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message 1: by J.A. (last edited Mar 02, 2012 11:54AM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) Original entry at:

Recently, in addition to the Regency and Heian Japan research I've been conducting, I've started researching Joseon Korea. Though I spent two years living in South Korea, until recently my knowledge of pre-20th century Korea was somewhat limited.

Joseon (Joseonguk, lit. Joseon Country or Kingdom of Joseon) was the political entity that controlled the Korean peninsula from 1392 to 1897. At its height, Joseon controlled the entire area of what is now the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Most of what we'd consider "Korean" culture today was established during this period.

The Joseon state was controlled by the Yi dynasty. The originator of the dynasty was one Yi seong-gye, later Taejo. Throughout this series, I will be using the terms Yi Dynasty, Joseon, and Joseon Dynasty fairly interchangeably.

Originally Taejo was a military official under the previous Goryeo Dynasty (which, incidentally, also lasted 500 years). At the time Goryeo was dealing with being under the influence and presence of the Mongols, who had for several centuries prior also controlled China during the Yuan Dynasty period. The collapse of the Mongol-lead Yuan Dynasty and its replacement with the Han Chinese-lead Ming Dynasty provided an opportunity to eliminate Mongol influence. Goryeo military forces proceeded to eliminate Mongols remaining on the peninsula. Taejo made a name for himself during this period for actions against the Mongols, Japanese pirates, and certain Chinese forces, including an anti-Yuan rebel army.

The splintering dynastic transition lead to factions in the Goryeo court who supported both the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Yi, as you might surmise from his blade dancing with the Mongols, was more of a Ming man. Unfortunately, the Ming also wanted Goryeo to cough up a large portion of their northern territory. I won't dive into the details of all the various claims, but the Goryeo government planned a further northern invasion into Ming territory. Yi was selected to lead the invasion despite his protests.

Instead, he turned around and overthrew the king. There were some shenigans with puppet rulers for a little bit but, in the end, Yi eventually ascended the throne himself inaugurating a new dynasty. Over the five centuries of Joseon's existence, the country reached heights of culture, technology, art, and literature. During this period, King Seijong the Great commissioned scholars to create hangul, the modern Korean alphabet, to improve literacy.

Joseon had a mostly peaceful two-century span between the the 17th and 19th centuries accompanying a mostly isolationist period. Unfortunately, that period of peace was book-ended by intense instability. The early centuries of the period were marked by intense and often violent political struggles between various political and scholar-bureaucrat factions.

Geography didn't help matters. The Korean Peninsula's position between China and the rising power of Japan lead to a battlefield destiny. Invasions from Manchus and Japan made the first three centuries of the dynasty an often unstable affair. Japanese and Chinese pirates also were a persistent problem.

Both the Kingdom of Joseon and the Yi Dynasty (effectively the same thing) would last until Japanese chicanery, including the brutal assassination of the reformist Empress Myeongseong, at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century robbed the Korean Peninsula of its independence until the end of World War II.

message 2: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
That's a super introduction, Jeremy. I wish we would get more posts like that.

message 3: by J.A. (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) Thanks, Andre.

message 4: by J.A. (last edited Oct 11, 2012 02:21PM) (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) An entry on the creation of the modern Korean alphabet by a reformist king of the early Joseon period.

Also at my blog if you prefer reading it in a different format and seeing some hangeul:


Over the thousands of years of Korean history, only two kings managed to earn the moniker "The Great." One of these kings, Sejong, was the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty.

Although I could fill an entire blog series with Sejong's many achievements, today we're going to focus on one of his most famous achievements, facilitating the invention of the 28-letter Korean alphabet, hangeul (lit. the great script), sometime around 1443.

Now, initially, this might seem a bit odd. The Koreans were a literate people, and one of the reasons we know so much about Korean history despite the many upheavals, wars, invasions, and other assorted unpleasantness is that they wrote a lot of things down. They even had metal movable type printing by the 13th century (a good two centuries before Gutenberg). So, why would they need a new alphabet? What were they using to write?

At the time, literate Koreans relied, fundamentally, on Chinese characters (hanja) to write. Chinese writing is a mainly logographic system. The characters themselves represent words. This is distinct from a phonetic system, such as an alphabet, where the individual letters/characters represent sounds.

General reading fluency with hanja requires knowledge of thousands of characters. This is also one of the reasons why things like movable type printing didn't produce the dramatic impact in Korea (or in China, where it had been invented even earlier) they did in Europe. Printing books using hanja required the printing press to account for these thousands of characters.

The use of hanja, as you can imagine, had a large impact on literacy at a time when many people didn't have the time or resources for extensive education. This, among other things, made literacy even more a province of the elite than it was in many other societies.

There's also the linguistic reality that Chinese characters are poorly suited for representing the Korean language. I've studied both Mandarin Chinese and Korean. The languages are radically different. They have different grammar, different phonetics, different morphology, and even different syntax. Mandarin (and all past and present Chinese dialects) is a tonal language. Korean is not. So, in a sense, pretty much everything that defines a language as different from another is different between Korean and Chinese. Fundamental differences in grammar, such as morphological changes in words present in Korean that are not present in Chinese, can be difficult to represent using hanja. The Koreans of the early Joseon, and earlier periods, thus relied on a cumbersome hybrid of hanja supplemented with special characters, even further complicating the entire system.

In the Joseon Dynasty, hanja and hanja-related scripts were held in high-esteem. The aristocrats and Confucian scholars that controlled Korean society put considerable effort into their study of hanja. There was little real concern among most of these elites about universal literacy. Some of it arguably was about them failing to see the need, and some of it arguably was an attempt to secure their particular positions by limiting the intellectual and cultural resources available to the lesser classes.

King Sejong the Great, however, didn't like presiding over a country were so many people were illiterate. Among other things, he felt this wouldn't allow the commoners to properly express their concerns and complaints via writing, something that was a fundamental limitation in the highly organized and often bureaucratic society. To combat this, he decided upon a language reform with one goal in mind: the creation of a simple phonetic script, what we now call hangeul.

There's still debate to this day how much King Sejong personally participated in the creation of the script, but, at the minimum, he put together a team of scholars from his group of elite scholars, the Hall of Worthies, and may have even worked in the linguistic trenches, as it were, with them on some aspects.

For centuries, there were only myths and folklore to explain many aspects underpinning the desire hangeul. In the early twentieth century, a copy of a document from 1446 detailing the creation and logic of hangeul was discovered, the Hunmin Jeong-eum Eonhae (The Proper Sounds for Instruction of the People). That name, incidentally, was also the original name for hangeul. This document details the phonetic logic of the script, and the general emphasis on efficiency and ease of learning. For example, the initial shapes were designed to be simple and in some cases even representative of the way the mouth moved. They were (and for the most part still are) simple geometric shapes that are easy to memorize and easy to write.

Famously, King Sejong bragged in supplement to the 1446 document that "A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over and even a simple man can learn them in ten days."

Despite the king's noble intentions, resistance from the entrenched nobility put a serious damper on the use of the script. It was derided it as for being for women and the lower classes, which, in a sense it kind of was. On and off suppression by later kings also severely limited its spread.

The popularity of hangeul would constantly shift throughout the centuries, but by the end of the 19th-century, it finally started becoming the universal Korean alphabet King Sejong the Great had hoped, including being adopted for official use. It was around this time, in 1912, that the modern name, hangeul, was adopted.

The coming of the Japanese threatened hangeul again, as the occupiers attempted to assimilate Koreans into Japanese culture by forcing them to study Japanese and even later outright banning publishing in Korean or Korean script.

After the Koreans were freed from the occupation, the popularity of hangeul exploded. As the generations have passed, the use of hanja is slowly fading. There have been some modifications in the script over the centuries, but overall, it has changed remarkably little since its creation, though in common use, it's dropped from a 28-letter alphabet to a 24-letter alphabet. The clean, careful, and logical design of the script makes spelling particularly easy, and Korean written in hangeul, as compared to many other languages (such as English) has far few phonetic exceptions, silent letters, and other such lingo-historical detritus that can complicate reading and writing.

The creation of hangeul is particularly impressive when you consider the vast majority of the world's alphabets can all be traced back to scripts that originally appeared on the Sinai Peninsula during the Bronze Age. Even when scholars were modifying their alphabets, they were still keeping the core of what had come before.

Though this is a blog series focusing on the Joseon Period, given the continuing division on the Korean Peninsula, I did want to take a brief moment to note that both North and South Korea make use of hangeul, though the North Koreans refer to, for various historical and political reasons, it as Joseongul.

message 5: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
Thank you, Jeremy, for adding to our knowledge.

I wonder what gave this king the idea of an alphabet. I mean, if you're used to writing in ideographs, the very idea of an alphabet would seem unnatural, and therefore you wouldn't arrive at the concept by logic alone.

message 6: by J.A. (new)

J.A. Beard (jabeard) They had some vague idea from the hybrid system they were using before, in that it had a few things that were more phonetic based.

Basically, what they were doing with these hybrid systems is they took hanja and generalized their phonetic value. So, they might say the character for XYZ still means XYZ, but when we put it after a word, it just means the sound, too.

They then went from there and realized they could "cut out the middle man" as it were and just simplify things with straight phoentic representation.

This is, incidentally, pretty much how things worked out for the vast majority of alphabets in the word (which are roughly sourced from the same protoalphabet in most cases).

Originally, they were purely ideographic, then a mix of ideographic and phoentic, and then totally phonetic.

Arguably, there are a few reasons the Chinese have stuck with the characters rather than making that sort of shift:

A) Thousands of years of tradition and thousands of years of writing is hard to turn your back on

B) The Chinese "dialects" aren't really dialects as much as they are separate languages that are generally unintelligble when spoken. I always liken it to the Romance languages. Lots of overlap, but being fluent in French doesn't mean you can understand Spanish.

The writing system, not being linked to the sounds but rather the meaning, allows for ease of cross-dialect communication. Even today, when you watch mainland Chinese TV, you'll often see subtitles. If you don't speak Mandarin, but instead say something like Cantonese, you can still read those subtitles.

Even though the majority speak Mandarin at this point, you still have eight major dialects and a number of other smaller dialects. In a country of 1.3 billion, even a small percentage of people speaking a different dialect can add up to a lot of people.

message 7: by Andre Jute (new)

Andre Jute (andrejute) | 4851 comments Mod
Ouch! An Oriental Tower of Babel...

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