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This content is taken from the Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) 's online course, The Korean Alphabet: An Introduction to Hangeul. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds Hello everyone. Last class we learned about the creator of Hangeul, King Sejong the Great. Today we will learn about the background behind Hangeul’s creation. Not long after King Sejong took the throne, there were cases of civil confusion and crimes of immorality. So King Sejong compiled the book, “Samgang Haengsildo” (Conduct of the Three Bonds) in 1432 to educate and reform the people. This book teaches values such as filial duty, loyalty to country, and integrity. King Sejong sought to enlighten his people with this book. To aid the people’s understanding, he included illustrations with the text. However, the illustrations alone were not enough to help the illiterate population understand “Samgang Haengsildo.” King Sejong began to realize the need to create an alphabet.

Skip to 1 minute and 18 seconds Just as we take the air we breathe for granted, we also don’t realize how important our language and alphabet is, because it is so integral to our daily lives. It’s hard for us to image the troubles of a people who do not have a writing system to express their language. That is exactly the difficulty Korean people faced before Hangeul was created. Before Hangeul was created, Koreans used Chinese characters as their writing system. Just as Latin became the common language across Europe in the Middle Ages, Chinese characters were used as the common written language in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and across East Asia. However Chinese characters were made for the Chinese language, which is very different from the Korean language.

Skip to 2 minutes and 26 seconds So it was difficult to express Korean in Chinese characters. It was also inconvenient to learn and use a different written and spoken language. Normally, a written language faithfully represents a spoken language. As a written language is used over time, it may develop different functions from the spoken language. Different characteristics between the written and spoken language may arise. However the written and spoken language should not be very different. However because Chinese characters were so different from the Korean language, Korean people had to spend a lot of extra time and effort in learning the characters, in addition to learning Korean language.

Skip to 3 minutes and 19 seconds Although learning language and writing separately was inconvenient for the ruling class, on the other hand it was the way they maintained their power. At the time, only the ruling class could take the examinations which allowed people to elevate their social status. The examinations in the past were the way to become an elite bureaucrat and they opened the doors to political power and economic advantage. So not everyone could learn written Chinese characters. The ruling class wanted to be the only ones to learn the difficult Chinese characters, and thus maintain their various social advantages. Therefore the ruling class did not welcome the appearance of an alphabet that anyone, even the common people, could learn easily.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 seconds In this historical context, it was groundbreaking from a political perspective that King Sejong made Hangeul for the common people to easily learn. King Sejong knew that the elite ruling class would not welcome the invention of an alphabet like Hangeul. Therefore Hangeul was created in secret. Because King Sejong had to create Hangeul in secret, he could not easily ask those under him for help. The official records from the Joseon dynasty state that King Sejong personally created Hangeul. This means he was personally involved in creating Hangeul because he had to hide the activities to invent Hangeul from the ruling elite class. In this class we learned about the historical background behind the creation of Hangeul.

Skip to 5 minutes and 14 seconds A new alphabet was necessary because there was no written Korean language, causing great inconvenience. In the next class we will explore the challenges in the process of creating Hangeul. Thank you.

Background of Hangeul creation

Today we will learn about the background behind Hangeul’s creation.

The illustrations alone were not enough to help the illiterate population understand “Samgang Haengsildo.”

In this historical context, it was groundbreaking from a political perspective that King Sejong made Hangeul for the common people to easily learn.


[KEY WORDS]

한글(Hangeul), 세종대왕(King Sejong)

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This video is from the free online course:

The Korean Alphabet: An Introduction to Hangeul

Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU)