Wang Anshi (王安石, 왕안석, 1021-1086) was a Song dynasty era (宋, 송, 960-1279) bureaucrat, reformist, and a renowned writer. He was born in Fuzhou (撫州, 무주) in Jiangxi Province (西省, 강서성); his courtesy name (字, 자) is Jiefu (介甫, 개보); and his pen name was Banshan (半山, 반산). His ancestors originally had been farmers until his grandfather, who passed the civil service exam and attained a bureaucratic position. Growing up, Wang Anshi followed his father who was a bureaucrat as he moved from one government post to another from one region to another region in China. From a young age, he was recognized for his erudition in the Chinese classics. In 1041, Wang Anshi began his political career when he passed the civil service examination. He soon became well known for his competency in public affairs and for his essays advocating reform of the government bureaucracy. In 1058, when the reform-minded young Emperor Shenzong (宋神宗, 송 신종, 1048-1085, r. 1067-1085) ascended the throne, Wang Anshi was selected to serve in the high-ranking position of Hanlin Scholar (翰林學士, 한림학사). China had been beset by military losses to both the Tangut Western Xia (西夏, 서하, 1038-1227) and Khitan Liao (遼, 요, 907-1125) empires in the north and social strife within. Starting in 1069, Wang Anshi was tasked with initiating a series of wide-sweeping and controversial reforms known as the New Policies (新法, 신법). His programs were intended to strength the military and lessen burdens on those of the lower class. For example, the Green Sprout Law (靑苗法, 청묘법) lowered interested rates on capital for poorer farmers. However, after a severe drought struck the Hebei region (河北, 하북) in 1074, the Old Policy Faction (舊法派, 구법파) that had opposed Wang Anshi’s New Policies found an opportunity to strike back and convinced the Emperor to repeal most of his reforms. Wang Anshi was soon demoted to the lowly position of an Administrative Clerk (知事, 지사) in Jiangning Prefecture (江寧府, 강녕부). He retired two years after in 1076 when he lost his son, and passed away in 1086. Even after his death, Wang Anshi’s New Policies continued to be denounced with some detractors even blaming them for the downfall of the Song dynasty. 

Although Wang Anshi’s socioeconomic reforms were largely wiped away in his lifetime, he left his mark in Chinese literature. In fact, Wang Anshi become so renowned for his poetry and prose that later generations would consider him as one of the Eight Masters of Tang-Song Dynasty Era (唐宋八大家, 당송팔대가). Given his aspirations, many of his writings touch upon social, economic, and political themes. This is shown in Wang Anshi’s poem below, which not only commemorates the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 8 this year, but also is reflective of his reformist persona.

元日 원일

First Day of the New Year

爆竹聲中一歲除 폭죽성중일세제 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
春風送暖入屠蘇 춘풍송난입도소 平平平仄仄平平(韻)
千門萬戶曈曈日 천문만호동동일 平平仄仄平平仄
總把新桃換舊符 총파신도환구부 仄仄平平平仄平(韻)

Amidst the sounds of fireworks, one year slips away.
Spring winds send warmth and enter the Tusu wine (屠蘇, 도소).
Upon a thousand doors and ten-thousand houses, the bright and glistening sun.
All grab a hold of the new peach-wood to replace the old talisman.


To explode • bamboo • sound • amid • one • year • to remove
Spring • wind • to send • warmth • to enter • geographic name • herbs
Thousand • gates • ten-thousand • houses • bright • bright • sun
All • to grab • new • peach-wood • to exchange • old • talisman


  • Heptasyllabic truncated verse (七言絶句, 칠언절구). The poem slightly deviates from the riming rules of Recent Style Poetry (近體詩, 근체시), as it uses near rimes (通韻, 통운), 魚(어) and 虞(우). Specifically, it invokes the “Flying Goose Entering a Formation” Rule (飛雁入群格, 비안입군격): the last character of the first line 除(제) is of the riming character 魚(어), whereas the last characters of the second and fourth lines 蘇(소) and 符(부) are of the riming character 虞(우).
  • 爆竹(폭죽) – Literally “exploding bamboo.” Refers to fireworks.
  • 屠蘇(도소) – Refers to an alcoholic elixir made using various herbs. Its creation is attributed to the Han dynasty era (漢, 한, 206 BC-220 AD) physician Hua Tuo (華佗, 화타, 140?-208?) or the Tang dynasty era (唐, 당, 618-907) doctor Sun Simiao (孫思邈, 손사막, 581-682). Historically, it was customary to drink Tusu wine on New Years to ward off evil spirits. It was said that “If one person drinks it, the household will suffer no affliction. If the household drinks it, the entire village will suffer no affliction (一人飲,一家無疫.一家飲,一里無疫 – 일인음, 일가무역. 일가음, 일리무역).” This practice first started in China and later spread to Korea and Japan. The traditional Korean custom involved gathering all the family together, including young children, to drink the wine. This custom has largely died out in China and Korea in modern times, but still continues in some regions of Japan.
  • 曈曈(동동) – Refers to the sun at the break of dawn.
  • 桃符(도보) – Refers to a talisman made out of peach-wood. It was placed on both sides of the main double gates of houses to ward off ghosts and calamities. The custom first took root in China and later spread to Korea. In Korea, the custom later morphed into placing drawings or calligraphy on paper (春聯, 춘련) on the main gate during the Start of Spring (立春, 입춘).
  • Korean translation available here.
Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country

A Chinese character dictionary arranged by tone and rime, the Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country (東國正韻, 동국정운) was one of the very first books published in the Korean alphabet. The still-in-use ㅉ and now-obsolete ㆆ (glottal stop) were originally intended for transcribing Korean and Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters. (Source)


On October of 1446, King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) promulgated the widely celebrated Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음), explaining the reasoning behind the creation of the new Korean alphabet. The preface begins with the following lines:

國之語音, 異乎中國, 與文字不相流通,
국지어음, 이호중국, 여문자불상류통,

The sounds of our country are different from that of China and its characters do not mutually conform to them.

故愚民, 有所欲言, 而終不得伸其情者多矣.
고우민, 유소욕언, 이종부득신기정자다의.

Therefore, whenever the ignorant have something that they wish to communicate, there are many that in the end cannot express their thoughts.

予爲此憫然, 新制二十八字, 欲使人人易習便於日用耳.
여위차민연, 신제이십팔자, 욕사인인역습편어일용이.

Because of this, I am ashamed, and have newly created twenty-eight letters. I intend that each and every person be able to easily learn and conveniently use them daily.

Almost every Korean schoolchild can recite the first sentence of the preface from memory. (They are actually reciting the vernacular version (諺解本, 언해본), which would actually not be published until 1459, well after King Sejong’s death, and only translates a small fraction of the original Classical Chinese edition.) Not every Korean schoolchild, however, knows or was probably ever taught that the King actually created twenty-eight letters, more than twenty-four currently in use, much less developments in Korean orthography since the famed King’s times. So, what happened to these four letters and what other orthographic developments occurred since then?

Spelling Rules of the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People

The Korean alphabet originally had twenty-eight letters, with seventeen consonants and thirteen vowels. This is three more consonants and one more vowel than the one currently in use. When first introduced, the alphabet was presented in a different order from today:

  • Consonants (17): ㄱ (g), ㅋ (k), ㆁ (ng), ㄷ (d), ㅌ (t), ㄴ (n), ㅂ (b), ㅍ (p), ㅁ (m), ㅈ (j), ㅊ (ch), ㅅ (s), ㆆ (ʔ – glottal stop), ㅎ (h), ㅇ (null), ㄹ (r/l), andㅿ (z). (Note the difference between ㆁ and ㅇ.)
  • Vowels (11): ㆍ (aw), ㅡ (eu), ㅣ(i), ㅗ (o), ㅏ (a), ㅜ (u), ㅓ (eo), ㅛ (yo), ㅑ (ya), ㅠ (yu), and ㅕ (yeo)

After explaining how these letters are to be pronounced, the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People laid out a few rudimentary spelling rules for assembling them into syllable blocks:

  1. For Initial Sounds, Seventeen Letters (初聲十七字, 초성십칠자) – All seventeen consonants can be as the initial sound of a syllable.
  2. For Medial Sounds, Eleven Letters (中聲十一字, 중성십일자) – All eleven vowels can be used as the medial sound of a syllable.
  3. For Terminal Sounds, Eight Letters (八終聲可足用, 팔종성가족용) – The general rule was that all consonants can be used as terminal sound of a syllable (終聲復用初聲, 초성복용초성). The Proper Sounds further specified that eight of the seventeen consonants are “sufficient” (可足, 가족) for use as terminals. These are: ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ. They were thought to be sufficient, because these eight could take the place of other consonants when pronounced at the end of a syllable (e.g., ㅅ for ㅿ, ㅈ, and ㅊ). The Proper Sounds also categorized all the consonants (except ㄹ) between those that can be used as plain, rising, and departing tones (平上去聲, 평상거성) versus those that can be used as entering tones (入聲, 입성).
  4. Pronounce by Combining Initial, Medial, and Terminal Sounds (初中終合成之字, 초중종합성지자) – Letters are to be combined to form syllabic blocks and pronounced accordingly.
    • Double Consonants (各自並書, 각자병서) – Six of the seventeen consonants can be doubled to form: ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, ㅆ, and ㆅ. (Along withㆆ, these were originally intended for transcribing Korean and Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters, as such sounds rarely occurred in native Korean words. While ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅉ, and ㅆ are in use today, they did not originally denote the same consonants.)
    • Clustered Sounds (書, 합용병서) – Consonants can be combined to form consonant clusters (e.g., ㅄ). Unlike today, consonant clusters can be in the initial sound and the terminal sound position. Vowels can be combined to form diphthongs (e.g., ㅞ). 
    • Chained Consonants (連書, 연서) – To form light labial sounds (脣輕音, 순경음), the Proper Sounds specified the addition of the letterㅇ beneath the consonant (e.g.,ᄛ(l), ㅱ(w), and ㅸ(v)). Only the letter ㅸ was ever in use. The use of the letter ㅱ was limited to Chinese character dictionaries.
    • Diacritical Marks (傍點, 방점) – One dot (·) to the left indicated that the syllable was a departing tone (去聲, 거성). Two dots (:) indicated that the syllable was a rising tone (上聲, 상성). (This applied to both native Korean words as well as Sino-Korean ones.)

Overall, compared to modern Korean’s spelling rules, these were much simpler and nowhere nearly as specific. (Not to mention, at least one of the very first works in the new alphabet did not even follow some of these rules.) This is apparent in the implicit orthographic principle exemplified in all of the very first works in the new script that Korean was to be spelled phonemically. That is, words were to be spelled according how they were pronounced, regardless of any inflections to the root word. Phonemic orthographies are in general simpler than morphophonemic orthographies in use in modern Korean. Under morphophonemic orthography, words are spelled similarly though not entirely exactly to how they are pronounced so as to be reflective of the underlying etymological root. An example in English are the words “sign” and “signify,” which are pronounced very differently but are spelled similarly to reflect their same etymological root.

Incremental Developments from the 16th to the 19th Century


Collection of Characters to Teach the Ignorant (訓蒙字會, 훈몽자회) published in 1527 by Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). Note the change in font. (Source)

While not without opposition, the use of the new alphabet spread, then called either Jeongeum (正音, 정음) or Eonmun (諺文, 언문). (The name Hangul (한글) would not be coined until the 20th century.) The royal court received a few petitions in the new script. Confucian scholars translated various Classical Chinese works into Korean, often in mixed script, ranging from Confucian classics to Tang Dynasty poets. Diplomats and interpreters used Korean transliterations to learn foreign languages such as Mandarin, Manchu, Mongol, and Japanese.

Despite all this, partly because of push back from some of the elite, the Korean alphabet only attained a less-than-official status during this period. For example, texts written in the vernacular script (as well as Classical Chinese texts without signatures) were not recognized as proper evidence in court. Koreans who wished to either lend or borrow money had to write the contract in Classical Chinese for their agreements to be effective. Because of its less-than-official status, the government did not view Korean orthography as a priority. Consequently, Korean spelling rules only saw incremental changes, with most of the relatively drastic ones occurring by the early 16th century.

Read More

Hangul Protesters

Hangul exclusivists interrupt a Ministry of Education official meeting to discuss on whether to include Hanja in Korean textbooks. Thanks to their antics, the decision is postponed until next year. (Source)

With the rise in popularity of Hanja education in Korea and calls to expand it, Hangul exclusivists have taken to the streets in vehement protest of these developments. They frequently resort to over-the-top nationalist rhetoric. Among their assertions, perhaps the most bizarre is their attempts to link Chinese characters to the Japanese. In fact, if one reads much of their literature, one would walk away with the impression that Chinese characters were somehow a Japanese creation. They have gone as far out to call the expansion of Hanja education “[an attempt to] obliterate the Korean race” and a “legacy of the Japanese colonial period” as if it did not exist prior to that period. This language can be even found from the head of the Hangul Society (한글학회) himself:

한자병기는 일제가 심어 놓은 민족의식 말살 교육정책의 찌꺼기. 지금 일본이 큰소리치는 것은 한국을 너무 잘 알기 때문이다. 일본이 가르친 대로의 친일의 뿌리가 득세하고 있기 때문이다. 한글 관련 사업을 좀 해보려고 하면 친일세력들이 들어와서 판을 흐트려 놓는다…

Hanja-Hangul mixed script is a leftover of the educational policy planted by the Japanese to obliterate our racial identity. Right now, the Japanese shout so loudly because they know Korea very well. It is because the pro-Japanese collaborators who have done as the Japanese have taught them have gained power. If you intend to work on Hangul-related manners, these powerful pro-Japanese collaborators will shake you down…

(For those that do not know, the Hangul Society is a private organization that contributed to the development of Korean spelling rules, and campaigned and lobbied for Hangul exclusivity since the early-mid 20th century. It should be noted that mixed script predates the Japanese colonial period: the very first works published using Hangul were in mixed script.)

This type of language is all too common from Hangul exclusivists. Sadly, what would otherwise be dismissed as a conspiratorial rambling in more civil settings has been very effective in controlling the Hangul-Hanja debate in Korea. In contrast, the pro-Hanja education side does not resort to such nationalist rhetoric as much. Instead, they typically use internationalist or regionalist arguments by simply making the empirically verifiable observation that Korea’s neighbors China and Japan still use the script.

To knock these Hangul exclusivists off their more-patriotic-than-thou high horses, perhaps a refresher in early modern Hangul history is in order. One particular topic that might be of interest is today’s Korean spelling rules, which the Hangul Society contributed to. Today’s Korean spelling rules are largely the legacy of those spelling rules promulgated by the Japanese colonial general government. There are plenty of Korean sources that acknowledge this. (This post merely wishes to introduce the topic in English.) Many of the integral figures in establishing most of these spelling rules were — drum roll — pro-Japanese collaborators. To get a sense of how integral these pro-Japanese collaborationist figures were to the development of today’s Korean spelling rules, one scholar who is often attributed as coining the very name “Hangul” (한글) is Choe Namseon (崔南善, 최남선, 1890-1957). He is officially recognized by the Korean government as a Japanese collaborator for his contributions in the colonial Historical Compilation Committee (朝鮮史編修會, 조선사편수회), which helped to legitimize Japan’s takeover of the peninsula. Ironically, despite his involvement with the Japanese, Choe Namseon is still very much respected for his contributions to Hangul. He is not an isolated example as there are other figures in the early modern development of Korean spelling rules that were pro-Japanese collaborators. Even the ones who are not officially recognized as pro-Japanese collaborators were educated at Japanese universities.

Before examining this topic, it should be emphasized that while there are many Korean sources on the early modern development of Korean orthography, most do not like to admit this — nor does the Hangul Society, who would like others to forget that some of their predecessors were pro-Japanese collaborators. This is not surprising, given that Hangul is perhaps Korea’s most treasured cultural heritage. As such, when such sources do discuss this period, their treatment is rather interesting. They either begrudgingly concede that the today’s Korean spelling rules were heavily influenced by the Japanese colonial government’s own rules or are baffled as to why the Japanese even bothered with coming up with such spelling rules. For example, the National Digital Hangul Museum, which is otherwise a great resource on Hangul including this period, falls into the latter category. In one of the Museum’s articles on this period, stumped, the author wonders whether Japanese involvement in Korean orthography was a cunning ploy:

식민지를 지배하고자 하는 제국주의 세력은 피지배 민족의 글과 말을 말살하거 사용하지 못하게 하는 것이 일반적인 정책이다. 그러나 일본의 초기적 태도는 달랐다. 의도를 정확히 실증적으로 밝혀낼 수는 없으나, 일제 초기의 어문 정책의 일환이었던 표기법 문제는 그들에 의해서 처음으로 이루어졌다. 짐작만을 해 본다면 그것은 고도의 식민 통치 술수였는지 모른다.

The general policy of imperialist powers wanting to dominate their colonies was to prohibit and destroy the language and script of the subjugated peoples. But Japan’s attitude was initially different. We cannot for sure know their intentions by any evidence, but the issue of [Korean] spelling rules that was a part of Japan’s initial language policy first came into being by them. If we were to guess, this might be an clever stratagem of colonial governance.

This blog will cover this and more in the upcoming posts, which will give a brief overview of the history of Korean orthography from the 15th century to the mid 20th century:

  1. The First Four Centuries of Hangul (15th-19th Century)
  2. National Script Research Committee (19th Century)
  3. 1912 and 1921 Primary School Use Korean Spelling Rules
  4. 1930 and 1933 Korean Spelling Rules
  5. Rhee Syngman’s Spelling Simplification Reforms

Note that this series will assume that readers know Hangul at a rudimentary level. For those readers that do not know the Korean alphabet, the Wikipedia article on Hangul has a decent explanation.

Hangul Mock Funeral

Anti-Hanja education protesters in Korea frequently resort to over-the-top nationalist rhetoric. Here, they are seen holding a mock funeral for the supposed impending death of Hangul. (Source)

Claim: King Sejong created Hangul to replace Chinese characters. Those who seek to expand Hanja education are a mar to his legacy and ought “to apologize King Sejong” (actual title of an article from a major liberal Korean newspaper).

Rebuttal: The very first works commissioned by King Sejong using Hangul were Chinese character dictionaries (plural) and the King himself explicitly stated that the new script was needed to “rectify” Korean pronunciations of Chinese characters. It is extremely unlikely that King Sejong intended to supplant Hanja with Hangul.


With the rise in popularity of Hanja education and the recent calls to expand it, some quarters of Korean society have vehemently protested. They often employ over-the-top nationalistic histrionics, asserting that expansion of Hanja education is an affront to King Sejong’s legacy, Korea’s most venerated king. They have gone as far as holding mock funeral rites in front of the statue of King Sejong in downtown Seoul and offering oblations to Korean language textbooks.

But is it actually an affront? The creation of Hangul is no doubt a proud moment in Korean history. Many today presume that King Sejong created Hangul to supplant Chinese characters. Some can cite, by memory, the preface of the document that first introduced Hangul, the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음) as the sole proof of their belief:

The sounds of our country are different from that of China and its characters do not mutually conform to them. Therefore, whenever the ignorant have something that they wish to communicate, many of them in the end cannot express their thoughts. Because of this, I am ashamed, and have newly created twenty-eight letters, and intend that each and every person be able to easily learn them and conveniently use them daily.

However, the passage above does not explicitly state that King Sejong intended to replace Chinese characters. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise — including King Sejong’s own words.

One Theory on the Creation of Hangul:
As a Means to Transcribe Hanja and Standardize Its Pronunciation

Why King Sejong created Hangul is a topic of discussion in two recently published books about the script: The Invention of Hangul (한글의 발명) by Jeong Gwang and Hangul Wars (한글전쟁) by Kim Heungsik. They both take the position that King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) created Hangul as a means to transcribe Hanja (發音記號, 발음기호) and to standardize its pronunciation. The former book drives this as one of its central points. The latter book explores other hypotheses, but only examines this one at length. Their theses was scoffed at many internet commenters on book review articles. Upon closer examination, however, they are actually well supported. Some of the points made in the Hangul Wars are summarized in this post along with some additional material.

The Korean pronunciations of Chinese characters are based on those used in the Tang dynasty (唐, 당, 618-907) capital of Chang’an (長安, 장안). As time passed by, these pronunciations changed and by the 15th century had significantly diverged from vernacular Chinese pronunciations, which in turn had also diverged from those during the Tang dynasty. These developments were problematic for a number of reasons. For one, the pronunciation of each Chinese character is not indicated from the character itself. Even characters with the same phonetic component radical (部首, 부수) are not always pronounced the same.

Furthermore, the system of transcribing Chinese characters recursively using other characters, known as Fanqie (反切, 반절) or Banjeol in Korean, was somewhat difficult to use. For example, the Banjeol for the character 東(동) is “德紅反(덕홍반, deok-hong-ban)” specifying that the character is to be pronounced using the first consonant of the first character /d/ and the rime of the second character /-ong/ resulting in /dong/ (동). Not knowing the pronunciations of 德 or 紅 would render this dictation useless. Moreover, because it is internally recursive, Banjeol was not too useful for Koreans who needed to learn vernacular Chinese (i.e., Mandarin), which was an important language for commerce and diplomacy.

There was a native script before Hangul called Idu (吏讀, 이두). This script used Chinese characters to transcribe Korean grammatical particles inserted between Classical Chinese clauses. But Idu was not used to transcribe pronunciations of characters and hence was perceived as lacking — although it should be noted that its use lasted well into the late 19th century.

Hunminjeongeum Eonhae

A Vernacular Explanation on the Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音 諺解本, 훈민정음 언해본) (Source)

Against this backdrop, King Sejong first introduced the court to Hangul on December of 1443. For sometime, however, there was no other activity at the court regarding the new script. Then suddenly on February of 1444, the King ordered scholars at the Hall of Worthies (集賢殿, 집현전) to translate the Collection of Rimes Ancient and Recent (古今韻會擧要, 고금운회거요), a Chinese rime dictionary compiled during the Yuan Dynasty (元, 원, 1271-1368). A rime dictionary is a Chinese character dictionary arranged by tone (聲, 성) and rime (韻, 운), two features particular to Chinese phonology not Korean. This was no easy task, given the number of Chinese characters there are. And more importantly, this to be the very first work in Hangul. In response, just four days later, a Hall of Worthies scholar named Choe Manri (崔萬理, 최만리, ?-1445) submitted his now-infamous petition in protest of the new script, which he condemned as “a base, vulgar, and useless script (鄙諺無益之字, 비언무익지자).” In his remonstrance, Choe Manri raised six points of contention:

  1. The creation of the vernacular script is contrary to the ways of Chinese civilization.
  2. The creation of a vernacular script is a barbaric act and will make Korea grow distant from China.
  3. The current Idu script is sufficient; the vernacular script will disrupt Neo-Confucianism.
  4. The vernacular script will exacerbate the inequity of administrating punishments, thereby potentially afflicting those who are innocent.
  5. Important affairs should not be carried out in such a rush. (In this section, Choe Manri criticizes the King for not having consulted ministers prior to the order to compile the riming dictionary.)
  6. Princes should focus their attention on Neo-Confucian studies and the vernacular script will add to the burden of their studies.

The petition greatly angered King Sejong, who not only rebuked Choe Manri but also had him and others who supported him sent to jail for a day. Here are the King’s words, as recorded:

汝等云: “用音合字, 盡反於古.”
여등운: “용음합자, 진반어고.”

You all said, “They use sounds based on combined letters, thereby overturning old [customs].”

薛聰吏讀, 亦非異音乎? 且吏讀制作之本意, 無乃爲其便民乎?
설총이두, 역비이음호? 차이두제작지본의, 무내위기편민호?

Is not the Idu script created by Seol Chong (薛聰, 설총, 7th c.) also of different sounds? And again, was not the original intent of creating the Idu script for the convenience of the common people?

如其便民也, 則今之諺文, 亦不爲便民乎?
여기편민야, 즉금지언문, 역불위편민호?

If that [script] was [created] for the convenience of the common people, then should not the current vernacular script (諺文, 언문) also be considered for the convenience of the common people?

汝等以薛聰爲是, 而非其君上之事, 何哉?
여등이설총위시, 이비기군상지사, 하재?

All of you deem [the Idu script created by] Seol Chong as proper, but consider your King’s work to be improper! Why?

且汝知韻書乎? 四聲七音, 字母有幾乎? 若非予正其韻書, 則伊誰正之乎?
차여지운서호? 사성칠음, 자모유기호? 약비여정기운서, 즉이수정지호?

Again, do any of you know about rime dictionaries (韻書, 운서)? For the four tones and seven consonants, how many letters are there? If it is not I who rectifies these rime dictionaries, then who among you will rectify them? 

In the passage above, King Sejong himself not only states that the script is for the convenience of the people (便民, 편민), but also explicitly puts forth his intent to compile a rime dictionary. The King viewed compiling a rime dictionary and rectifying Korean pronunciations of Chinese characters as furthering the welfare of the people, not in conflict with it. That is, unlike the fancies of anti-Hanja education protesters dressed in full mourning gear, who often invoke the King’s name in their protests, King Sejong himself did not view Chinese characters as diametrically opposed to the new script. 

While the records state that a Korean translation of the Collection of Rimes Ancient and Recent was completed, there are no surviving copies. But there were other rime dictionaries made around this period. In fact, one of the very first five works in Hangul is another rime dictionarythe Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country (東國正韻, 동국정운). Based on the Ming dynasty rime dictionary Proper Rimes of Hongwu (洪韻, 홍무정운), this dictionary listed Chinese characters by their reconstructed or “proper” Korean pronunciations. That is, these Korean pronunciations were not those that were in actual use, but those that the Hall of Worthies scholar thought should be based on their reconstruction of older pronunciations. For example, entering tone characters (入聲, 입성) were originally pronounced with /-p/, /-t/, and /-k/ consonant endings, but in Korean the /-t/ ending for whatever reason had morphed to /-l/ (ㄹ). (There are several theories as to why this occurred.) In the Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country, these are listed with /-lʔ/ (ㅭ) as a compromise between the contemporary and historical pronunciations. Although very few Hangul works adopted these pronunciations, the rime dictionary represented King Sejong’s attempts to standardize the Korean pronunciation of Chinese characters.

The Proper Rimes of the Eastern Country was not the only work in Hangul concerning Chinese characters. King Sejong ordered the compilations of the Proper Rimes of Hongwu itself and an abridged version of the work, both with Mandarin pronunciations of characters transcribed in Hangul. The abridged version titled An Extensive Study of the Four Tones (四聲通攷, 사성통고) was completed sometime during King Sejong’s reign, but there is no existent copy of this work. The Transliteration and Glossary of the Proper Rimes of Hongwu (洪武正韻譯訓, 홍무정운역훈) was completed within a decade of the creation of the new script in 1455. (Not surprisingly, one pre-modern name for Hangul was “Banjeol because of its frequent use in transcribing pronunciations of Chinese characters.)

Turning to the question of “convenience for the common people,” rime dictionaries are not exactly something that a 15th century Korean commoner would use on a daily basis, even if literate: they are mainly intended for composing poetry. So, when was the first work in Hangul for the direct benefit of the common people published (that us moderns would recognize)? King Sejong certainly did order the compilation of such works before Hangul and no doubt thought of this issue when creating the script. But their translations do not appear among the very first books in Hangul. Songs of Dragons Flying to Heaven (龍飛御天歌, 용비어천가) were poems in praise of ancestors of the royal family; Detailed Episodes on the Record of Sakyamuni (釋譜詳節, 석보상절) and Tunes of the Moonlight Imprinted on a Thousand Rivers (月印千江之曲, 월인천강지곡) were Buddhism-inspired texts compiled in honor of the deceased Queen Soheon (昭憲王后, 소헌왕후, 1395-1446). It would not be until 1481, almost forty years after the creation of Hangul and thirty years after King Sejong’s passing away, that a work arguably identifiable as directly for the common people was published: the Illustrations of Applications of the Three Bonds (三綱行實圖, 삼강행실도). Originally compiled in Classical Chinese and with drawings, this was intended as a series of lessons on exemplary Confucian virtues.

The sequence of these events insinuates that the ability to transcribe Chinese characters and standardize their pronunciations using Hangul was of a higher priority to the royal court.


Banjeol Table (反切表, 반절표), arranged by 15th century Korean scholar Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). (Source)


Hangul today is regularly portrayed as in contrast or conflict with Hanja. Especially in the current Hanja education debate in Korea, those who advocate for expansion of Hanja education are often vilified as somehow less patriotic and as an embarrassment to King Sejong’s legacy. Such a narrative, however, not only does injury to the rich patrimony of Hangul but is also contrary to one of the many explicit reasons for the creation of Hangul given by King Sejong himself, namely the transcription Chinese characters and standardization of their Korean pronunciations. Given these set of historical facts, the more-patriotic-than-thou grandstanding and invocations of the King’s name by these Hangul exclusivists are thoroughly misplaced.

Full Moon

Jang Yu (張維, 장유, 1587-1638) was a Chosun dynasty civil bureaucrat and father of Queen Inseon (仁宣王后, 인성왕후, 1619-1674), one of the queen consorts of King Hyojong (孝宗, 효종, 1619-1659, r. 1649-1659). He was of the Deoksu Jang Clan (德水張氏, 덕수장씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Jiguk (持國, 지국); his pen names (號, 호) were Gyegok (谿谷, 계곡) and Mukso (默所, 묵소); and his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Munchung (文忠, 문충). Jang Yu began his political career when he passed the civil service examination in 1609, and rose through the ranks. A few years later in 1612, he was forced out of office due to his implication in the arrest of another bureaucrat. But he was not completely out of politics. In 1623, he participated in the Injo Restoration (仁祖反正, 인조반정) that usurped Prince Gwanghae (光海君, 광해군, 1575-1641, r. 1608-1623) and placed King Injo (仁祖, 인조, 1559-1649, r. 1623-1649) on the throne. For this, Jang Yu was placed back into government positions. During the First Manchu Invasions of 1627 (丁卯胡亂, 정묘호란), he accompanied King Injo as they fled the capital to Ganghwa Island, off the western coast of Korea. During the next Manchu Invasion in 1636 (丙子胡亂, 병자호란), despite being of the pro-Ming faction that brought King Injo to power, Jang Yu advocated for peace with the Manchus. In 1637, Jang Yu was promoted to Right State Councillor (右議政, 우의정) but retired soon thereafter. He died from exhaustion after holding funeral rites for his mother in 1638.

As for his erudition, Jang Yu was well-versed in a number of fields, ranging from astronomy to military strategy. Moreover, unlike most Korean Confucians, who were followers of Zhu Xi (朱子學, 주자학), Jang Yu found value in learning from the Yangming School (陽明學, 양명학) of Neo-Confucian thought. He was also esteemed for his literary talents, and is considered one of four masters (四大家, 사대가) of Classical Chinese of the Chosun middle period. In the poem below, Jang Yu describes the moonlit night scenery of the Mid-Autumn Festival (仲秋節, 중추절) or Chuseok (秋夕, 추석). This festival falls on the fifteenth day of full moon of the eighth month on the lunar calendar, which is September 27 on the Gregorian calendar this year, and is one of the major holidays in Korea.

中秋月 중추월

Mid-Autumn Moon

今夜中秋月 금야중추월 平仄平平仄
高開萬里雲 고개만리운 平平仄仄平(韻)
遙空添爽氣 요공첨상기 平平平仄仄
列宿掩繁文 렬숙엄번문 仄仄仄平平(韻)
蟾兎初誰見 섬토초수견 平仄平平仄
山河乍可分 산하사가분 平平仄仄平(韻)
茅齋看不厭 모재간불염 平平平仄仄
凉影坐紛紜 량영좌분운 平仄仄平平(韻)

Tonight, the mid-autumn moon
Opens from high the ten thousand li clouds.
The distant emptiness adds to the crisp air;
Arranged constellations cover splendid colors.
Who first saw the toad and hare?
The mountains and rivers for a brief moment can be told apart.
From my thatched-roof house, I watch without annoyance:
The moonlit shadows by themselves swaying and shaking.


Today • night • middle • autumn • moon
High • to open • ten thousand • li • clouds
Afar • emptiness • to add • cool • mood
Arranged • constellation • to cover • splendid • patterns
Toad • hare • first • who • to see
Mountains • rivers • briefly • to be able • to divide
Reed • shack • to watch • not • to be vexed
Thin • shadow • to sit • to be intricate • to be complicated


  • Pentasyllabic regulated poem (五言律詩, 오언율시). Riming characters (韻, 운) is 文(문).
  • 蟾兎(섬토) – Literally “toad” and “hare.” Refers to surface features on the Moon.
  • 茅齋(모재) – Refers to a house or shack with a roof made of reeds (띳집).
  • 凉影(양영) – Refers to shadows of objects lit by the moonlight.
  • 紛紜(분운) – Riming binome (雙韻連綿詞, 쌍운 연면사) meaning “to be noisy and complicated” or “to be intricate and complex.”
  • Korean translation available here.

I sometimes get asked by some of my older Korean (and even Korean-American) friends who are now of that age about Chinese character recommendations for their soon-to-be-born children. Cognizant that there is a whole field of experts and numerous conventions behind naming (作名法, 작명법) that I am unaware of, I politely decline to give them any suggestions and recommend that they confer with their family members.

Occasionally, I inform them that South Korea has a limit to which characters can be used in personal names (人名用漢字, 인명용한자), which increased from from 5,761 to 8,142 last year, so that they can go and look for characters for their children themselves. Some of my friends are actually surprised that there are any restrictions. I had just assumed that such limitations were natural and necessary, and so was surprised that they were surprised. I looked into it further recently, and turns out there is a bit of controversy over this issue.

The video above is a news clip from last year discussing the issue of “intrusion of naming rights” (作名權 侵害 漢字 論難, 작명권 침해 한자 논란). In the clip, one of the reporters reveals that one of the characters in his name is not on the list, 熚(필), which is pronounced “pil” and means “to blaze furiously.” Until recently, whenever he had to list his Hanja name on public documents, the reporter had to explain that the character consists of the 火(화) radical and 畢(필) body and had his name listed as “金필奎.”

The news clip then went over the brief history of the regulation of characters in names. The Korean Supreme Court first introduced the list of permitted characters in personal names with just 2,731 characters in 1990, as family records maintained by the government were being digitized. Over the years, the number of characters permitted increased. Characters included in the list were based in part on the frequency of characters in personal names that appeared in telephone directories of Seoul residents. The justifications given were that using complicated Chinese characters would be inconvenient to everyone in society and would be detrimental to the well-being of children with such names (e.g., harassment).

At that time, the new list was controversial, especially because there were characters in the list that were contrary to the government’s stated justifications. Chinese characters, such as 死(사) (“to die”), 盜(도) (“thief”), 魔(마) (“evil spirit”), and 禍(화) (“calamity”), that would never likely appear in actual personal names were on the list. Furthermore, with the expansion of the list last year, peculiar names such as “Pikton” (腷噋, 픽톤), “Goektung” (馘佟, 괵퉁), and “Hul’e” (欻恚, 훌에) were possible, thereby undercutting the justification of child well-being. Even with the increase, however, the reporter noted that the character 熚 in his name was still not included. While he stated that he personally was not inconvenienced, the reporter noted that there were many others that complained to the Supreme Court about the restriction. There were efforts made by a National Assembly member in 2012 to eliminate the restriction entirely, but these attempts failed.

In responding to these complaints, the Korean Supreme Court stated that allowing all 50,000 plus Chinese characters would invite chaos and observed that there are many characters that have not been standardized. (I would like to note the list of characters already allows for variants, including some simplified ones.) The reporter countered by pointing out that there are over 70,000 characters already digitized and that any technical limitations that existed in the 1990s are now obsolete.

As for me, I am still of the opinion that there should be some practical restriction, although not quite sure where to draw that line.

Further Reading:


  • It should be noted that limitations to characters used in names are not new, e.g., naming taboo (避諱, 피휘). In pre-modern times, people and even geographical places were renamed to avoid having the same character as that of the Korean king or Chinese emperor. It is a custom in some Korean families even today to avoid using the same characters (and even homonyms) as that of an ancestor within three generations.

Kim Changsuk (金昌淑, 김창숙, 1879-1962) was a Confucian scholar, Korean independence activist, a politician, and the founder of the Sungkyunkwan University (成均館大學, 성균관대학). He was of the Euiseong Kim Clan (義城金氏, 의성김씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Munjwa (文佐, 문좌); and his pen names (號, 호) were Shimsan (心山, 심산) and Byeok’ong (躄翁, 벽옹) (“crippled old man”).

He was born in Seongju (星州, 성주) in North Gyeongsang Province (慶尙北道, 경상북도), and started learning Confucian classics from a young age. In 1905, when the Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty was signed, Kim Changsuk protested and petitioned the the government to punish the signers of the treaty. He also took part in various patriotic organizations (including one dedicated to curbing smoking) and established a modern style school. But in 1910, with the Japan-Korea Treaty annexing Korea, Kim Changsuk went into despair and alcoholism, spending his days on drinking and debauchery. A few years after, however, at the advice of his mother, he sobered up and devoted himself to further studying Confucianism. In reaction to the March 1 Movement of 1919, Kim Changsuk assembled over hundred Confucian scholars across the peninsula and drafted a letter in support of Korean independence. He fled Korea and emigrated to Shanghai, where he had the letter delivered to the delegates of Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Kim Changsuk’s letter, written in Classical Chinese and known simply as the Paris Letter (巴里長書, 파리장서), was an diplomatic embarrassment to Japan, whose delegates had been trying to convince other major world powers that they came to Korea with the support of Koreans. He also published many other works in support of the Korean independence movement and participated in the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in China. But in 1924, his work for Korean independence was interrupted, when Kim Changsuk was apprehended while at the British Concession of Shanghai by the Japanese. He was soon sent back to Korea to Daegu (大邱, 대구) Prison, and there prison guards tortured him until he became crippled from the waist down. (Hence, the one of his pen names, “crippled old man.”) Kim Changsuk was released in 1934, and continued participating in independence activities albeit more passively. 

With the liberation of Korea on August 15, 1945, Kim Changsuk, having been again arrested earlier that year for independence activities, welcomed the news of from his prison cell. He was elected to a position in the Democratic Assembly (民主議院, 민주의원) formed by the US Army Military Government in Korea, but did not participate much in its activities. Instead, Kim Changsuk focused on regrouping the remaining Confucian scholars and seeing that Korea be united. In 1946, he became the head of committee for the Korean National Confucians’ Association and re-established Sungkyunkwan, the former national Confucian academy, as a modern University. He also heavily criticized the South Korean government for keeping the Korean peninsula divided. In particular, Kim Changsuk sharply denounced President Rhee Syngman (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965) for his dictatorial policies. For his criticism of President Rhee, Kim Changsuk was not only imprisoned for 40 days in Busan (釜山, 부산) but also later attacked by a mob of President Rhee’s supporters. After the Korean War ended in 1953, he reorganized Confucian village schools (鄕校, 향교) under one umbrella organization and attempted to modernize Confucianism as the head of Sungkyunkwan University. Kim Changsuk passed away in 1962, and received a civil funeral ceremony (社會葬, 사회장). He was posthumously awarded with the Order of Merit for National Foundation (建國勳章, 건국훈장) later that year.

Like most educated Koreans of the early modern era, Kim Changsuk was well versed in Classical Chinese. Below is just one of his poems expressing desire for Korean independence, which he composed while imprisoned in Daegu. This past August 15 marked the 70th anniversary of liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule.

大邱警部獄中 대구경부옥중

From the Daegu Police Station Prison

籌謀光復十年間 수모광복십년간 平平平仄仄平平(韻)
性命身家摠不關 성명신가총불관 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
磊落平生如白日 뢰락평생여백일 仄仄平平平仄仄
何須刑訊故多端 하수형신고다단 平平平仄仄平平(韻)

I have set out and planned for independence for tens of years.
My life and my possessions are always not of concern.
Sincerely and earnestly, all my life has been pure like the white sun:
What need is there for torture with such fixed intent in all sorts of manners?


To set out • to plan • glory • return • ten • years • space
Nature • fate • body • house • generally • not • to concern
Open • sincere • all • life • like • white • sun
How • must • punishment • interrogation • intent •  many • ends


  • Heptasyllabic truncated verse (七言絶句, 칠언절구). Riming character (韻, 운) is 刪(산). The poem complies with the rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시).
  • 磊落(뇌락) – Alliterating bionome (雙聲連綿詞, 쌍성 연면사), meaning “to be open-hearted and sincere.”
  • Korean translation available here (한국어 번역).

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