The Birth of One of the the Greats

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Courtesy to SBS

Only two kings in Korean history were given the title "the Great", one of them being King Gwangaeto the Great, who I wrote about earlier this year, and the other being King Sejong the Great. Today, I'll be writing about King Sejong, the 4th king of the Joseon Dynasty and the founder of Hangul (한글), the Korean language.

Today, May 15, marks King Sejong's day of birth. According to the Lunar calendar, his birthday is April 10, 1397, but May 15 is recognized as his birthday by the Gregorian calendar. He was the 6th and last son of King Taejong, the third king of the Joseon Dynasty. If you're interested in King Taejong, a historical fiction K-drama, The King of Tears, Lee Bang-won, came out a few years ago. Lee Bang-won was King Taejong's birth name. 

The image above is Actor Song Joong-ki who plays young Sejong in a 2011 historical fiction K-drama called Tree With Deep Roots (뿌리 깊음 나무). I haven't watched the drama but I've had this on my watch list for a while. I may make the plunge and watch it after writing this blog post. 😆

The Youngest Becomes King

King Sejong is considered one of the greatest kings of Korean history. He was not only the creator of the Korean language but was known for his maturity and intellect. Being the youngest, ascending to the throne would be difficult. King Taejong's first three sons died young and are sometimes not mentioned as sons at all. The last three sons potentially could take his place as king once he stepped down. The first two of his three remaining sons were deemed not fit to be a king. 

King Sejong's oldest brother, Lee Jae or Grand Prince Yangnyeong (양녕대군), was rebellious and showed too much love for leisurely pleasures. Lee Bo, Grand Prince Hyoryeong(효령대군), was the second son in line for the throne but he became a scholar who studied Buddhism. It was noted that later in his life he left the palace and wandered the mountains. 

According to Namu Wiki, Grand Prince Hyoryeong was pushed out of succession because he could not drink alcohol. A king who could not hold his liquor, especially on occasions like meeting an important envoy was not fit to be a king. King Taejong mentioned that "it is okay for a monarch to drink too much alcohol but according to protocol, it is problematic if he cannot drink at all." However, it is said that because of his easy-going nature, Grand Prince Hyoryeong was not fit to be a king anyway. 

The only son who showed potential to be a good king was Lee Do, Grand Prince Chungnyeong (충녕대군), better known as King Sejong. He ascended to the throne at the age of 21 on August 10, 1418, and reigned until February 17, 1450 when he died due to diabetes complications.

His Greatest Achievement

King Sejong was known to be a great ruler for many accomplishments. The most noteworthy achievement was his ability to create the Korean language. Systematically and scientifically created, it is said that the alphabet can be learned in a single morning. 

A story I share with my class each school year is the story of why King Sejong created the Korean language. It may be a surprise but most scholars and high government officials were against King Sejong's wish to develop a writing system for the Korean people. They feared they would lose their positions in court. Many being illiterate, you could imagine why King Sejong was concerned for his people. Without the ability to read, the common person could have no way of knowing official notices, enjoy stories on their own, or advance in their education if they desired. 

The written language in Korea before the birth of Hangul was Hanja, Chinese characters. It is said that it takes at least a decade to learn them and in those times, your family had to be rich to afford to have a teacher to be taught this very complicated writing system.

Because there was much opposition, King Sejong and a few of his trusted scholars created the language in secrecy in the Hall of Worthies also known as the Jade Hall or Jiphyeonjeon (집현전). This building was also built during King Sejong's reign and served many scholarly purposes. In recent years, I've heard that today's scholars are saying that it is believed that King Sejong's immediate family members also participated in the invention of the language. 

After King Sejong's death, the elite restricted the use of Hangul, and it was mostly used among the common people through reading and writing fictional stories and handwritten letters. During the Japanese occupation, however, many Koreans adopted Hangul as a symbol of their independence. It was not until after their independence in 1946, that Hangul was officially accepted as the official writing system of Korea. 

I would also like to note that when Hangul was first released for the first time, it was called Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음) which means the proper sound to instruct the people. The creation of the alphabet was completed in 1443 and the official manuscript was published in 1446. When the alphabet was first released, there were 28 letters but 4 were eventually dropped. The alphabet now consists of 10 vowels and 14 consonants. Hangul is South Korea's National Treasure No. 70 and registered UNESCO Memory of the World since 1997. October 9 is the day we celebrate the birth of Hangul

With the manuscript being published a few hundred years ago, it was thought the original book was gone. However, in 1940, the book was discovered by chance in an old home in Andong. The book now resides in Kansong Art Museum. 

Image courtesy to The Korea Times

More Than Just Hangul

Some other achievements that King Sejong acquired were in science, technology, literature, and medicine. 

One invention that really fascinated me was the invention of an alarm clock! Essentially, it was a water clock where a bell and drum were set off to play at a certain time with the help of water. 

King Sejong invested and sponsored studies in different areas to advance and help the Korean people. He had scholars study the stars, sky, and land to instruct and help farmers navigate for agricultural gains. Some other inventions he is credited for were the sundial, rain gauge, celestial globes, and astronomical maps.

Teacher Appreciation Day

May 15 also happens to be Teacher Appreciation Day in Korea. It will be hard to forget King Sejong's birthday because he truly was one of the greatest Kings and teachers in Korean history. 

I hope you learned something new and interesting from today's blog post. 

I fly out to Korea this Saturday, May 18, and will be experiencing and walking through all sorts of history and consuming all the information I can to share with my Korean students. 

I hope to bring back a wealth of information to share with you. Until then, stay safe and stay healthy!





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