Hangeul: Voices of Diversity

The creation of Hangeul and how it changed the lives of the Korean people

By Academy of Korean Studies

List of Candidates for Crown Princess (Gantaek danja) (Korean version) by Government of JoseonAcademy of Korean Studies

Hangeul

Invented by King Sejong (r. 1418-1450) in 1446, the birth of the unique Korean alphabet, known as Hangeul, demonstrates the King’s sincere devotion to the people. As King Sejong himself proclaimed in Hunminjeongeum, the Right Sounds to Educate the People, the purpose of Hangeul was to enable people 'to learn them easily and to use them conveniently every day.' And indeed, it worked. In the following around 570 years, Hangeul has been used by individuals from all classes, conveying various contents.

Sutra of Virtuous Behaviors Bodhisattva (Daebuljeong yeoryae milyinsujeung youije bosal manhaeing suneungeom-gyeong) (Joseon, 1462 (year 8 of Sejo))Academy of Korean Studies

The birth of Hangeul and its purpose

King Sejong had concerns for the people and their lack of ability to communicate with each other, as well as the difficulties of relaying the will of the court to the people. With the birth of Hanguel, hosts of works that demonstrated the will of the King and the ideals of education were continuously published. This chapter examines the early works of Hanguel, followed by the ones that highlight this emphasis on education and Confucian ethics.

Worin cheongang jigok - The Song of the Moon’s Reflection on a Thousand RiversAcademy of Korean Studies

Hangeul is the ideal alphabetic system with which the Korean language can be written. At the same time, the originality and scientific principles Hangeul possesses make it distinguishable in linguistic history; because of its systematic nature, one can learn Hangeul in as short as a day.

Samgang haengsildo - Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds Samgang haengsildo - Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds (1730)Academy of Korean Studies

The royal court of Joseon published a number of books in Hangeul for the purpose of educating the people, most of whom did not possess the ability to read Chinese characters.

This book contains the stories of individuals displaying exemplary behavior with respect to three Confucian bonds, i.e. the cardinal relations of king and subject, parents and children, and husband and wife.

Each illustration had above it a translation of the contents written in Hangeul. This was to help the people illiterate in Chinese characters understand the meaning of the book, and was indeed very effective.

Sūtra of the Buddha’s Teachings on the Profound Grace of Parents (Bulseol daebo bumo eunjung gyeong eonhae) (Vernacular edition) Sūtra of the Buddha’s Teachings on the Profound Grace of Parents (Bulseol daebo bumo eunjung gyeong eonhae) (Vernacular edition) (1796)Academy of Korean Studies

Hangeul was also used in Buddhist scriptures that demonstrated the depth and vastness of parental kindness.

Sūtra of the Buddha’s Teachings on the Profound Grace of Parents (Bulseol daebo bumo eunjung gyeong eonhae) (Vernacular edition)Academy of Korean Studies

These books, utilizing both Hangeul and illustrations, played an important role in spreading the values of Confucianism.

The Thousand Character Classic (Joseon, 19th Century) by Government of JoseonAcademy of Korean Studies

Compassion, communication, and the everyday lives of the people

King Sejong clearly stated that his compassion to the people and the will to facilitate communication were of the key reasons behind the creation of Hangeul. Consequently, the birth of Korean lead to the translation of multiple texts, such as medical treatises, manuals of martial arts, and royal instructions. These works stand as a testament to the royal court’s compassion towards the people’s lives, and their will to enhance communication between the court and their subjects. In addition, the other various works such as the petition and wills in this chapter will also reveal less known aspects of the lives that the people experienced in the Joseon dynasty.

Singan guhwang chwaryo - New Edition of Concise References for Famine ReliefAcademy of Korean Studies

The royal court compiled and published books — written in Hangeul — containing a number of guidelines related to the everyday lives of the people. When a particularly bad harvest and the subsequent famine perished its people, the royal court made public a list of substitute crops and the ways in which they can be consumed.

Jahyul jeonchik - Ordinance for Saving Children in NeedAcademy of Korean Studies

Furthermore, a book containing the guidelines on the aid of children that have been neglected during the famine, was written in Hangeul and distributed nationwide.

Eonhae duchang jibyo - Vernacular Explanation of the Collected Essentials on Smallpox Eonhae duchang jibyo - Vernacular Explanation of the Collected Essentials on Smallpox (1608)Academy of Korean Studies

A book on ways to prevent the spread of smallpox was also published in Hangeul, to alleviate the suffering of the people.

Eonhae duchang jibyo - Vernacular Explanation of the Collected Essentials on SmallpoxAcademy of Korean Studies

These footnotes tell us that this book was widely used and shared among the public.

New Official Regulations on the Prohibition of the Use of Postiche Braids for Women (Gache singeum samok)Academy of Korean Studies

The ban on the use of 'gache', a type of wig for women, was also written in Hangeul and distributed.

New Official Regulations on the Prohibition of the Use of Postiche Braids for Women (Gache singeum samok)Academy of Korean Studies

The ban was put in place in light of the sudden surge in price of the wigs in response to its popularity, and the increase in the number of injuries due to its heavy weight.

Look how heavy the wig looks and how costly it must have been!

Vernacular Explanations of the Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts (Muye dobo tongji eonhae)Academy of Korean Studies

A book on spearmanship and swordsmanship was also published in Hangeul.

Vernacular Explanations of the Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts (Muye dobo tongji eonhae) Vernacular Explanations of the Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts (Muye dobo tongji eonhae) (1790)Academy of Korean Studies

With the help of the illustrations and the instructions written in Hangeul, anyone could learn to wield a sword or a spear.

List of Candidates for Crown Princess (Chinese character version) (Joseon, 1882 (year 19 of Gojong)) by Government of JoseonAcademy of Korean Studies

The lives and voice of women

Like many pre-modern societies, Joseon Korea was dominated by men.However, Hangeul played a significant role in the lives of females and their family. Not only where the female members of the Joseon society consumers of Hangeul works, they gradually became writers that produced and shared their own works in Hangeul. In this chapter, we have collected works that were either written by females or directed to females. The various genre of works concerning female writers or female audience in this chapter sheds new light on the under-appreciated lives of the women in Joseon Korea.

Eonmun husaengnok - A list of Novels and Necessary Information for Women Written in Vernacular Eonmun husaengnok - A list of Novels and Necessary Information for Women Written in Vernacular (late 19th century ~ early 20th century)Academy of Korean Studies

Recipes that have been passed down, either by word of mouth or experience, were also written and published in Hangeul. Anyone can make cookies and dumplings with the help of this book, thanks to the lady who wrote it!

Eonmun husaengnok - A list of Novels and Necessary Information for Women Written in VernacularAcademy of Korean Studies

Instructions on how to make Kimchi were written — word by word — and preserved.

Yeosaseo oenhae - The Four Books for Women (Vernacular edition) Yeosaseo oenhae - The Four Books for Women (Vernacular edition) (late 19th century ~ early 20th century)Academy of Korean Studies

A book on the proper attitude and behavior of women was published as well, compiled by the queen herself.

Yeosaseo oenhae - The Four Books for Women (Vernacular edition)Academy of Korean Studies

This book was clearly published by the royal family: the penmanship is exquisite.

Sohun Yi ssi chijemun - Eulogy for the Royal Concubine Sohun Lady Yi Sohun Yi ssi chijemun - Eulogy for the Royal Concubine Sohun Lady Yi (1721)Academy of Korean Studies

The eulogy for the late queen, written by the king, was read aloud at her memorial service.

Red dots were placed where a slight pause was needed, with consideration for the court lady who was given the task of reading it.

Record of Special Bequeathal by Legitimate Mother Lady Yi (1644)Academy of Korean Studies

In the countryside, one woman wrote the relevant documents in Hangeul herself during the process of dividing up property; Hangeul was immensely helpful to women in their pursuit of independence.

The Red Chamber Dream (Late period of Joseon) by UnknownAcademy of Korean Studies

Novels and journals

The invention of Hangeul enabled various people to write longer prose and document vivid details of either their lives — through journals, or their imaginations, or through novels. The variety of the authors and their wide circulation demonstrate how popular Hanguel had become in the following centuries after the creation. Through the works in this chapter, we can see how the Koreans reinterpreted the history in their Hanguel historical novels and the details of the life that is often unseen in other works.

Flying Dragon of Nakseong (Late period of Joseon) by UnknownAcademy of Korean Studies

Jangseogak Archives houses approximately 500 works of novels written in Hangeul. All of them were previously housed by the royal house of Joseon at some point.

Nakcheon deungun - Falling into the Yellow Springs and Obtaining Good Fortune (19th century)Academy of Korean Studies

Taking into account the sheer number of novels written by commoners, it is clear that a great number of novels emerged and were read. Publication of different literary works and the expansion of their readership can be attributed to the distribution of Hangeul.

Hakseokjip - The Heron and Stone CollectionAcademy of Korean Studies

One crown prince of Joseon is known to have translated his poem into Hangeul and presented it to his sister as a gift.

Sanseong Ilgi - Diary from the Mountain Fortress Sanseong Ilgi - Diary from the Mountain Fortress (late Joseon)Academy of Korean Studies

A journal detailing the tragedies of war was also written in Hangeul and subsequently passed down.

Sanseong Ilgi - Diary from the Mountain FortressAcademy of Korean Studies

The pain and anguish of having to fight back while being trapped inside the castle, are detailed — without filter — in this journal.

Sanseong Ilgi - Diary from the Mountain FortressAcademy of Korean Studies

A hand-written copy of the same journal was published — there is a clear difference in handwriting.

Muo yeonhaengnok - Record of a Journey to Beijing in the Muo YearAcademy of Korean Studies

A record of one's travel to China, written in Hangeul, has gathered attention.

King Yongjo’s Compilation of Selected Passages from the Classics and His own advice to the Crown Prince (Joseon, 1746 (year 22 of Yeongjo)) by Yeongjo (King of Joseon)Academy of Korean Studies

Hangeul

Before the birth of Hangeul — approximately 570 years ago — the thoughts and experiences of the Korean people were recorded with Chinese letters. The people suffered: the written language and the spoken language differed, and the letters were many and difficult to learn. The creation and proclamation of Hangeul, by King Sejong, allowed people of all backgrounds to read and write with ease, and express themselves. One can write any and every sound with Hangeul — a true treasure to the Korean people.

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