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In this episode, I speak with Dr. Young-Key Kim-Renaud, a theoretical linguist and Professor Emeritus at George Washington University, on King Sejong the Great and his invention, the Korean script.
Join us as we explore why, even after more than a millennia of using Chinese characters to notate the Korean language, we needed our own writing system and how King Sejong went about to create it.
Show Notes: http://fluentkorean.com/king-sejong-and-the-invention-of-the-korean-script
Instagram: @fluentkorean @fluentfools
Special Guest: Dr. Young-Key Kim-Renaud
Dr. Young-Key Kim-Renaud is the current President of the Korean Literary Society of Washington. She is Professor Emeritus of Korean Language and Culture and International Affairs, and Senior Advisor to the Institute for Korean Studies at George Washington University (GW), where she taught for 32 years and served as Chair of the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department for the last 12 years of her tenure before retiring in 2015.
She has a B.A. in English from Ewha Womans University, an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, a graduate degree in French as a Foreign Language from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Hawai‘i.
She is the founder and convener of GW’s annual Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities, which will hold its 30th meeting on November 5, 2022. While at GW, she was invited to teach at Harvard University and Nanjing University, China. Before joining GW, she was a Linguistics Program Director at the U.S. National Science Foundation, the first to hold such a position for any person of Korean descent.
As a pioneer in Teaching Korean as a Foreign Language and in Korean Linguistics, she has devoted more than fifty years to promoting Korean studies to be recognized as an important academic field as a crucial part of East Asia and the world. Her publications on Korean language, linguistics, culture, and current affairs, include thirteen books, which received many favorable reviews.
She served as President of the International Circle of Korean Linguistics and as Editor-in-Chief of its journal, Korean Linguistics. She has organized major academic and cultural events concerned with Korean studies. She has been a linguistic and cultural consultant and testified as an expert witness in U.S. courts for criminal and civil cases.
As a donor and fund-raiser, she has helped create three endowed professorships, one scholarship, and a prize fund in Korean studies at GW.
She has been interviewed by major international media including the National Public Radio, the New York Times, and the Washington Post in the US, and CGTN in China, Kyodo News and the Japan Times in Japan, the Daily Telegraph in UK, El Mercurio in Chile, and KBS, MBC, YTN, and Segye Times in Korea.
She has received prestigious prizes including three Fulbright awards and the Distinguished Korean of the Year Award from the Korean American Foundation in the U.S., and the Republic of Korea Jade-Crown Medal of the Order of Cultural Merit for her Han’gŭl contribution and the Samsung Bichumi Special Grand Award for Public Service by the Samsung Life Foundation in Korea.
To purchase a copy of King Sejong the Great: The Light of the 15th Century, please send an email to Dr. Kim-Renaud using the email address provided above.
All proceeds from book sales go to the Sejong Scholarship Fund at George Washington University.
(CV summary text and CV file provided by Dr. Young-Key Kim-Renaud)
(00:00) Minju [hereafter “M”]: You’re listening to the Fluent Fools podcast by Fluent Korean
(00:04) [Intro Music]
(00:21) Hey, everyone, it’s Minju here welcoming you back to another episode of the Fluent Fools podcast. In this podcast, we explore the language, culture, society, history, and current events happening in the Land of the Morning Calm and around the world as we continue on our quest to go from Fluent Fools to Fluent Korean.
(00:42) [Music: One who learns language without learning culture ends up becoming a fluent fool.]
(00:55) M: I am really excited about this episode because it is on one of my most favorite subjects – and that is the Korean script or Hangeul — as it is known in South Korea. And we’re now in October, which means Hangeul Day is on the 9th – it commemorates the day that King Sejong promulgated the Korean script to his people. Now, before I introduce the special guest of this episode, here is a little bit of context:
Firstly, we need to make a distinction between written script and spoken language. I’ve seen and heard people use Hangeul (한글) and Hangukeo (한국어) interchangeably, but they are not the same thing at all.
The Korean language has existed for thousands of years and was developed over a very, very long period of time. The Korean script, however, was invented in the 15th century, at a very specific point in our history, and promulgated by King Sejong the Great, who is often considered the greatest king of the Joseon dynasty, or of all of Korean history.
We’re now in the 21st century and so 600 or so years may seem like quite a long time ago, but really, relative to the history of all writing systems and the 5,000-year history of Korea, it is still very recent.
As a writing system, it is unique in that it is the only script or alphabet in all of human history where the inventor is known and the theory and motivation behind its creation is not only known to us but is documented. And because of that and because of the genius logic, science, philosophy, and thought behind the creation of this writing script, it is so special and important to our people.
For more than a millennia before its invention, Koreans used Classical Chinese or hanja to notate the Korean language. If you’re familiar with written Chinese, you know that there is no alphabet. Here, literacy involves memorizing thousands of characters. And it also involves being able to look at or read the characters and interpret them correctly because one character or different characters placed together can have various meanings. And so, being literate was the same as being a learned person.
It was really only the elite men of the aristocracy, for the most part, who could afford to spend the time, the effort, and the resources needed to receive this kind of education. As such, literacy was one of the main markers that divided the haves versus the have nots. Later, when the Korean script was promulgated and for many centuries after, the haves were also the ones who most strongly opposed this new writing system.
But even when you were one of the privileged few who could read and write, there were still a lot of pain points related to using Chinese characters for the Korean language. And that’s because Chinese and Korean – linguistically, are very different. We have particles, hierarches, verb conjugations, for example, that the Chinese language doesn’t necessarily have.
Even though our ancestors created their own notation systems such as Idu, Hyangchal, and Gugyeol to try to fit spoken Korean into Chinese characters, it was described as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It simply didn’t fit.
Perhaps you could also take the square and whittle down all the corners and edges to try to make it fit into a circular shape. But, it wouldn’t be much of a square anymore. Similarly, in using a writing system that’s meant for another language, we lose so much of the richness and the emotion and the nuances of the Korean vernacular on the page.
And so, this goes on for years and years until in the 1400s when King Sejong becomes the fourth King of the Joseon Dynasty. And he decides that something needs to be done about this issue.
In a world where the ability to read and write was the ultimate luxury, he saw literacy as a necessity for all of his people’s daily convenience and comfort. He felt literacy should be a right, and not a privilege.
And it is also because of this invention that, despite having only about 22% literacy rate at the end of the Japanese colonial period in 1945, today, illiteracy in both Koreas is virtually non-existent.
Hangeul was invented at a time when Chinese cultural influence on the peninsula was tremendous and when the tyranny of the yangban aristocracy oppressed common people – most of whom were illiterate because they couldn’t devote the decades needed to learn classical Chinese.
While many people on the fringes, such as women and those in the lower classes, embraced Hangeul, it wasn’t really used in an official capacity until 1890. And then, during the Japanese colonial era, when we had lost our country, and were on the brink of losing our language, our names, our history, and culture as well, Hangeul became an important symbol of the enduring pride and identity of the Korean people.
For these reasons, for me personally, Hangeul represents reclaiming Korean identity but also finding my own unique path when the status quo just isn’t working. And that is significant and meaningful to my own diasporic experience because perhaps this has been one of my goals all along with this Fluent Korean project. And, I can definitely relate to not being able to communicate and express myself in my own language and feeling uncomfortable at home and in my own country because of a lack of a specific type of education. These are all key elements of the genesis of the Korean alphabet.
So in this episode, we will focus on King Sejong the Great, his theories on literacy and writing, and his motivations for creating the Korean alphabet.
(07:26) [Transition Music]
(07:30) M: Joining me in this episode is a theoretical linguist and one of the world’s leading experts on Hangeul and the study of culture and Korean linguistics. I am truly honored to speak with her on this topic.
(07:44) Dr. Young-Key Kim-Renaud [hereafter “Y”]: Hello, I’m Young-Key Kim-Renaud, and Korean my name is Kim Young Gi, I just have my husband’s name attached to it which is a French name. I am a retired professor, Professor Emeritus, of George Washington University, where I taught for about 33 years as a professor of Korean language and culture and international affairs. Very unusual title and very long, but that kind of shows what I did all my life.
(08:20) M: Professor Young-Key Kim-Renaud has devoted her entire life to Korean language and culture education, research, and outreach. In 2006, on Hangeul Day, she received the republic of Korea’s Order of Cultural Merit in the Jade Class for her lifetime contribution to the advancement of Korean Studies. She taught at George Washington University where she was also the Chair of the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department for twelve years and has also taught at Harvard University and Nanjing University. She has received three Fulbright Awards and has a published a number of books, articles, and papers on Korean linguistics, literature, Hangeul, society, politics, cultural history, cross-cultural communications, current affairs, Korean women, and has held numerous editor positions in prominent journals in the field of Korean studies and linguistics. Honestly, her list of achievements is so long that it would take up so much of this episode so I’m just going to link her CV page in the show notes on fluentkorean.com.
(09:26) [Transition Music]
(09:32) Y: Native is not probably the best description of the alphabet. It is an invention by King Sejong. So, there’s nothing native to Korea about that. Because it’s a very unusual writing system in that we know the inventor. See, most of the alphabets in the world, they have been derived from something, actually, often just pictographs. So, they evolved into an alphabet system and of course, it’s very popular in the European languages and all that because they could develop this, what we call, phonemic system. Each sound has an independent status distinguishable from other sounds.
But, in the case of Korean, it was devised by King Sejong. Not only that, he did it according to very linguistic principles and you are really amazed at how he preceded modern linguistics by 1500 years. [*500 years] I mean, he talked about all these distinctive features that came to the modern linguistic discourse only maybe, you know, seventy years ago, maybe? You can go a little further back, but certainly centuries before this idea came and the basic principle is really contrast.
You see, in East Asia and well, Spinoza in the West, thought the same, but you are defined by all those surrounding you, especially those who are not like you. So, this yin and yang principle is a profound East Asian cosmology, and he discovered the scientific nature of it in studying the sound system of human beings and Korean in particular. So, that’s why we say he was the inventor.
We do know a lot of about his personal life and also public life because there are plenty of records, but we really know about him through all his works. So, the way we should go about it is to kind of reconstruct or theorize what this person must have been through what he has done.
(12:23) M: What kind of person was King Sejong and how was he different from other kings of this time?
(12:33) Y: Actually, it’s a person of a very — ultimate Confucian king because he did everything Confucianism encouraged, but it’s actually from a modern point of view. He was a man of humanity and really very democratic in spirit which was very unusual because the very reason why he invented the alphabet was that he wanted to be a good ruler so that every subject he ruled was happy and comfortable and glorify his reign because he made the world so much better by inventing the alphabet which made them actually able to have their own agency by being able to express what they thought in writing which was very important in Korean culture from the beginning.
(13:36) M: So why was there a need for this invention? I mean, this type of exchange between Korea and China started very early in the Three Kingdoms Era and it was now the Joseon Dynasty – King Sejong’s reign was in the 15th century CE – so more than a thousand years had passed already – and along the way, Koreans had developed some notation systems such as Idu, Gugyeol, and Hyangchal to notate Korean using Classical Chinese characters – but why wasn’t that enough? Why did we need our own writing system for the Korean language?
(14:13) Y: Yeah, I mean, the Chinese writing system is a very difficult one but a very wonderful one. And Koreans were very proud that they could actually handle it that they are top educated people. But the real difficulty, which was also felt by Chinese people themselves, was that there was such an ill fit between the written and spoken media of language and because especially for Koreans, it was harder because the Korean language is not really related to Chinese genetically, as we say in linguistics. So, there is no common ancestor and typologically they’re very different so even though some languages are not related, they can be typologically similar by having similar for instance, similar word order.
So, this was something that really distinguished people – those who could read and write Chinese and those who couldn’t and that was the very first kind of distinguishing factor between classes and those who have and don’t. And so, this the very fact that people couldn’t really be – not only instructed but they couldn’t express themselves. So, this was for King Sejong an issue of human rights and in those times, human rights was not really an object of concern especially for those in leadership positions.
(16:01) M: I’ve noticed that in your writings, there’s a lot of mention of diglossia, so the Korean people who were literate, the haves, the yangban scholars that used Chinese and prided themselves in being able to master these characters – were they using Chinese purely as a form of writing or were they also fluent in spoken Chinese?
(16:25) Y: Actually, it’s a different usage of the term. In general, when you talk about diglossia, it means there are different kinds of languages coexisting in a society. In the case of Korean, diglossia was really limited to the talk of literacy. So, it concerned really the writing because we in the process of importing so much of the Chinese writing and culture, Koreans even those who didn’t know Chinese used a lot of borrowed words. It makes such a huge part of the Korean dictionary because it’s like making new words with Latin roots or Greek roots or some other roots you have it even if you don’t speak – even if you didn’t read Chinese. So many people actually use and understand those words without knowing the characters.
But, the strange diglossia had to do with this speaking in Korean, of course for their daily lives and anything informal, they spoke Korean, but then they actually did not know how to speak Chinese including the elites who really controlled the written language very well. They didn’t actually know how to speak Chinese.
In fact, King Sejong is supposed to be one of the exceptions. He did study spoken Chinese because it was part of his curiosity and also he strongly felt he needed also to learn how to speak it and not just read it. So he’s one of those rare people.
But for him, this kind of mismatch was really an unfortunate thing and that somebody who could handle it should address and he took it upon himself to do it because no one else was capable at that time.
Of course, people talk about all these scholars who helped him, some people even say those are the ones who created it. But, if you look my book called the Korean Alphabet published by the University of Hawaii Press, there is a specific chapter by Professor Lee Ki Mun who passed away recently showing real proof that it was none other than King Sejong who invented the alphabet.
(19:08) M: Hangeul is actually very different from the Chinese writing system. For instance, in the Chinese writing system, the vowels and consonants are not distinguished and the the characters are pictographic in origin. In Hangeul, however, the consonants are shaped after speech or vocal organs and the vowels are made up of symbols representing the trinity of heaven, earth, and man — so where did he draw inspiration from because Hangeul was so different from the existing writing systems of the time and where did he get these ideas?
(19:47) Y: Yeah, I think in both cases, one striking factor is they have very distinct graphic types between the consonants and the vowels. Before King Sejong’s invention of the alphabet, they studied Chinese phonology for a long time. People often try to say King Sejong learned something from the Chinese phonologists, so he sent his scholars – like research assistants – to ask some questions and get answers from them.
This was typical – I mean, not typical of that time – but a very good scholarly research method. When you invent something like this, you have to study what has been done everywhere up to that time in order to come up with a new idea.
What Chinese phonology believed at that time and still do today is that in a syllable. Syllable is a very important unit in East Asian writing including Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, even today. But how do you analyze a syllable? The Chinese said, there is an initial consonant and all the rest. It was very important – the all the rest was important – because it was used in Chinese poetry and writing and all the beautiful works really needed this crucial information. But all the rest can include a complex system not just a vowel. Because you don’t have 가나다라 (ga na da ra) only. You have 강김 (gang gim) whatever. So, they never really distinguished consonants and vowels.
On the other hand, in the Middle Eastern type of syllabary, they put consonants as a main symbol and then put all kinds of diacritics to know there are different vowels in the syllables. So, that actually helped them separate the consonants and vowels, but there the consonants were playing the main role. But King Sejong’s discovery had to do with the discovery that the initials and the finals can be identical. So with that, they discovered the existence of vowel.
So in Korean, the vowel actually plays the central role and this is very compatible with modern linguistic theory where vowel is the nucleus of a syllable. So, this is the greatest discovery and also he knew vowels are different from consonants. Consonants are actually more peripheral than the vowel and this is how he got the idea.
Another thing is, when you describe a sound, not just describe, in the angles with which you can look at or analyze any sound is by – because as a speaker we feel where the tongue and things go. So there’s articulation in linguistics. So, articulatory aspects are there. But then, there are acoustic aspects – where the sounds feel more deep or more shallow or more nasal. So both articulatory and acoustic aspects are there in the creation of the letter forms. Not only that, King Sejong further included not just the phonetic quality of these sounds, but the phonology of it – how it kind of varies depending on the environment a particular sound occurs in the way of speaking.
So, that is where you use the notion of yin and yang – the heaven and the letter form. Why, because in consonants, we can feel the articulatory action much more consciously. Like when you say M, you know the lips come together, you know when you say, ㄷ [digeut, the d sound], you know the tongue is touching behind the top teeth. That’s where he described by using and then imitating these articulatory shapes of the tongue in the mouth and the position in the mouth. So, he used these very geometric shapes to describe consonants.
With vowels, when you say, 아 어 이 (a eo i), you don’t really know where it’s touching so he decided to describe it much more phonologically because there are contrasting sounds. Like, Korean is very famous for their sound symbolism so 의성/의태어 (memetic words), so when you say, 깡충깡충 or 껑충껑충, the feeling is different. And those contrasting sounds happen to actually coincide with the articulatory positions of the time.
So, he wanted to show the contrast by showing contrasting positions of the heaven vis a vis person which was a straight line. So you have a sky with a dot, person, and then earth with a straight horizontal line. So he made many different sounds with only three symbols by combining them, placing them sometimes next to the person or right of the person, above the earth, or below the earth, so this was a principle he actually used so it doesn’t mean he tried to explain it with by using just abstract cosmology. There was still very iconic representation of these sounds by him.
So it’s only the basic shape he chose that sounds like he wanted to explain it philosophically. No, not at all. It was very scientific and very iconic. It was almost like a pictogram but it was used just as a basic symbol which he manipulated to express many different possibilities. That’s why you have so few elements in the Korean alphabet.
(27:18) M: Adding to this, could you explain further the concept of gahoek where you add strokes to the initial ㄱ ㄴ …
(27:28) Y: So gahoek means adding strokes. Of course, it’s not a term he used. What he just said is you have a kind of basic shapes, then you add one line or one dot and then it becomes another sound. But another related sound. He wanted to maintain similar shapes for the similar sounds. Why? Because in linguistics, it’s very important to group sounds because they tend to, they don’t just tend, usually they do behave in the same way in a phonological environment.
When a little kid learns this language… because they have to hear a lot of examples, they cannot possibly have all the examples but they can apply what they’ve learned using similar sounds because they were born with innate faculty to do that. Similar sounds behave in a similar way. So he chose that similar, the same class of sounds should somehow share some basic shapes there and this is so clearly indicated in the 훈민정음 해례 [Hunminjeongeum Haerye – lit: “Explanations and Examples of the Correct/Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People”, which includes an explanation of the design of the script and how to use the alphabet] and because we have a record, we are not just imagining he did that. He actually said it in the document that accompanied the proclamation of the alphabet.
When you added strokes, he chose actually the, what we call the least marked, in current linguistics means, it’s the most natural easiest simplest so the most unmarked sound would have the basic symbol and then you add… So, in terms of what we call in phonology, the phonological strength of sounds, so whenever it’s a little more complex the brain has to send you extra information so those sounds are stronger in phonological terms.
So, added strokes represented stronger or harder sounds like when you say, 동동 똥똥 통통, they are more complex. Or how come n and d are sharing similar shapes, ㄴ ㄷ, because in Western thinking, they don’t even look similar or sound similar, but just like m and b sounds are very similar, but people don’t re– just when you have a cold, your throat is not working normally so usually, nasal sounds, you have your uvular dropping down, so that air is going through the nose, that’s how we pronounce nasal sounds. But if you have cold, it doesn’t work well, so air escapes through the mouth, so when you say, where is my camera, when you have a cold, you say, where ‘s my cabera, because they’re related sounds and the Korean alphabet shows they are related because King Sejong knew they were. He was a remarkable phonologist – phonetician and phonologist.
(31:10) M: Okay, so when it comes to gahoek, when you add a stroke, you add intensity. Now, we’ve been talking about how hard it was for a commoner to learn how to read and write classical Chinese characters, and so when it came to Hangeul, a major theme for King Sejong in the creation of this script was to make it as easy as possible to learn.
(31:33) To him, easy didn’t mean just easy to repeat. It meant, easy to use, to truly understand. Because repeating goes just so far, but when you have a truly simple – that is core of any science. When you really study deeply, things become so simple. Only when you don’t know it looks all very complex and when this comes, when these shapes come to you, of course, he didn’t say, you see, these are articulatory related this way. No, he just gave, but it was simple because it is so understandable naturally including East Asian cosmology. Yin and yang is a contrast. People all accept it. You exist because of the other one. Otherwise, you cannot define a person independently. So, in the sound system, there are these contrasting types and they behave differently. The same groups share the same forms and contrasting groups actually show the contrast.
That’s really interesting because one of the reasons Joseon scholars opposed Hangeul or eonmun, vulgar script as it was called at the time, so much was because it was very simple and they felt that if it was too simple, it was almost barbaric and people would stop trying to continue to study and learn and expand their knowledge.
Actually, the term eonmun was abused later on by lots of people who wanted to minimalize or to ignore the new invention thinking, how can it be good when it is so simple? It must be only for fools. But, original intention was indeed, it was vulgar script in the original Latin meaning of, for all the people. So, vulgar script was not pejorative in the beginning at all. It was for all the people and so when people, especially the literati, remember the power was in actually knowing how to read and write Chinese and all the civil service exams were based on knowing the Chinese classics, the ability to comment on it, and produce text in the Chinese language, not really Chinese language but it’s a Korean-style Chinese. So as we say Konglish today, maybe.
Maybe it’s much better [that that], because the Chinese people admired Koreans for writing and reading, managing their literary works just like Chinese. Many Koreans, in fact, went and passed their civil service exams and served there in their leadership positions because their civil service exams were much more democratic than in Korea where you had to be literally an elite already to be able to sit for the exam.
So Koreans’ ability was remarkable to deal with this writing system which represented totally a different language. So, it was of course very admirable, but those people of course they wanted to keep their power base and it is natural that they kept promoting Chinese characters. I have met people even up to thirty, not even thirty, twenty years ago thinking, pretending they don’t know Hangeul so well, they are much better in Chinese because it was a kind of pride for them to know.
Now, the trend is reversing. Some actually writing makes fun of those who are just sticking to Chinese characters as old-fashioned and out of it and all that. But the real importance had to do with this power base.
And only in the beginning the outsiders like women and Buddhist monks and even high officials when they wrote their emotions they wrote in Korean because obviously you express your own heart much better when you write in your own native language.
There’s another thing you have to know. Although, it was a kingdom, the king was not really the almighty in the Korean tradition. Korea had a very strong bureaucracy, so it was like a balance of power. He didn’t have absolute power. He was really controlled. Faction fights were actually a political fight because if the king was the absolute power, he could’ve just decided, no, you are right, you go just with it. Of course, the king played a strong role in it but Korean bureaucracy was so strong.
Even after the invention of the alphabet, there was an anti-alphabet petition by the very top scholar of the Jiphyeonjeon [Hall of Worthies], and they were very briefly even put into jail. But they were so bold to tell the King, how could you dare give us this alphabet that is only kinds that is used by barbarians, all these like Mongols and all these people, Jurchens, and how could we adopt those systems when there are lofty Chinese characters which we have used for thousands of years? So, this was the attitude. Eventually, the King boldly told them, what do you know about phonology? What do you know about this? He actually didn’t budge even though there was this anti-alphabet memorial officially presented and signed by his colleagues
But its use was already quite prevalent although many of them were not really officially published. But more and more are emerging. Especially its significance, the Hangeul’s significance in the history of women’s rights because these women began writing their memorials or petitions to the king in Hangeul. Before, only Chinese had to be written and you could only rely to scribes to do it for you. But now, they could participate directly in the legal process. So this is something very unusual in the history of women in East Asia.
(39:26) M: I don’t think that the Chinese ever really colonized Koreans – one could maybe argue that the four Han Commanderies in 108 – 109 BCE were colonies – I guess – but nevertheless, there was still a lot of Chinese cultural hegemony, the whole big brother China, tributes to the Chinese emperor, the whale and shrimp metaphor, and the flow of cultural imports from China to Korea. Would you describe this as a kind of, for lack of a better word, colonial mentality, with their attachment to classical Chinese characters?
((40:07) Y: Actually, this is a general idea or attitude even by the Koreans, that our ancestors are boneless, why did they have this 사대주의 [sadaejuui]? But originally, 사대주의, 사대 [sa-dae], meant serving the great. It didn’t mean you make yourself servant of that civilization. It really meant being as great as what the great meant.
Today, Koreans study modern psychology, modern ballet, and all that. It doesn’t mean they make themselves servants of them or pawns. Nobody comes to threaten you with culture. Koreans actually were very modern in that sense. They wanted to be as great as the great. There was, of course, political rules because otherwise, they would have been eaten up by them in no time. So they, kind of, volunteered to be younger brother to them, but it didn’t mean that they were told by the Chinese, you should live this way, you should think this way. It was something they were very curious about.
You know, in the history of Korean religion, it is probably the only smaller or weaker nations that never were really proselytized by foreigners. They went out to seek. Even Buddhism, they adopted it themselves. Because they first studied. Remember in Korean, Sino-Korean, religion is teaching of something. They wanted to learn what this new idea was about and then converted themselves. Even up to the Christianity, we were not proselytized. Koreans actually went out to seek it as a form of new ideas and then persuaded themselves to convert to whatever.
This is same things with the Chinese classics. They have a long beautiful and very diverse history and Koreans were ready to adopt whatever made sense and looked good to improve their lives. I think there is this very bad misunderstanding about the word sadae. Actually, many Koreans felt very proud that they were almost as good as the Chinese.
And just remember, once I was talking with the former Minister of Education, a great, great stateman, and somebody asked him, if you wanted to give one word or one sentence to describe greatness of the Korean people. You would think, maybe he would talk about turtle ship, or you would talk about turtle ship or Cheomseongdae (star-gazing tower, astrological observatory), or even celadon, which actually which actually Chinese admired as one of the nine or whatever number of miracles of the world. He said, you know, that Koreans remained Koreans after all those years. That’s the greatest achievement. So they could remain themselves by learning about others and trying to be as good as any of them. That’s what today’s Koreans are like.
(44:24) M: Wow. So, in the 1890s, Hangeul became used in official documents for the first time. What brought about that shift from insisting on using Chinese characters and then 400 odd years later saying, okay, let’s make Hangeul official.
(44:44) Y: There are many factors. When country feels threatened by foreign forces, but also there was also a modernizing air already coming in by the end of the Joseon Dynasty through so called practical learning school. This is again Koreans trying to do some soul searching because they were not really doing very well with lots of faction fights and the country was weakening in so many different ways. One of the soul searching made them look toward the West, actually through China in the beginning. The realization, they were searching what’s good about Korea and then we had some people realizing that the Hangeul system is actually something they could be proud of. This slow realization came with, actually, recognition from foreigners to realize what a remarkable system we had.
But also, there was this movement to reach all the people so there are many different causes for this trend to come up. This is the time when they began calling themselves an empire, when they were about to fall into foreign domination. So, this is the irony of things. But this led to the discovery that they had this incredible heritage and asset that they didn’t know was hiding there so you cannot pinpoint to one cause for that.
(46:48) M: So, as we wrap up, I’m going to list from your work, the different theories that King Sejong had on literacy and writing. He believed that literacy is for everyone, a matter of human rights, and it’s a necessity for daily convenience and comfort. He believed that one should be able to express their own feelings in writing. And that a writing system should have a good linguistic fit, be a sound-based system, and be a simple one to enhance literacy. For me, living as a person today, these feel very common sense and rational, but for thousands of years, it was not and it really needed King Sejong to bring all of this together and create this Korean script.
(47:40) Y: It’s really because he was a real scholar. He didn’t try to be pompous and look for some complex way of looking at things. It’s really an incredible experiment but my point is by inventing something so linguistically fit people could be liberated and learn very easily how to read by using this method. So, the basic principle was if it is simple, if something makes sense, and it makes sense because it is simple and it makes sense, and because it corresponds to your innate knowledge. You are all speakers of Korean, then this innate knowledge is there. You don’t need explanation. When it is so simple because it corresponds to what you already know subconsciously, then literacy just comes naturally. Easily. That was his theory. This literacy was (one of the most basic human rights, he believed.
(49:13) M: And for you, what does Hangeul mean to Koreans? And what do you think it symbolizes?
(49:20) Y: I think Hangeul and Koreans really cannot be separated. If you had to be representing Koreans, it’s got to be Hangeul. Because it’s something that they can — maybe some people think in terms of Hangeul when they speak, they might be thinking in those scripts. But on the other hand, what’s really nice about it is it can handle language change. You can write other writings in Hangeul because we of course apply Korean phonological rules. This is an incredible sense of liberation. You have your own agency. you can do anything and you can express yourself. You can make it your own. Even totally unknown concepts, by writing in Hangeul, you make it Korean.
(50:27) M: I love that. And it only took a few centuries, but King Sejong was able to accomplish what he set out to do. Illiteracy does not exist in both Koreas despite having had one of the world’s lowest literacy rates even as late as the middle of the 20th century. And today, South Korea is considered the most educated country in the world when we look at the percentage of the population that has attained a tertiary degree, like a university degree.
(51:01) Y: They have a Sejong literacy award at the UNESCO, I think. So, they encourage other nations to reach general literacy as Koreans. This is not easy. I have seen a real illiterate Korean in otherwise a very intelligent lady and active. She managed to hide the fact that she didn’t know how to read and write. But i tried to teach her but past a certain age, it’s like a wolf child. It’s very hard for them to learn. But Korean kids now know how to read by age two, even two or three. This is what I discovered when I tried to do reading research.
(51:56) M: So, what are you currently working on?
(51:59) Y: My interest in this language issue continues. Right now, I’m studying how the national identities so closely related to your and other perception of your writing system because this is really what Korea defines about themselves and others. This is always, as I’ve told you, your identity doesn’t exist if others don’t exist. Their attitude their own language or the language purification movement, toward Chinese, toward other languages. This is my current interest. It’s still remaining very focused to this writing and language and their relationship and now going to society and politics and international affairs.
(53:08) M: Well, thank you so much. It has been an honor asking you these questions and talking with you about Hangeul and King Sejong.
(53:17) Y: Thank you for talking with me.
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(53:25) M: And that’s the end of the episode! I definitely learned a lot from this conversation, and I hope you did too! It was a lot of fun. You can find me on Instagram at @fluentkorean and be sure to check out fluentkorean.com for the show notes and the transcript.
You can find Dr. Young-Key Kim-Renaud’s books at some of your favorite bookstores and libraries, but she does sell one of her books directly – King Sejong the Great: The Light of the Fifteenth Century – she does this to maximize profits as all of the proceeds from the sales of this book go to the Sejong Scholarship Fund at George Washington University which was created by Dr. Kim-Renaud. Details for this as well as a list of her publications are also in the show notes at fluentkorean.com.
Alright, well, thank you for listening, see you next time!
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