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The spread of Hangeul

Let's learn how Hangeul spread.
Hello! This week we are learning about the background and process of Hangeul’s creation. This class we will learn about how Hangeul was distributed following its promulgation. For example, let’s say a new object is invented. If many people use that object, it becomes a commonly used object in our daily lives. On the other hand, if people don’t use it, then it would gradually disappear from our daily lives. What do you think happened to the newly created Hangeul? At the time of Hangeul’s creation, the common people did not have the opportunity to study Chinese characters. King Sejong’s intention was to allow the common people to read and write, which as a very revolutionary idea at the time.
It took a long time for his idea to be realized. First, the ruling class continued to use Chinese characters as the official writing system, and there was no space for Hangeul. However, Hangeul took on a different role from Chinese characters and began to grow in influence. As Hangeul was created for the common people, it first played an important role amongst commoners. Although more of the elite began to learn Hangeul, they usually used Chinese characters as the official alphabet of privilege. The ruling class rarely used Hangeul other than to write personal letters or matters. These photos show Hangeul was usually used for personal letters.
One letter is from King Jeongjo to his aunt, and the other is from King Sukjong to his sister. However, the main users of Hangeul were not these ruling class elites, but rather women who did not work or the common people. Back then it was difficult for both women and commoners to receive a formal education. Because they had no other option, they learned Hangeul out of necessity. At the time, Hangeul was spread amongst the common people. However there is one event that shows how Hangeul began to be used not just among commoners, but the noble gentry as well. In 1504, a document in Hangeul appeared criticizing the tyranny of Yeonsangun, the tenth King of Joseon.
Infuriated, Yeonsangun banned teaching Hangeul, burned Hangeul books, and ordered that anyone who knew Hangeul be reported. The Hangeul document criticizing Yeonsangun was most likely written by a member of the elite class. The author most likely wrote the document in Hangeul to hide his or her status. This incident shows that at the time, usually the common people used Hangeul. Women also played a significant role in expanding Hangeul. Although there were many cases of noble women receiving education in Chinese characters, women began to use Hangeul more. Most letters between women, or between a man and a woman, were written in Hangeul. Furthermore, more and more books aimed at women readers were published in Hangeul.
This is how women played an important role in expanding the use of Hangeul. In the 17th and 18th centuries, novels helped promote the distribution of Hangeul. At the time, many of the ruling class devoured novels from China. Many romance novels and popular novels came into Korea and were read widely by the elite class. These novels were then translated into Hangeul and widely read by commoners. Original Hangeul novels were also written. The first Hangeul novel was “The Story of Hon Gildong.” The first Hangeul novels were written by hand. Later as their commercial demand grew, they began to be printed and published. This is how Hangeul was spread amongst women and the common people.
It is difficult to determine the Hangeul literacy rate for a certain time period, for example in the 18th or 19th century. However it appears the Hangeul literacy rate during the Joseon period was not low. Furthermore, the popularity and commercial publishing of novels was a sign of approaching modernization. Hangeul replacing Chinese characters as the dominant writing system was a sign of modern progress. With the reform from 1894 to 1896, Hangeul began to be used in official government documents. Furthermore during this reform period, it was strongly claimed that Hangeul, not Chinese characters, needed to be used to develop Korea as a modern country. Ultimately, after a long time Hangeul became the official writing system of Korea.
This class we learned about how Hangeul was spread after its promulgation. We learned that the common class, not the elites, mainly used Hangeul and helped it spread. This concludes this week’s class. See you next time!
As Hangeul was created for the common people, it first played an important role amongst commoners.
At the time, Hangeul was spread amongst the common people.
We will learn that the common class, not the elites, mainly used Hangeul and helped it spread.
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The Korean Alphabet: An Introduction to Hangeul

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