On Hangul Supremacy & Exclusivity – Introduction

ROK Constitution

The original copy of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea. First promulgated in 1948, the Constitution is still published in mixed script.

Introduction

Hangul supremacy (– 優秀主義, 한글우수주의) is the belief that the Korean alphabet, or Hangul (한글), is superior in comparison to other writing systems, especially in comparison to Chinese character or Hanja (漢字, 한자). Hangul Exclusivity (–專用, 한글전용) is closely related, and refers to writing entirely in Hangul. Hangul Supremacy and Exclusivity are viewed as almost synonymous with Korean identity today. These associations, however, are very recent, and there is still ongoing debate over these topics.

Hangul Supremacy and Exclusivity Are Very Recent Concepts

Koreans have been using Hanja, or more accurately the pictographic predecessor to it, since the Dong-yi (東夷, 동이) Culture in the Neolithic Age. Hangul came much later, when it was promulgated by King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) in 1446. For the next 500 years, although there were a number of works in Hangul, both in Hangul only and Hangul-Hanja Mixed Script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용), Hanja remained the dominant script in Korea. There were a number of reasons for this. For one, regional commerce and diplomacy was conducted between Korea and its neighbors was still conducted in this script.

In the late 19th century, with the rise of Korean nationalism, the use of Hangul did increase and there were a few Koreans that started advocating for Hangul Exclusivity. Despite this, Hangul Exclusivity was still not associated with the Korean identity. One famous example is Ahn Junggeun (安重根, 안중근, 1879-1910), a famous Korean independence activist, who composed a Classical Chinese poem on the very night before he assassinated Ito Hirobumi (伊藤博文, 이등박문/이토히로부미,1841-1909), the first Resident-General of Korea. This was not an isolated case. In the first half of the 20th century, Koreans regularly composed Classical Chinese works — and in Mixed Script. Three different Classical Chinese translations of the Story of Chunhyang (春香傳, 춘향전), a famous Korean folk tale, were made during this era. Korean newspapers often printed a section with a Classical Chinese poem submission, including those with nationalist sentiments.

It should thus be no surprise that Hangul Exclusivity as the nearly ubiquitous form of Korean writing in South Korea is quite recent. Although the percentage of Hanja use in writing decreased sharply beginning in the 1970s — for reasons that will be explained –, Mixed Script was the dominant form of Korean writing for most of the 20th century, and remains so for some fields of work such as history and law. The near-ubiquity of Hangul Exclusivity at the levels seen today is unprecedented and only dates back to the late 1980s.

The Debate Over Hangul Exclusivity Continues On

Despite the decline in use of Hanja in recent times, there is still debate — a very rancor one, replete with each side making colorful accusations against the other —  over Hangul Exclusivity, with one side advocating for Hangul Exclusivity and the other for Mixed Script. It should be noted that it is difficult at times to characterize the opposing sides. Both sides use nationalist sentiments in their arguments, although Mixed Script advocates at times appeal to regionalism. Many who advocate for Hangul exclusivity do not want Hanja even being taught in public schools, but there are now some that are in favor. Many who advocate for mixed script do not necessarily disagree with Hangul supremacy; they merely argue that Mixed Script is superior.

Unfortunately, most of this debate on Hangul Supremacy and Exclusivity is in Korean. The purpose of this series of posts is to introduce Anglophone readers to this debate, without getting into the ugly rhetoric exchanged between the two sides.

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