By Matthew Jackson.
Despite the technical merits of Hangeul, it is hard to get beyond the fact that it is, after all, just a phonetic alphabet, albeit a unique one.
As with other treasures of Korea, the real value of Hangeul lies in the story behind it. Its creator, King Sejong the Great, worked very hard over the course of ten years to make the alphabet, in the face of stiff opposition from the Confucian elite.
The elite opposed the introduction of the alphabet, ostensibly because it was felt that learning to read should be an intellectually challenging process, and that if it were easy, the value of education would diminish. The other reason, less spoken about, was the fear that the power of the scholars would also be diminished if the ability to read became commonplace.
The King succeeded in completing the alphabet, and published it with an accompanying manual in 1446 (the Hunmin Jeongeum (훈민정음) – The Proper Sounds for Instructing the People).
The spoken language of our country is different from that of China and does not suit the Chinese characters. Therefore amongst uneducated people there have been many who, having something that they wish to put into words, have been unable to express their thoughts in writing. I am greatly distressed because of this, and so I have made twenty eight new letters. Let everyone practice them at their ease, and adapt them to their daily use. – King Sejong’s Preface to Hunmin Jeongeum (1446)
Owing to the opposition of the ruling classes, it was many centuries before the alphabet came into common usage – indicative of the political significance of literacy. The internet, which has placed information within everyone’s reach, and given global power to the ordinary man for the price of an internet connection, might be considered a modern equivalent.
Although his goal must have seemed hopeless, King Sejong’s perseverance stemmed from his philosophy that the duty of a king is to serve the people. Given that this attitude is more rare to find in history books than great buildings or works of art, the reverence of Koreans for this alphabet seems more than justified.
The Hunminjeongeum Manuscript is Korea’s National Treasure #70 and listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register.
You can discover more about Korea’s past at kscpp.net