Hangul nationalists protesting at the Korean Constitutional Court, which held a public hearing on the Korean government’s “Hangul-Only” Policy dating back to the military dictatorship period. (Source)


One rhetoric that is often employed by Korean Hangul supremacists against Hanja is that Chinese characters are somehow a Japanese legacy. Just to give to examples, the statistic that Sino-Korean words account for 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is routinely denounced as a Japanese fabrication implanted by the Japanese colonial administration and Hanja-Hangul mixed script is often condemned as a Japanese creation imposed upon the Korean populace — presumably because of its similarity to modern Japanese orthography. While both are demonstrably false, this type of rhetoric is so common that one could easily come away with the impression that Hanja is a Japanese creation from reading their materials.

More distressingly, these baseless assertions can be found from people of relatively respectable positions in Korean society. One notable example is the head of the Hangul Society (한글학회), one of the most influential and well-established Korean language associations, who shares similar sentiments:

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…

Remember, this is not some random troll in a dark corner of the Internet. This is the head of a major Korean language association spewing conspiratorial rantings. And he is not an isolated case. Hangul supremacists can be found at protests screaming at the top of their longs accusing those who want to expand Hanja education as being pro-Japanese collaborators. Professors from top universities give interviews on television shows stating the same, minus the hyperventilation.

Ironically, Hangul supremacists will not condemn actual collaborators that they perceive contributed to the advancement of Hangul. No, they brazenly genuflect in front of them. For instance, they praise Yi Gwangsu (李光洙, 이광수, 1892-1950) for being the “Father of Modern Korean Literature” and one of the earliest proponents of the “pure Korean script.” Hangul supremacists happily overlook the fact that he was a zealous supporter of Japanese policies for assimilating Koreans. Even hyper-nationalist North Korea does not mind his collaborations with the Japanese colonial government, and has enshrined him at a cemetery in Pyongyang with other Korean independence activists.

This dissonance partly has to do with their view that Hangul is an embodiment of “pure” Korean-ness, under which the fact that the Japanese would have had any hand in the script is unfathomable. Any efforts to aid Hangul is deified and any attempts at expanding Hanja is unforgivable perfidy.

A Brief History of the Development of Korean Spelling Rules

But Hangul too has been heavily influenced by Japanese colonial rule. To get of sense of the degree of influence, today’s Korean spelling rules are almost identical from the ones promulgated by the Japanese colonial General Government. (While this fact might be lost on many Hangul supremacists, most Korean sources on this subject do not deny this.) A look at how Korean spelling developed from its inception through the early modern period will make this point evident.

Dongguk Jeongun

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 works 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)

Korean Spelling from King Sejong to the Late 19th Century

In 1446, King Sejong introduced Hangul with the publication of Proper Sounds to Instruct the People (訓民正音, 훈민정음). This work laid out twenty-eight letters. In order, they were:

  • 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), and ㅿ (z).
  • 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)

The work also explicated how each letter is to be pronounced and how the letters are to be combined to form syllable blocks. It even specified provisions for sounds that did not exist in native Korean, but Sino-Korean and vernacular Chinese (e.g., ㅱ for “w”). The Proper Sounds, however, did not give any detailed spelling rules. Its examples assumed that Korean would be spelled phonemically using the new alphabet (i.e., how they sounded). The only concrete spelling rule it proscribed was the Eight Terminal Consonants Rule (八終聲可足用, 팔종성가족용). Under this rule, only ㄱ, ㆁ, ㄷ, ㄴ, ㅂ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㄹ were to be used in the terminal position of a syllable (받침).

After the Proper Sounds, the next seminal work on Korean spelling the Collection of Chinese Characters to Teach the Ignorant (訓蒙字會, 훈몽자회) published in 1527 by Choe Sejin (崔世珍, 최세진, 1468-1542). The Collection of Characters systematically listed some 3,360 Chinese characters by their Korean pronunciations and meanings. Although published eighty-one years later, the work laid out different spelling rules than those of the Proper Sounds. For example, the letter ㆆ had dropped out, the distinction between ㅇ and ㆁ was lost, and some of the specific provisions for Sino-Korean and vernacular Chinese sounds were absent. It also added new rules and provisions to Korean, such as listing the alphabet in a different order with names:

  • Voiceless Consonants: ㄱ(其役, 기역), ㄴ(尼隱, 니은),ㄷ(池末, 디귿), ㄹ(利乙, 리을), ㅁ(眉音, 미음), ㅂ(非邑, 비읍), ㅅ(時衣, 시옷), and ㆁ(異凝, 이응)
  • Voiced Consonants: ㅋ(箕, 키), ㅌ(治, 티), ㅍ(皮, 피), ㅈ(之, 지), ㅊ(齒, 치), ㅿ(而, ㅿㅣ), ㅇ(伊, 이), and ㅎ(屎, 히)
  • Vowels:  ㅏ(阿, 아), ㅑ(也, 야), ㅓ(於, 어), ㅕ(余, 여), ㅗ(吾, 오), ㅛ(要, 요), ㅜ(牛, 우), ㅠ(由, 유), ㅡ(應, 응),ㅣ(伊, 이), and · (思, ㅅ·)

The Collection of Characters, however, maintained some of the rules as laid out in the Proper Sounds. It kept the Eight Terminal Consonants Rule and still assumed that Korean was to be spelled phonemically.

In the subsequent three centuries, Korean spelling rules only saw incremental changes, largely aligning with changes in how Korean was spoken. Some of the changes included:

  • Disuse of the letter ㅿ and ㆁ
  • Adding of ㅺ, ㅼ, ㅽ, ㅾ, and ㅄ for tense sounds (된소리), which probably did not exist in 15th century Korean (while ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ did exist, they did not originally denote those sounds)
  • Disuse of  ㄷ as a terminal sound (solely using ㅅ) by a substantial number of Korean writers

One characteristic that did not change was that Korean throughout this period was still spelled phonemically, although there were discrepancies between the spelling and pronunciation.


Published in 1908, the Book for Teaching Children (兒學編, 아학편) listed definitions of Chinese characters in Korean, Japanese, and English and also pronunciations of the Japanese, Mandarin, and English words in Hangul. Note the use of “ᅋ” (f) to spell “father,” “female,” and “wife.” Koreans today often make fun of themselves not being able to spell (or pronounce) English “f” and “v” sounds. Many might be shocked to find out that their great-grandparents’ Hangul allowed for spelling such sounds. (Source)

1894, Hangul Finally Becomes the National Script of Korea

Phonemic spelling of Korean, however, did not eliminate ambiguity. The same word could be spelled many different ways. There are actually accounts that Hangul-only texts were more difficult to read than mixed script texts. For example, the word 덮으면 (“if one covers”) in modern spelling could be spelled at least three ways under the conventional spelling of this time: 더프면, 덥흐면, 덥프면. How a Korean word was spelled was up to the whims of the individual printer  for that particular day or hour.

With Hangul becoming the “National Script” (國字, 국자) of Korea in 1894, the necessity of a clear, set spelling rules became soon apparent. This need was compounded by the fact that there were several, different attempts at formulating such rules by private individuals. One notable individual was a doctor named Ji Seokyeong (池錫永, 지석영, 1855-1935) who submitted his own rules to the court. His proposals (新訂國文, 신정국문) included:

  • Spelling of tense consonants with ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, and ㅉ
  • Adding ᅄ and ᅋ to denote “v” and “f” sounds
  • Replacing arae a (·) (아래 아) with =

The controversy grew. Some wanted Korean to be spelled morphophonemically (somewhat phonetic spelling reflective of the underlying etymological root). Others wanted Korean to be spelled like the European languages in a string. The only notable development that was widely adopted and stuck around was word spacing.

In 1907, the Korean government (now a protectorate of Japan) responded by establishing the National Script Research Committee (國文硏究所, 국문연구소) to examine this problem. Its members, some of whom were pro-Japanese collaborators, met several times to discuss standardization of Korean spelling. In 1909, they laid out their plans in the National Script Research Committee’s Proposals (國文硏究議定案, 국문연구의정안). At the time, these were considered radical:

  • Maintenance of the formation of letters into syllable blocks
  • Not restoring the use of obsolete consonants (ㆁ, ㆆ,  ㅿ,  ◇ , ㅱ, ㅸ, ㆄ, and ㅹ )
  • Adoption of spelling of tense consonant as ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ , ㅆ,  and ㅉ
  • Maintenance of the letter ㆍ
  • Adding a dot to the side of a syllable to indicate vowel length
  • Allowing the use of ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, and ㅎ as terminal consonants
  • Adoption of the names for the consonant letters as 이응, 기윽, 니은, 디읃, 리을,  미음, 비읍, 시읏,  지읒, 히읗, 키읔, 티읕, 피읖, 치읓
  • Adoption of the order of consonants as ㆁ, ㄱ,  ㄴ,  ㄷ,  ㄹ,  ㅁ , ㅂ,  ㅅ,  ㅈ,  ㅎ,  ㅋ,  ㅌ,  ㅍ,  ㅊ
  • Adoption of the order of vowels as ㅏ,  ㅑ,  ㅓ,  ㅕ , ㅗ , ㅛ , ㅜ,  ㅠ,  ㅡ , ㅣ,  ㆍ

These spelling rules never officially adopted. Within months of the release of the 1909 Proposals, Korea was annexed by Japan. The debate over Korean orthography would, however, continue. Read More


That is the question that a group of pro-Hanja advocates has asked the Korean Constitutional Court. The group known as the Korean Language Policy Normalization Promotion Association (語文政策正常化推進會, 어문정책정상화추진회) sued the Korean government over its decades-long Hangul-Only Policy (–專用, 한글전용). The association argues that the Hangul-Only Policy is unconstitutional, and claims that it has lead to a real decline of Korean language competence among the Korean populace. The Korean government’s position is that Hanja is not “Korean” regardless of its long history in Korea. The Korean Constitutional Court has set a public hearing date of May 12.

As a brief recap of history, Koreans originally did not have their own indigenous script and instead used Chinese characters (Hanja) for written communications as early as the Spring-Autumn Period (春秋時代, 춘추시대, 770-403BC). It would not be until 1443, when King Sejong (世宗, 세종, 1397-1450, r. 1418-1450) promulgated the Korean alphabet, Hangul, that Koreans had a script of their own. The King and his scholars created the script to transcribe not only native Korean sounds, but also pronunciations of Chinese characters. (The script originally included letters and specialized provisions just for the latter.)  While some of the elite recoiled at the new alphabet, others  found plenty of value. One of the first uses of Hangul were Chinese character dictionaries and translations of Confucian classics often in mixed script.

In its first four centuries of existence, however, Hangul never gained official status. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese characters continued to used. Hangul was only made the “National Script” (國文, 국문) in 1894. Debates regarding the role of Hangul in Korean orthography soon arose. They would continue even under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). During this time period, the first spelling rules for Korean were issued by the colonial General Government. Though never fully banned, using Korean was discouraged especially after 1938 with war mobilization efforts. This lead to a nationalist backlash fueling the perception that Hangul needed to be actively protected. (It should be noted there were a substantial number of Korean independence activists that wrote in Classical Chinese.)

After the liberation, this sentiment manifested in the institution of the Hangul-Only Policy by the South Korean government under President Syngman Rhee (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965) in 1948. The Policy specified official documents should be written only in Hangul and Hanja only when necessary. However, this was more of an aspirational statement since it was never actually implemented: official documents were still in mixed script. Furthermore, Hanja education was mandatory from elementary school. It would not be until military dictator and President Park Chung-hee (朴正熙, 박정희, 1917-1979) when the Hangul-Only Policy kicked into high gear in conjunction with other nationalist propaganda. In 1970, President Park removed Hanja from public documents and banned Hanja education from all grades. Due to public outcry, however, he re-instituted Hanja education as an optional elective at the middle school and high school levels in 1972. Hanja still remained absent from all textbooks besides the Hanja elective course. Successive military regimes continued President Park’s language policies. The ban on Hanja education at the elementary school level was only lifted in 1992. Regardless, the effect was that large segments of the Korean population never formally learned Chinese characters and were in fact taught to disregard them as foreign and inferior, leading to a substantial drop in use.

Today, while swept behind the rug of Hangul, Sino-Korean words (i.e., Korean words based on Hanja) account for 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary, with frequency of use ranging as high as 90% in specialized terminology. More than 97% of Koreans have Hanja names, the choice of which is regulated by the Korean Supreme Court. Certain academic fields such as law and history continue to use mixed script. Added to this, learning Hanja and Mandarin has become popular in the past few years. Yet, despite its continued use for over two millennia, under current Korean law (국어기본법), Hanja is just as “foreign” as other scripts that have no comparable history on the peninsula (“한자 또는 다른 외국 글자”). 

So, what should be the role of Chinese characters in Korean orthography today? Unfortunately, nativism, sinophobia, and even wild accusations of pro-Japanese collaborationism from a very vociferous segment of the Korean population have controlled the debate. The stripping away of Hanja in Korean writing and education has lead to spectacularly detrimental results. One particular consequence has been the significant reduction in the scope of collective learning available to Koreans.

For one, Koreans have been disconnected from the writings of their past. And it is not just the distant past that is affected. Thanks to the Hangul-Only Policy, there is now a trove of information published as recently as two or so decades ago no longer easily accessible. For example, many older Koreans that wrote their college theses as late as the 1980s cannot go back to read their own writings, because they wrote them in mixed script. (As another comical anecdote, I also know of even a few from my generation (“millennial”) that cannot read their own journal entries from elementary school since they were written in mixed script!) Furthermore, Koreans have been also isolated from their neighbors that continue to use Chinese characters. It was not that long ago that Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese used to be able to read one another’s newspapers to figure out the gist of the articles. Now, it is only the Koreans that cannot. What is even more worrisome about this growing illiteracy is that Korea’s largest trading partners include countries with large Sinophone populations, such as China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

In short, the Korean government’s Hangul-Only Policy has been disastrous and should be reversed. While the Korean Constitutional Court might not be most appropriate forum (and some of the group’s arguments might be far fetched), any attempts at undercutting this policy are welcome.



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 memories from my childhood in Korea was attending a Baduk academy, or Giwon (棋院, 기원) in Korean. Out all the Hagwons I attended, the Giwon was 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 also 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. The Korean Baduk Association (韓國棋院, 한국기원) planned to bestow its first ever honorary professional rank certificate to AlphaGo. It had previously only given honorary amateur ranks to people that had helped the development of Go. 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 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”

Not surprisingly, there was immediate 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.


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.

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.