Among all, the biggest cause of the confusion must be the ubiquitous presence of the Chinese characters found in Korea, especially so if you’ve been to the historical sites such as Gwanghwamun Gate 광화문, or Gyeongbokgung Palace 경복궁, and gazed up at the signboards displaying majestic calligraphy written in Chinese characters. Even in the streets of modern-day Seoul today can you find the signboards bearing Chinese characters, abundant enough to make you puzzled.
As always, knowing history helps us understand the present. While keeping their native spoken languages, many Asian countries (Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, and etc.) adopted the Traditional Chinese characters (vs. the “Simplified Chinese” which has been in use in mainland China and some other countries since the 1950s to encourage literacy) as the written lingua franca (for both domestic and diplomatic use) similar to Latin in European history, or the role of English as the global standard today.
In Korea, hanja (the Korean term for Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and incorporated into the Korean language with Korean pronunciation) was the only available means of written communication until their own hangul, the Korean alphabet, was invented in 1443 and promulgated in 1446.
WHO INVENTED HANGUL THE KOREAN ALPHABET?
Besides the tall list of his splendid achievements, the main reason King Sejong the Great 세종대왕 (1397-1450) is revered as one of the (if not THE) greatest rulers in Korean history is his benevolence and compassion for his people (proof can be found at the heart of Gwanghwamun Square, where his bronze statue is situated with great dignity, along with that of the biggest war hero in Korean history, Admiral Yi Sun-shin 이순신). Reflecting his down-to-earth character, King Sejong always deplored the fact that his people had to rely on the extremely complicated hanja for written communication, and how the opportunities for learning it were almost exclusively available only to the haves (noble people, or yangban 양반, scholars, and the government officials and the like. They wore different hats according to their position.) only, while the have-nots were just too busy working their socks off to eke out a living, being the illiterate portion of the society. But even with knowledge of hanja, for it being of foreign origin, people had trouble expressing fully and freely their thoughts and meaning which they could have done effortlessly through their native spoken Korean language.
More importantly, those at the bottom of the totem pole had no way of having their stories heard, be they legitimate complaints (e.g., I’m paying too much taxes!) or brilliant ideas (e.g., I know how to annihilate the enemies camping outside the fortress!) because the only way to get it done was through oral communication (but you would be stopped by the gatekeepers). And because recording them with hanja for posterity wasn’t a viable option, much of the hard-gained know-hows of the common people (e.g., farming techniques, folk remedies, etc.) couldn’t be properly passed on to the next generation, which was a huge loss to the society as a whole. Luckily for Koreans, though, there was King Sejong the Great – an earnest scholar whose vast knowledge and natural talent in a wide spectrum of subjects constantly amazed even the most brilliant experts, also happened to be a problem solver and a go-getter determined to “walk the walk.” Fired up by the love and sympathy for his people, King Sejong rolled up his sleeves to rectify the problem himself. To accomplish the mission, he envisioned a set of letters that was uniquely Korean and easy enough so that people with little or no education could learn to read and write.
After countless days, he personally created a new set of alphabet consisting of 28 letters (17 consonants and 11 vowels, of which 3 consonants and 1 vowel became obsolete and fell out of use later, thus modern hangul consists of a total of 24 letters with 14 consonants and 10 vowels), named it Hunminjeongeum 훈민정음 (“The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People”), and promulgated it on October 9th, 1446. The preface of the proclamation well reflects the essence of King Sejong’s benevolence.
HUN MIN JEONG EUM 훈민정음
“The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People”
That was one moving intro, isn’t it? His sincerity still resonates with us today. Now, let’s see how critics rated the new invention.
A commentary (well, that’s what I’d call a five-star review) written by scholars from the Jiphyeonjeon 집현전 (Hall of Worthies) in the Hunminjeongeum Haerye 훈민정음 해례 (“Explanations and Examples of the Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People”), hints us that King Sejong’s plan to promote literacy among the commoners through an easy writing system got off to a great start (heck, you got the country’s top scholars vouching for it)!
After the promulgation, however, the Korean alphabet faced fierce opposition by the literary elite and Korean Confucian (the main ideology of the Joseon Dynasty) scholars, who cherished the Traditional Chinese characters, hanja, as the only legitimate writing system and as the “language of scholars.” More importantly, they saw hangul as a threat to their status – out of fear that the enlightened commoners might start a revolution.
But hangul gained popularity in the late 16th century as traditional poetry and hangul-novels flourished. Centuries later in 1894, fueled by the Gabo 갑오 Reformists’ push for modernization coupled with strong support from the Western missionaries, hangul was finally adopted in official documents for the first time, and a year later in 1895, elementary schools began to teach texts written in hangul. In 1896, Dongnipsinmun 독립신문 (“The Independence (Newspaper))”, became the first newspaper ever to be published in hangul.
“The language of [our] people is different from that of the nation of China and thus cannot be expressed by the written language of Chinese people. Because of this reason, the cries of illiterate peasants are not properly understood by the many [in the position of privilege]. I [feel the plight of the peasants and the difficulties faced by the public servants and] am saddened by the situation. Therefore, twenty eight [written] characters have been newly created. [My desire is] such that, each [Korean] person may become familiar [with the newly created written language of Korean] and use them daily in an intuitive way.”
– King Sejong the Great –
Translation at wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunminjeongeum, provided by CC-BY-SA
Since this period, hangul and hanja coexisted and maintained a symbiotic relationship in the form of gukhanmunhonyong 국한문혼용 (a writing style that uses a mixture of hangul and hanja), supplementing and complementing each other.
During the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945), Japanese was made the official language of Korea and the Korean language was completely persecuted – earlier Korean literature was banned from the public school curriculum, and the publication in the Korean language was also outlawed on the pretext of “cultural assimilation policy.” Despite the Japanese Imperialists’ effort to obliterate the Korean spirit, hangul was still secretly taught in schools established by Koreans, and it was one thing that held Koreans together during the difficult times. After Korea was liberated in 1945, hangul once again became an indispensable part of Korean culture.
Propelled by the government-wide 5-year project known as the Exclusive Usage of Hangul Act in 1968 which abolished hanja education while promoting hangul, the use of the mixed writing style has been rapidly decreasing and hangul took over the place where hanja used to be.
The project was rolled out for realistic reasons – reading and writing documents full of hanja-based jargon took too much time and effort, and the widespread computer usage favored the simple Korean layout with just 14 consonants and 10 vowels over the complicated Chinese system. Despite the effort, however, the use of hanja couldn’t be completely eliminated, largely due to practical reasons – Chinese characters are an ideogram (represent a meaning) Korean characters are a phonogram (represent a speech sound), and if presented only in hangul, it can get confusing when dealing with homonyms.
For example, the Chinese word 最高 and 最古 are both written and pronounced “choego” 최고 in Korean, but have different meanings – “best” and “oldest”. So when presented solely in hangul, it’s difficult to distinguish the difference without knowing the context in which it’s placed. For that reason, there is a school of thought who stresses the importance of hanja education and demands it be included back in the public school curriculum. While it’s left for the policymakers to decide, it’s undeniable that hanja has been an indispensable part of Korean culture, and is projected to remain so in the future.
UNESCO KING SEJONG LITERACY PRIZE
An annual prize awarded to two institutions, organizations or individuals “for their contribution to the fight against illiteracy.”
We strongly recommend that you watch Bburigipeun Namu 뿌리깊은 나무 (Deep Rooted Tree, 2011, SBS) the story of King Sejong The Great and hangul creation!
Or, for you Civilization fans out there you can play the Korean civilization featuring King Sejong The Great!
All right guys! That’s the history behind hangul and we hope you understand why Chinese characters are seen everywhere in Korea even today. Oh, and what language Korean people speak, right?
If you like funny T-shirts with Hangul on it – “I INVENTED HANGUL” King Sejong Korean T-Shirt Funny [Amazon]
And some Hangul practice? Master Korean Penmanship with Easy Learning Fundamental Korean Writing Practice Book [Amazon]
With that covered, you might be still wondering – THEN CAN KOREANS UNDERSTAND CHINESE, JAPANESE AND VICE VERSA? Let’s get right to it!