Today, Korea is having its twentieth legislative elections. At polling booths across the country, Korean voters will vote for their candidate or party with a stamp marked with the Chinese character 卜(복). The reason why the stamp has this character are three-fold: historical, practical, and symbolic.

The first elections in South Korea were held in 1948 under the auspices of the US Army Military Government.  Voters at polling booths used a circular stamp or sign (“○”) with no circumscribed shaped inside to mark down their candidates of choice. Resources were so inadequate that people resorted to using the round edges of pen caps to indicate their votes. The Korean War from 1950 to 1953 devastated the country even further. In the elections immediately after war, voters used bamboo branches and even bullet casings to mark their votes. While Korea’s economy vastly improved in the following decades, the plain circular mark continued to be used.

The plain circular mark, however, had a few practical problems. When they are cast, the ballots on which the mark is recorded are folded. In many instances, this caused in the dye being transposed onto the contacting side, thereby resulting in invalid votes. In 1992, the Chinese character 人(인) for “person” was added and circumscribed into the circular voting stamp to remedy this problem. The addition of this character shape, however, did not completely resolve the issue with invalid votes, since the character 人 is somewhat symmetric. The dye transposed onto the folded side of the ballot was still indistinguishable from from the side where the mark was originally stamp.

During the presidential elections of 1994, another issue arose. The character 人 was seen as too similar to the si-ot ㅅ in candidate Kim Young-sam’s (金泳三, 김영삼, 1927-2015) name and ultimately viewed as favoring him. (Kim Young-sam would indeed later go onto win the presidential election, becoming the first civilian to hold the Korean presidential office in three decades.) To address this problem, the character 人  was changed to 卜(복). This alteration also finally resolved the issue of invalid votes resulting from the dye being transposed onto the other side of the ballot. Since the character 卜 is asymmetric, election talliers would be able to distinguish the transposed mark from the original mark.

The character 卜 also carries multiple meanings, highly pertinent to the rite of voting. It can mean “to foretell” (점치다), “to consider in detail” (상고하다), or “to count” (헤아리다). And this is why the voting stamps in Korean elections have the character 卜.

Sources (All in Korean):


AlphaGo vs. Lee Sedol, Fifth and Last Match (Source)

One of my fond childhood memories of when I lived in Korea was attending a Baduk academy, or Giwon (棋院, 기원) in Korean. Out all the Hagwons I attended, the Giwon was probably the only one I looked forward to. Through studying the game, I only reached intermediate strength: at my prime, I played at about a 5-6k (級, 급) ranking. This is enough to appreciate a substantial, but not all, of tactics and strategy in the game. During my studies in engineering, I was interested in artificial intelligence (AI), and did read a few research papers on Go AI. So, when I heard that Google had developed AlphaGo, an AI that could finally play at a professional level, I was somewhat skeptical  knowing what I did, but nonetheless excited. I intently watched  professional commentaries for each game and read a few technical articles on the algorithms powering AlphaGo.

Go is also one of many reasons I became interested in Chinese characters and Classical Chinese. Many of the terms in Baduk are Sino-Korean (e.g., 逐(축) for ladder). Some proverbs used in Korean Baduk books are whole Classical Chinese phrases (e.g., 我生然後殺他(아생연후살타), meaning “After I gain life, kill the opponent”). Knowledge of Chinese characters added an extra flavor to appreciating the game that I would not otherwise have had. These words highlighted the board game’s antiquity, which has been repeatedly emphasized in the current media coverage.

It was thus very disappointing to see Hangul Supremacy, a belief held by many Korean nationalists, rearing its ugly head after the conclusion of the matches. For the first time in its history, the Korean Baduk Association (韓國棋院, 한국기원) planned to bestow an honorary professional rank certificate to AlphaGo. The Association initially was going to follow the customary mixed script orthography (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) for AlphaGo’s honorary certificate:

AlphaGo Honorary Certificate Mixed Script

“You have devoted yourself in studying the Way of Baduk. Having exerted yourself in character development, your strength in Baduk has reached the hall of the divine (入神, 입신). As such, we bestow the rank of 9-dan.” (Source)

The original honorary certificate even included the term, “entering the divine (入神, 입신),”  that dates back to the 6th century during the North-South Period of Chinese history (南北朝時代, 남북조시대, 420-589). Emperor Wu of Liang (梁武帝, 양무제, 464-549, r. 502-549) devised nine rankings for Go (圍棋九品, 위기구품). Today, these names are used as nicknames for professional Go rankings from 1-dan to 9-dan (段, 단). They are from lowest to highest:

  1. 守拙(수졸) – “Defensible, but weak”
  2. 若愚(약우) – “Slightly foolish”
  3. 鬪力(투력) – “Pugnacious strength”
  4. 小巧(소교) – “A little cunning”
  5. 用智(용지) – “Applying wisdom”
  6. 通幽(통유) – “Passing through darkness”
  7. 具體(구체) – “Wholly prepared”
  8. 坐照(좌조) – “Sitting enlightened”
  9. 入神(입신) – “Entering the divine”

However, there was some controversy about using mixed script, which is often mischaracterized as a product of Japanese colonial era partly because of its similarity to Japanese orthography. Fearing backlash, the Korean Baduk Association bizarrely commented that “Hanja is too difficult (한자가 너무 어렵고)”, despite the fact that it regularly corresponds with Chinese and Japanese professional Go associations, and decided to pull the mixed script version. It instead gave AlphaGo a version of the certificate in English and Hangul:

AlphaGo Honorary Certificate Hangul + English

On the left, the English side is rather clumsily worded. On the right, stripped of any literary terms, the Korean side is quite bland. (Source)

To top it off, the English portion of the certificate was in rather obtuse English. The second sentence reads “Korea Baduk Association, in recognition of AlphaGo’s outstanding capacity and achievement, is hereby presenting honorary 9 Dan.” This phrase should have included the article “The” at the beginning and the participle should be “hereby presents.” The error is at the very least a small embarrassment to Korea while the world is watching. The Korean side is not any better. Compared to the original mixed script version, it is very dull, boring, devoid of anything suggestive of how dramatic and significant this accomplishment is.

At any rate, the controversy over mixed script particularly in this context is cognitive dissonance par excellence. No one is (or at least should be) under any allusion as to where Go originated. Everyone knows that the game came from China. Why some Koreans after following a week’s worth of matches on a Chinese board game would suddenly balk at the use of Chinese characters boggles the mind — especially to this Korean. Both have equally long, venerable histories in Korea.

I am fairly sure that these Korean nationalists, who would have given little thought over Go were it not for the match with AlphaGo, would have an aneurysm if they found out that modern style of Go is heavily influenced by how the game was played in 17th century Japan and that Korean professional players typically sign their names in Chinese characters at international matches, as Lee Sedol (李世乭) did at the end of this one:

Lee Sedol Autograph

Lee Sedol presents his autograph in Hanja to Demis Hassabis. Lee’s name is quite peculiar, because it uses a character 乭(돌) that is only used in Korea. In Chinese and Japanese media, his name is often written as 石. (Source)

Getting back to the match, it was quite entertaining to watch the games between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol. I have not followed professional Go scene in quite some time. Rather than discouragement at Lee Sedol’s losses, it has made me want to brush up on the ancient, but ever new, game.

Blog Pic 2-29-2016

Confectioneries and fruits laid out at a traditional Korean wedding ceremony (Source)

Naver’s Encyclopedia (네이버 백과사전) is an incredibly useful resource especially on all things Korean (in Korean), such as Korean literature, history, culture, customs, and so forth. A few days ago, I came across an entry about a rather humorous regional folktale originating from Yangju (楊州, 양주) in Gyeonggi Province (京畿道, 경기도), a city just north of Seoul, titled An Illiterate Bridegroom’s Classical Chinese Poem (無識한 新郞의 漢詩, 무식한 신랑의 한시). The tale is said to have passed on by word of mouth among the residents of this area, and was first recorded sometime during the colonial period. It uses word play requiring an understanding of not only Classical Chinese — as the title suggests — but also native Korean. This might seem complex, but such jokes can be actually found in other Korean stories and poems from the pre-modern era, and even in memes today. Below is my quick translation:

An Illiterate Bridegroom’s Classical Chinese Poem

Long ago, a young man was to be married to the daughter of an erudite man’s household. The bride’s family wanted to see their soon-to-be son-in-law’s literary talents on the day of the wedding. However, the bridegroom’s father knew that his son barely knew how to write. Because of this, he was afraid that his son would be humiliated by the bride’s family members. The father thus went to a well-educated, literate man and asked him to be his son’s attendant as a guest of honor at the wedding, so that his son would not be humiliated.

After the wedding ceremony, surely enough the bride’s family gathered around the bridegroom with a table and brush, and asked him to write a poem. Flustered and not knowing what to write, the bridegroom gazed all around the room. He saw a spider web on the ceiling, and shouted, “Cheon-jang-e geo-mi-jip (천장에 거미집)” (“There’s a spider web on the ceiling”). The attendant immediately wrote:

天長去無執 천장거미집 Cheon-jang-geo-mi-jip

The heavens are so expansive that there is nowhere to go to grab a hold of.

The bridegroom then looked toward the yard, and saw the smoke of husks of grain being burnt (겻불내) rising. He then interjected, “Hwa-ro-e gyeo-bb’ul-lae (화로에 겨뿔내)” (“In the stove, the smell of grain husks burning”). The attendant quickly scribbled:

花老蝶不來 화로접불래 Hwa-ro-jeop-bul-lae

As the flower has grown old, butterflies do not come.

Next, he turned his attention to the table and the food laid thereupon. The bridegroom first saw one bowl of noodles and called out, “Guk-su han sa-bal (국수 한 사발)” (“One bowl of noodles”). The attendant hastenly scribed:

菊秀寒士發 국수한사발 Guk-sa-han-sa-bal

The chrysanthemums are elegant, blossoming like a poor scholar.

Lastly, the bridegroom turned to the sweets and fruits on the table, and exclaimed, “Gang-jeong, bin-sa-gwadae-chu, bok-sung-a! (강정, 빈사과, 대추, 복숭아!)” (“Glutinous rice crackers, molasses-coated sweets, dates, and peaches!”). The attendant briskly penned:

江亭貧士過 강정빈사과 Gang-jeong-bin-sa-gwa
大醉伏松下 대취복송하 Dae-chwi-bok-song-ha

The poor scholar passes by the river’s pavilion;
Greatly inebriated, he lays flat down beneath the pine tree.

The bride’s family praised the bridegroom for his writing, and was pleased to see that their new son-in-law was literate.

This folktale reveals that Korean common folk had accepted or were at least exposed to Classical Chinese to some degree. This is seen not only from the bride’s family putting value in literacy in Chinese characters but also from the whole story itself treating Classical Chinese poetry with great levity. (As further evidence of this, there was even an entire genre of native Korean poetry called Eonmun-pungweol (諺文風月, 언문풍월) that was popular into the early 20th century that mimicked Classical Chinese poetry.) This is contradictory to some Korean nationalists’ baseless assertions, whose opinions are too common online, that Sinitic elements of Korean culture were limited to just the very elite.


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, Wang Anshi was selected to serve in the high-ranking position of Hanlin Scholar (翰林學士, 한림학사). Starting in 1069, after the reform-minded young Emperor Shenzong (宋神宗, 송 신종, 1048-1085, r. 1067-1085) ascended the throne, Wang Anshi was tasked with initiating a series of wide-sweeping and controversial reforms known as the New Policies (新法, 신법). 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. 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.

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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.


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