Why Did King Sejong Create Hangul, the Korean Alphabet?

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.

Introduction

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.

Banjeolpyo

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

Conclusion

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.

7 comments
  1. New Reader said:

    I find it funny that they’d cry an affront to King Sejong, knowing full well that he did not, in fact, intend his creation to be the forefront of a “cultural renovation”, a breaking-away with the Ming tributary system, or somesuch. And all that said notwithstanding, they seem to ignore fact that hangul did not, in fact, see widespread use during the king’s lifetime, or any century thereafter. Revisionism and its historical selectiveness sure is hilarious.

    • 歸源 said:

      I would find it funny, if this belief weren’t so widespread. Most Koreans have been led to believe those things.

      As for the other point, I do disagree with the comment on Hangul’s pre-modern use. To be sure, Hangul’s use was nowhere to the degree it is now, but it was still in use. One of the early uses of Hangul was to translate Confucian classics.

      • New Reader said:

        I see I have been instructed. I thank you kindly for this new information input; I previously thought Hangul had lain forgotten and dormant after Serjong’s death (mainly to the Hanmun-literate aristocracy not wanting to release their clutches from the gift of literacy) until the mid-to-late XIX century; I was thus unaware of its uses in Joseon Korea.

      • 歸源 said:

        That’s a view actually forwarded by Hangul exclusivists and some Korea ultra-nationalists. To them, anything “Chinesey” was just limited to the upper crust of Korean society, including Hanmun. By the late Chosun period, however, literacy (whether Hangul or Hanmun) was not good indicator of class: there were plenty of poor, illiterate gentry. Also, even with folk customs that such proponents point to, there’s plenty of Sinitic influences.

    • It is said said:

      “And all that said notwithstanding, they seem to ignore fact that hangul did not, in fact, see widespread use during the king’s lifetime, or any century thereafter.”

      Hangul is in widespread use currently and has been for decades. When Hangul was first created, it was not perfect, so it was an evolving script and for a period of time, from 1504-1527, Hangul education was banned. It was also banned during the Japanese occupation to eradicate Korean national identity. The reason King Sejong created Hangul was due to the fact that there was a great divergence between the spoken and written language.

      • 歸源 said:

        I would like to add that during the Japanese colonial period Korean language education was only banned after 1941. Between 1910 and 1938, Korean language education was in fact mandatory in colonial schools — although not all schools had Korean teachers and Korean received less than half the time devoted to Japanese. In 1938, Korean language education was made an elective. At no point was the Korean language actually banned; the Japanese needed it for propaganda purposes. Pro-Japanese newspapers, such as the Maeil Shinbo, printed in Hangul even up to the last day of WWII. (This is not said to lessen any of the pains of that period.)

  2. A fascinating, and highly educational, post.

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