In the late 1430s and early 1440s, a certain Korean scholar embarked on a massively ambitious project, working almost single-handedly and spurred on largely by personal interest. Although the Korean language had existed for almost 1,500 years, it had never had its own dedicated writing system. Korean writers had long tended to rely on Chinese writing, which was logographic—that is, it was a system of symbols that stood for concepts. Adapting the Chinese characters to Korean meant borrowing some Chinese symbols because of the way they were pronounced, and others because of the concept they conveyed.

This approach had centuries of tradition behind it, but it was not ideal. In particular, Korean had more prefixes, suffixes, and short grammatical words (e.g., prepositions) than Chinese did, and Chinese logographs were not well-suited to capturing these. More practically, learning the thousands of Chinese characters required a good deal of study, which meant that only the most well-educated Koreans could read and write. The Korean scholar in question was determined to bring literacy to the masses. His insight was that they needed an alphabet—that is, a writing system based entirely on pronunciation, and one that required far fewer characters than the logographs.

“What do you know of language and linguistics?” the bold scholar asked of several high-ranking officials who objected to his idea. “This project is for the people, and if I don’t do it, who will?” The scholar was none other than Sejong, the king of Korea, who had held the throne since 1418. His profoundly democratic conviction that literacy ought to be accessible to everyone was revolutionary in every sense. When King Sejong unveiled Hangul—his new alphabet for the Korean language—it was met with vehement opposition from Sejong’s advisors, from the literary elite, and from subsequent monarchs. For these objectors, Hangul was barbaric, it was primitive, it was unnecessary, it was an insult, and it needed to be eliminated.

Even before Sejong arrived on the kingly scene in 1418, Korea was marked by tensions over power. Administrators and civil servants were powerful elites during the Joseon Dynasty, and during this period, which extended from the late 14th century and lasted for more than 500 years, the king essentially shared power with a class of bureaucrats called the yangban. The yangban held on to their power partly through heredity, and partly through passing civil service tests—they were the proto-power nerds. With its highly centralized administrative system and its many levels of officialdom, the Joseon Dynasty depended on a sprawling bureaucracy. However, the inadequacies of the existing writing systems became more obvious as the number of clerks increased.

Yangban portrait
Yangban portrait

In the 15th century, the yangban were intellectuals and pencil-pushers, but also at times a violent lot. They lived lavishly thanks to the existence of slave labor, and rival factions of yangban frequently plotted against each other to increase their own power. The crème de la crème in Korea were the “meritorious elite.” These were Seoul-based bureaucrats who owned large, lucrative agricultural estates. They also possessed more power than their unmeritorious counterparts, the “neo-Confucian literati,” who lived in the countryside and saw themselves as being more virtuous than the worldly and corruption-prone meritorious elite.

Future king Sejong was born in 1397, five years after the start of the Joseon Dynasty. As a child and an adolescent he was an excellent student, and he came to power following the abdication of his tyrannical father in 1418. He was interested in receiving viewpoints from across the socioeconomic spectrum of his kingdom, so he incorporated people from all classes into his government. His approaches to economic management also focused on relieving corruption and hardship, with considerable consultation of the public. Sejong’s interest in his own people was deep and enduring, and he welcomed chances to encourage Korean identity as something discrete from the Chinese. Among other things, Sejong encouraged his astronomers to redefine their calculations to center on their own capital city rather than a city found in China.

In the same vein, but far more ambitious, was Sejong’s plan for a truly Korean writing system. This would address the need for something more accessible than the Chinese symbols (hanja) and encourage widespread literacy. Sejong was especially concerned about the possibility of his people overlooking or misunderstanding the laws of the kingdom without a way of reading them. As he noted,

“The enunciations of our country’s language are different from those of the Middle Kingdom and are not communicable with the Chinese characters. Therefore, even though my beloved illiterate people want to say something, many of them are unable to express their feelings in writing.”

The evolution of language abilities in the human brain has depended on speech (or signs). While reading and writing are useful add-ons, they are brand new inventions as compared to spoken/signed language. Writing has been developed in several places independently, but the earliest surviving examples of full-fledged writing systems are from Egypt and Mesopotamia around 3300 BCE—very recently in terms of the full scale of human history. Even now, only about half of the world’s more than 7,000 living languages are known to have conventionalized writing systems.

Part of a letter written in Classical Chinese, from Kublai Khan of the Mongol Empire to the 'King of Japan' ca. 1266
Part of a letter written in Classical Chinese, from Kublai Khan of the Mongol Empire to the 'King of Japan' ca. 1266

Existing writing systems also differ considerably; individual written symbols might correspond to concepts (logographic systems, such as Chinese), syllables or partial syllables (syllabaries, for instance both the hiragana and katakana systems of Japanese), consonants plus small indications of vowels (abugidas, for instance Thai), consonants with optional indications of vowels (abjads, e.g. Arabic and Hebrew), or consonants and vowels equally (alphabets, such as the one that you are reading). The writing system that Sejong devised for Korean—now called Hangul—would prove to be a unique hybrid between two of these options.

Being committed to learning, Sejong had established a think tank, the Hall of Worthies, in 1420. When he became interested in developing a new writing system in the early 1440s, he assembled a working group from its ranks. This group had a name that Big Bird would doubtless approve of: the Alphabet Commission of the Hall of Worthies. He also enlisted the help of his oldest son, Munjong, who worked on the sounds of the letters.

For three years they labored in secrecy and seclusion. The hush-hushedness was necessary to keep the scholarly elite, apart from the members of the Alphabet Commission, at bay. It was a trying time for Sejong, who suffered from chronic illnesses ranging from rheumatism to diabetes. And in the last stage of the alphabet project, Sejong’s eyesight began to fail. Not even visits to hot springs—in those days considered something of a panacea—could reverse his decline. Yet it seems that the only work that Sejong took with him on his visits to the hot springs was related to his writing system. For him, that project was paramount.

Sejong’s commitment to Hangul, even as it aggravated his poor health, has been hailed as heroic—particularly by the historians who believe Sejong was the sole originator of Hangul. In this view, the members of the Alphabet Commission were merely advisors, while the king carried out the grunt work. The dynastic record supports this theory, stating “His Highness has personally created the twenty-eight letters of the Vernacular Script.”

Regardless of whether Sejong came up with it all single-handedly, the system was clever, and had two features that were essentially unique among writing systems. One was that many of the shapes of the consonant symbols were meant to imitate what the tongue and the lips do in producing the corresponding sounds. For instance, ᄆ stands for the sound /m/, with the lips pressed together.ᄂ is /n/, with the tip of the tongue reaching upwards behind the top teeth; ᄀ is /k/, with the back of the tongue pressing upwards and briefly stopping the airflow. Consonants that share a tongue position were given related shapes. For instance, because /p/ is made with the lips together the same way /m/ is, it was assigned ᄇ. And because /t/ is produced with the tongue pressed behind the top teeth as /n/ is, it got the symbol ᄃ.

Hunminjeongeum Haerye manuscript. The Korean letters are easy to identify: they’re clearly much simpler than the Chinese characters.
Hunminjeongeum Haerye manuscript. The Korean letters are easy to identify: they’re clearly much simpler than the Chinese characters.

The other special feature of Hangul is that in the strictest sense, it is neither alphabet nor syllabary, but something of a chimera. Each written component stands for a single sound, as in an alphabet, but the components are compressed into blocks that correspond to individual syllables.

The Hangul project was completed sometime in the winter of 1443-44. By this point, several of the meritorious elite had discovered its existence, and did not approve of the project. They conferred, then presented Sejong with a report detailing the dissenters’ many concerns, tidily numbered and naturally written in the awkward logographic alphabet borrowed from the Chinese:

  • That they believed that ongoing deference to China was appropriate, and thought the idea of breaking with Chinese writing was so disrespectful in this regard so as to be “shameful.”
  • That the nearby groups with their own writing systems separate from Chinese logograms were “barbarians,” and that creating a new script would make Koreans qualify as such.
  • That a simple script would alienate Koreans from Chinese culture and result in a cultural “dumbing down” (an allegation with which language change in general is frequently charged across time, space, and culture, and for which there is never solid evidence).
  • That the argument about making laws more accessible struck them as unconvincing because even in China, where people were more likely to understand Chinese characters, there were problems with justice.
  • That there had been no consultation with China, and also no chance to work out potential problems with the script before its introduction.
  • On quite a different note, that it was unreasonable that Munjong, “who should be focusing on his studies and his cultivation,” was devoting so much time and effort to a writing system “that is irrelevant to his personal maturation.”

Sejong was unfazed by this menacing listicle. He replied in brief, saying that the project was both supremely important and born completely of necessity. He further asserted that the script was meant to be prominent enough in Korean society that any involvement on the part of Munjong—who was very likely to succeed his father as king—was thoroughly warranted.

The project went ahead, and in 1446, the Hunminjeongeum (“the correct sounds for the people’s education”) was published and disseminated. Written primarily in Chinese, it laid out Sejong’s alphabet, its justification, and how it worked in practice. A later edition, called the Hunminjeongeum Haerye, adds “explanations and examples.”

While to King Sejong, the ease of learning Hangul had been one of its main selling points, this led many noses to upturn among the scholar-officials. While the alphabet project was not actually anti-intellectual as the objectors had feared in their third point, it was certainly anti-elitist—and they were the elite. As the new script crept into popular awareness, the officials dismissively called the script “women’s letters”; and indeed, women and commoners would be the main users of Hangul until the officials finally relented.

Sejong tried to popularize the new language. He set up two institutions to promote it, the “Vulgar Script Headquarters” and the “Book House.” He had poems and Buddhist texts written in it, and classic writings translated into Hangul. Yet the people who saw the value of Hangul—translators and Buddhists—had relatively little power. Thus, during what remained of Sejong’s reign, Hangul was treated, in the words of the historian Sek Yen Kim-Cho, “like an illegitimate and abandoned child.” In subsequent years, the writing system that was straightforward enough to threaten privilege with mass education would nearly be suppressed entirely.

A large public statue of Sejong in South Korea
A large public statue of Sejong in South Korea

Sejong, still in poor health, died only four years after the release of the Hunminjeongeum Haerye. Not content to simply ignore Hangul and hope it would go away, the bureaucratic elite took steps to marginalize it. The great king was followed by two weak and short-lived monarchs: his oldest son Munjong, and Munjong’s 12-year-old son Danjong. Despite having assisted his father during the run-up to unveiling Hangul, Munjong was arm-twisted into closing the Sejong-founded institution that published Hangul translations of Buddhist texts. Danjong was similarly powerless to stop the machinations of the anti-alphabetists.

While Sejong’s son and grandson were unable to halt aristocratic opposition to Hangul, a later king, the notorious Yeonsan, took things even further. His reign of terror sought to bolster his power at any expense. In between executing many members of court, from tutors to concubines, the busily despotic Yeonsan seized land and property to feed his hedonistic appetites. 1504 was a particularly bloody year, and also a particularly low point in the history of Hangul. One letter criticizing Yeonsan was printed in the Hangul script, which was still infrequently used at that time—due in part to the successful elite attempts to keep its use limited. Yeonsan, dead set on finding the person responsible for the letter, closed off the city’s gates and ordered his men to locate the letter’s author. The search was ultimately unsuccessful, and the anonymous dissident was never identified. But in the process of cracking down on Hangul, Yeonsan was responsible for burning key Hangul texts. Some sources state that Yeonsan went even further, by banning the study or use of Hangul among males.

Ultimately, however, Yeonsan’s politicizing caught up with him. He had executed a number of neo-Confucian literati even before the great purge of 1504. And on hearing of intrigue in a previous king’s reign that had led to the poisoning of his mother, Yeonsan turned on the more powerful meritorious elite, upon whom he heaped responsibility. Unsurprisingly, the wealthy and important officials didn’t take kindly to being killed and banished en masse, and they managed to depose Yeonsan in 1506. This was a turbulent period when Korean monarchs had very short reigns; rulers appeared to agree that it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

After Yeonsan and the throne parted ways, the writing system remained a political volleyball for centuries. One key event that led to its increasing use, even beyond women and commoners, was the Gabo reform of the late 19th century. This period, named after the Gabo year (1894), saw a wide range of changes to the inefficient and corrupt political system. An important element of the reform was the official adoption of Hangul in government documents. Another factor in the increased take-up of Hangul was the aftermath of Japanese colonialism in the 20th century. After (and during part of) the colonial period, Hangul became a key aspect of Korean nationalism, and it gathered sufficient momentum that it eventually became the default script for Korean. Most educated Koreans continued to use Chinese writing until the beginning of the 20th century, but with the phasing out of hanja education in schools, that is no longer the case. Hangul is ubiquitous, and both Koreas have close to universal literacy.

Hangul has changed very little since the time of Sejong. Some of the changes are due to the Korean language itself undergoing shifts. (For example, the reason why the symbol ᅀ has disappeared is that it stood for the sound /z/, which modern Korean no longer uses.) A few holdout Chinese characters remain in writing to represent everyday nouns, but in South Korea they are used infrequently apart from certain contexts such as newspaper headlines. Even today, though, successive presidential administrations in South Korea change policy on whether some Chinese characters should be taught.

Sejong featured on modern Korean currency
Sejong featured on modern Korean currency

October 9th—the anniversary of the release of the Hunminjeongeum Haerye—is now designated Hangul Day in the South. As for the king who spearheaded the project and thus undermined the aristocracy in spite of himself, he is now venerated, and he is one of only two historical Korean rulers retrospectively given the title “the Great.” Sejong has been immortalized in a number of ways—numerous educational institutions have been named for him, as have Korean dramas, a computer game, a class of naval destroyers, and even an asteroid.

Perhaps most appropriately of all, though, every year the United Nations bestows the King Sejong Literacy Prize upon organizations promoting native-language literacy. In this way Sejong continues to contribute to the universalizing of literacy, even half a millennium after his death.