28 letters. Today’s Hangul only uses 24 letters. Even with the diminished amount of letters, this Korean script is able to communicate anything and everything that Koreans want to express on paper.
The history surrounding this Korean script is quite interesting. Hangul was invented in the royal court of the Choson Dynasty by one of its royals. The creator/promulgator was not just any royalty; he was known as “a great” royal. Koreans owe their native alphabet to King Sejong the Great.
Hangul and its history
Hunmin chong-um, sometimes spelled as Hunminjeongeum, was the original name of Hangul, Korea’s native script. It was created between the years 1443 to 1444 and then proclaimed by the court as the first Korean alphabet in 1446. Other monikers for Hunmin chong-um were Eonmeun or vulgar script and Gukmeun or national writing. Eonmeun was a name given by the intelligentsia because the alphabet was created more for the common people than the educated and the elite. The literal meaning of Hunmin chong-um is “the correct sounds for the instruction of the people” or “right sound to teach people of the nation.”
Before Hangul, Koreans were using Hanja, which was built on Chinese characters. The elite and the educated were well versed in Hanja because they had the means and the access to learning this script. The lower classes, which did not have access to Confucian education, struggled to learn, much less understand Hanja and thus found it difficult to express themselves in writing. Enter the new Korean alphabet, Hangul.
When Hangul was introduced, it featured a block style of writing. Each block had one consonant, at the very least, and one vowel. The blocks were penned in vertical columns to be read from top to bottom. But since its initial introduction, Hangul has morphed in different ways because of the needs of the times. For example, it is common practice to write horizontally beginning at the left side. And, it has also incorporated some Western practices in terms of spacing, punctuation, and grammar.
When Hangul was promulgated, it faced a mountain of opposition from Korean Confucian scholars as well as from the literary elite. These groups believed that only Hanja was acceptable as Korea’s writing system. The distaste and displeasure for the new Korean alphabet by those loyal to the use of Hanja continued on even after its creator, King Sejong passed away. King Yeonsangun, tenth king of the Choson Dynasty, for instance, forbade the people from studying or using Hangul. All Hangul documents were banned in 1504. Another king, King Jungjong, abolished what was known then as the Ministry of Eonmun in 1506. This was a government institution focused on Hangul research.
By the late 16 century and into the 17th century, the country saw a revival of Hangul as it found its use into literature. By the 19th century, during the occupation of Korea by Japanese forces, Hangul was pushed forward by the Japanese in order to sever China’s influence on Korea. From 1894 onwards, official documents, textbooks, newspapers and other written materials featured Hangul characters. However, many of the literary elite still used Chinese characters and a vast number of Koreans remained uneducated during this time.
In 1910, the Japanese were in control of Korea. For the first time in Korea’s history, the Japanese ordered mandatory attendance to public school for Korean children. The children were finally taught Hangul in a formal setting. However, in 1938, the Japanese colonizers banned Korean language from schools. Furthermore, publications written in Korean language were outlawed. This was part of Japan’s attempt to culturally assimilate the Koreans. After the independence of Korea from Japan, Hangul was adopted as the official script of the peninsula.
The Hangul that is in use today is a combination of 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Hanja is still around as both North and South Korea continue to educate their children on the Chinese based script. In South Korea, Hanja is still featured on some official documents. Both North and South Korea celebrate Hangul Day. In North Korea, the celebration falls on January 15 of each year. While in South Korea, October 9 has been designated as Hangul Day.
Hangul’s creator, King Sejong
King Sejong was born on May 6, 1397. He became Grand Prince Chungnyeong when he reached the age of 12. Sejong was the third son of King Taejong of the Choson (Joseon or Chosun) Dynasty. Because of his innate intelligence, the young prince excelled in different fields of study. It was said that his father greatly favored him over his other siblings. Taejong’s eldest son even believed that Sejong would make a better king than he. So, Sejong’s eldest brother acted rudely in court and this led to his eventual banishment. On the other hand, Taejong’s second son entered a Buddhist temple where he subsequently became a monk. After Teojong’s abdication in 1418, the young prince was crowned King Sejong. He was 21 years old when he became the fourth king of the Choson Dynasty, a dynasty that spanned from the years of July 1392 – October 1897. King Sejong died on May 18, 1450 at the age of 53. Sejong was posthumously honored with designation “the Great.” The only other ruler who received this honor was Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo.
As a king, Sejong was a highly respected ruler praised by his subjects for his benevolence, diligence, and his brilliant mind. He has a natural talent for learning and his knowledge of different fields surprised many experts in and outside his court. Advances in agriculture, traditional medicine, engineering, natural science and literature were among the feathers in King Sejong’s cap. King Sejong was credited for improving the country’s defenses against Manchurian invaders and Japanese pirates.
A scholarly king, he was said to have invented a sundial, a water clock and a rain gauge. King Sejong also dabbled in literature. He wrote Songs of Flying Dragons (Yongbi Eocheon Ga), Episodes from the Life of the Buddha (Seokbo Sangjeol) and Songs of the Moon Shining on a Thousand Rivers (Worin Cheon-gang Jigok). The Dictionary of Proper Sino-Korean Pronunciation (Dongguk Jeong-un) was credited to King Sejong.
He also founded a royal academy called Jiphyeonjeon/Chiphyonjon (Hall of Worthies). Scholars from various fields were part of the Hall of Worthies. Because of the many scientific and scholarly writings produced by the Hall of Worthies, King Sejong’s reign was said to be the “golden age of Korean culture.”
King Sejong was not only an educated king, but he was also very determined and dedicated to the cultural independence of his country. It was important for him that there was a clear national identity in place. Part of being culturally independent and caring for the welfare of his subjects was to find an alternative to the current way of writing that was in use during his time. King Sejong wanted a new writing system that his people would be able to learn and use with much ease. This was what inspired him to create Hangul.
Why Hangul was born
King Sejong abhorred the fact that people belonging to the lower levels of society were not educated in writing Hanja (Chinese characters), which was used by educated Koreans. It was difficult for the common Koreans at that time to communicate their thoughts, ideas, feelings and even their complaints in writing because the Idu system which uses Chinese characters were simply too complicated to learn and use. There were thousands of Chinese characters to memorize! In fact, only the male elite had both the time and resources to learn the established writing system at that time.
The Choson king understood the frustration of his people. He explained that Chinese script was foreign to his people and that it could not capture the true essence of what his people wanted to express in their native tongue. The people did not know how to use Chinese script to record knowledge of what they knew in work and in life. Also, if they had legitimate complaints that needed to be addressed by the authorities, they could not write down these complaints.
King Sejong, in the introduction to Hangul’s proclamation, said that he created Hangul because he was sympathetic to the difficulties experienced by his subjects. So, together with Chiphyonjon scholars, he created an alphabet of 28 easy to learn letters in the hopes that the new Korean alphabet will improve his people’s quality of life. Today, out of the 28 original letters, only 24 letters are in use.
No such thing as illiteracy in Korea today
In the 2009 United Nations Development Programme Report, both North Korea and South Korea have a literacy rate of 99.0%. This may be due in part to how simple it is for one to learn Hangul. Upon reaching school age, Korean children are able to show some form of mastery of the Korean alphabet. Hangul is a very accessible and easy to learn writing system. In fact, it has been said that one can learn Hangul in half a day if the person has the drive to learn and studies the Korean alphabet intently. Foreigners living in Korea find learning to read and write Hangul in a simple manner.
Hangul, since the time of King Sejong, has been at the heart of the culture of Korea. Although there was much opposition to it at the start, Hangul has managed to prevail. It has effectively preserved the national identity of the people of the Korean peninsula and became a way of establishing their independence from their colonizers.
King Sejong deserves his title “The Great.” Language experts see the writing system he created as scientifically sound and technically beautiful. And, his motives for creating Hangul were very noble, indeed. Through his laws, edicts and promulgations, King Sejong defied the philosophy of Confucianism and instead gave his people a measure of independence and self-worth. He was not just a great scholar; he was also a humanitarian of epic proportions. If King Sejong were alive today, he would be very pleased to see that his efforts were not for naught.
Owing to King Sejong’s popularity, there is a television show revolving around him. King Sejong is one of the main characters of the Korean television drama titled “Deep Rooted Tree” (also called “Tree With Deep Roots”) that is currently being shown in South Korea.