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Hangeul: A tool of social changeThough the origins of Korea’s writing system are disputed, its influence is not
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승인 2010.10.16  09:57:34
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▲ Courtesy Yang Chun Hee

Hangeul has often been described as one of the simplest and most scientific writing systems in the world. Its creation is still a matter of controversy. Joseon Korea’s fourth king, Sejong the Great (r. 1418-1450), is often attributed to being the creator of hangeul between 1443 and 1446. Some modern researchers, however, contest this claim. They insist that hangeul was created by scholars from the Hall of Worthies (Jiphyeonjeon, established in 1420) who had been commissioned by Sejong. Other researchers acknowledge that Sejong may have been assisted by his sons but insist he was solely responsible for the alphabets creation and had kept it secret from the scholars of the Hall of Worthies until it was completed.

Sejong is reportedly to have developed the language because the Chinese characters that were being used at the time were unable to convey with true accuracy the meanings of Korean words. He also desired a language that could be learned by the common people. Learning to write with Chinese characters was time consuming and something that, for the most part, only members of the upper class could afford. The common people could not devote that much time away from their fields and work to learn the thousands of Chinese characters needed to write. Sejong, out of sympathy for the common man, created a simple alphabet of 28 letters (modern hangeul is composed of 24 letters).

The alphabet was so simple that in 1446, Jeong In Ji, the vice minister of education, declared that a bright person could learn the language in a single morning where as a not-so-bright person could learn it within 10 days.

The simplicity of the alphabet was its success. It became very popular amongst the common people and gained the complete disdain by academia and, later, by the ruling nobility. Academia, most likely out of jealousy and self-preservation, declared hangeul to be vulgar and nothing more than the script of women and children. They refused to use it.

Hangeul also gained the scorn of Yeonsan-gun (r. 1494-1506), Joseon’s tenth, and arguably the most notorious, king. Described by one leading Korean historian as being “mentally unbalanced,” Yeonsan-gun was fond of over-indulgence at the expense of the people as well as other less-said-the-better entertainments and outrages. He would accept no criticism of his rule and even made his advisors wear badges or signs warning that “the mouth is a door that brings in disaster; the tongue is a sword that cuts off a head. A body will only be at peace as long as its mouth is closed and its tongue is kept deep within.”
But the people would not be quiet and used hangeul to express their dissatisfaction with their king through posters that mocked and insulted their monarch and his policies. Out of anger at being mocked at by the common people – let alone any people – and possibly out of fear for what the language could bring about, Yeonsan-gun forbid the use of hangeul. After Yeonsan-gun’s death the ban on hangeul was lifted but it still served as a tool to renounce society’s wrongs.

Heo Gyun, a prominent scholar and author, is credited as being the first novelist to use hangeul when he wrote his well-known masterpiece of fiction, The Tale of Hong Kil Dong, in 1612. In this tale, Hong, an illegitimate son, becomes a bandit leader and robs from the rich and gives to the poor. His exploits become so daring and his popularity amongst the common people so great that King Yeonsan-gun put a price upon his head. This story is similar to the English tale of Robin Hood and, like its English counterpart, is read to or by children in Korea. Through this tale hangeul continues to mock Yeonsangun.

Hangeul continued to be a tool for change. In 1896, the Dongnip sinmun, better known in English as The Independent newspaper, was started by Dr. Philip Jaisohn (So Chae Pil). Unlike most newspapers at the time, this newspaper used hangeul which allowed the common people to have easy access not only to the news but new progressive ideas.

Like the common Korean people, the Japanese recognized that hangeul was a powerful weapon and during their occupation of Korea (1905-1945) they sought to eliminate it. In 1938, the Japanese Colonial Government declared that Korean, and, by extension, hangeul, would no longer be allowed at school and students caught using it, whether at school or at home, would be severely punished. With Korea’s liberation, hangeul, once again, became the official alphabet of Korea.

Over the past couple of decades hangeul has slowly spread from the shores of Korea to other nations – including Japan – albeit, it is usually found in Korean communities in their host nations.

One apparent exception to this was the 70,000 members of the Cia Cia, an Indonesian tribe living on the small island of Bau-bau, who were said to be using hangeul. According to Korean media, the Cia Cia, concerned that their language (which has no writing system) would disappear, had opted to adopt hangeul as their own official alphabet.

This popular story, however, has proved to be wrong. There are some 700 tribes in Indonesia that depend upon the Roman alphabet, as stipulated by Indonesia’s Basic Law, to preserve their spoken language. According to a recent Korea Times article (Oct. 6, 2010), the alleged use of hangeul by the Cia Cia was the result of a mistranslation and the “Korean media outlets’ excessive pursuit for breaking stories and the fondness of the terms, ‘official’ and ‘first.’”

But hangeul doesn’t have to be exported in order for others to appreciate it. Through its music and movie industries, Korea has attracted an ever-increasing number of students from around the world who come here to study its language and culture. Hangeul, through its simplicity and accessibility, continues to be a tool of integration.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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