There is no doubt that in South Korea, King Sejong (세종대왕) is one of the most well-known and influential historical figures to have ever lived. His work in creating “hangul” (한글), or the current Korean alphabet, has changed both Korea’s history and its culture. It is important to note however, that King Sejong not only created a mode of writing, but also added an integral facet to the Korean identity. Due to South Korea’s history, the creation of hangul enabled the shaping of what it meant for one to be Korean. Hangul represented a unique voice – one that allowed the Korean people to shape their own cultural identity with a voice now entirely their own; an advancement that enabled a new distinction from their Chinese and Japanese counterparts. Therefore, it does not suffice to say that King Sejong’s legacy was to simply create the Korean alphabet, as he also helped to mold Korea’s cultural identity at its core.
King Sejong ruled during the Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대) from 1418 to 1450. He was a productive man who advocated Confucianism, advancing the sciences, and strengthening the Korean military during his rule. His influence is noted due to the changes he made throughout the country and its government. Some claim that he was a workaholic who read scripts day and night without much rest. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons that explains how he was capable of affecting many things during his rule. He was also particularly radical in his rulings – as he prioritized giving the lower or middle class greater opportunities along with greater rights. One example that showed his political views is how he afforded people from different social classes the opportunity to work in government, whereas before, mostly those who had enough money to afford an education, or the rich, were given priority. Also, he gave nobi women, the lowest social class during the Joseon dynasty, the right of maternity leave. Maternity leave might not have been a new idea, but for the nobi class it was unheard of. Actions like these show how King Sejong was a true leader who sought to provide and to satisfy the people’s needs. He paved the way for the lower class of the Joseon dynasty to climb the ladder of opportunity beyond what their social class would otherwise have afforded them, and sought to hand them privileges they had no opportunity of getting by themselves.
The making of hangul was also a way through which King Sejong tried to equalize the field and minimize the gap between the rich and poor during his lifetime. At this time, if one sought to get an education – one was required to pay quite a handful of money, hence why the poor were stricken with illiteracy. During this time period, Korea was using classical Chinese as their mode of language. However, classical Chinese required a lot of studying due to the great amount of characters. Therefore, education was a privilege and the poor were left to remain illiterate. King Sejong took note of this problem, therefore he went to great efforts to create the current alphabet that Korea has today – hangul.
Hangul consists of 19 consonants and 21 vowels. The consonants are supposed to represent the shape of one’s mouth, tongue, and teeth when making the sound. The vowels are represented by simple vertical and horizontal lines. It was said back then that due to the simplicity of this system, any man would be able to learn how to at least read within a day. King Sejong spent years putting together this creation and finally published a manual of the new alphabet called Hunmin Jeong-eum (훈민정음). This manual included a full description and explanation of the hangul characters and the motives behind them. This new creation, however, did not come into fruition without setbacks. There were some people in the government at the time who pitted themselves against the advancement of hangul. These people believed that if the people of Korea, especially those who were uneducated, were afforded the power that literacy would provide, it could possibly threaten their authority. Fortunately, King Sejong was able to publish his manual and hangul succeeded in gaining the attention of the people.
Going forward a couple of centuries into Korean history, back in the early 1900’s, Korea was colonized by Imperial Japan. During this time, hangul would become an integral part in maintaining the Korean identity and in the fight against cultural erasure. Imperial Japan sought to not only colonize Korea, but to replace Korean culture with its own. The people of Korea were forced to learn Japanese, to adopt Japanese names, and to throw away their Korean identities. This force of action encouraged many Koreans to hold on to the Korean language. Many historical figures, like Yu Gwan Sun (유관순) and Kim Gu (김구) rose during this time to fight against their colonizers and seek Korean Independence. The Korean Language Society (한글학회) was also founded during this period and the group’s mission was to maintain the Korean Language by writing and preserving a dictionary. This group also founded Hangul Day (한글날) to commemorate the invention of hangul. This day is celebrated on October 9th in South Korea and January 15th in North Korea.
Present day South Korea has made sure to celebrate and honor King Sejong and his legacy through the making of monuments and museums. At Gwanghwamun Square one can find his statue with one hand lifted and another gently laid on a book. It has become one of South Korea’s iconic landmarks and has garnered a lot of attention from foreigners as well. There is also the “King Sejong – Great Memorial Hall” located in Cheongnyangni and the National Hangeul Museum in Yongsan.
King Sejong’s impact on Korean culture cannot be understated, nor can it be stressed enough. Hangul has become an integral part of Korea’s history and future. Its role in the building of the Korean identity as a nation has been of great importance and is celebrated as seen from the many memorials and commemorations. If King Sejong were able to see how much the Korean language has spread throughout the world through the influence of Korean entertainment, it is most likely that he would be pleasantly surprised – especially given how foreigners have even taken to learning the alphabet he had created. However, it is certain that he would be most proud to see how hangul has survived and linked the Korean people in moments of turmoil and suffering. Hangul in Korea was and is not simply a mode of communicating, but has become an integral part of what it means to be Korean.
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