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Exploring the Rich History of Hangeul: A Visit to the National Hangeul Museum

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

139 Seobinggo-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea



My first memory of learning to read Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, was the summer before 3rd grade. My mom bought me a "Learn Korean" book. I can't remember if someone brought it from Korea or if she bought it in Koreatown. She gave me the book so I would have something to do during the summer. I always tell people that Korean is an easy language to learn because the alphabet is phonetic like English. After going to the Hangeul Museum in Korea, I can understand and appreciate why the language is easy to learn.


I would definitely add this museum to your trip to Seoul, Korea. It is conveniently located right off the subway exit. Admission was free the day I visited. It's not large in size but the exhibitions are rich with history.


Before Hangeul was invented, Korea's written language was in "Hanja", classical Chinese characters. Hanja was exclusive to the elite class leaving the common class without the written word as their main mode of communication. Also, because Hanja was based on Chinese characters, it didn't capture the distinctive culture and nuanced intricacies of Korea that were different from the Chinese experience. 


A King's pity

In 1443, King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty invented Hangeul. It's said that he felt pity for the people who suffered discrimination for not being able to read and express themselves properly. In the days when literacy was power, this king who had the greatest power, tried to share it with everyone by creating simple letters. Hangeul (originally named Hunmingjeongeum at the time it was created) was very simple in shape and had a small number of letters to suit the purpose of its creation.


Simple is best

I remember going to a Noraebang (singing room) and the lyrics to the song appeared on the screen for us to sing along. My Chinese friend said "What is that? It just looks like circles and sticks." His language was so complicated, but Korean looked almost laughably simple to him. I realize now that was the entire point of its creation! Simple shapes so that it was easy to learn and execute.


A total of twenty-eight letters were invented. Eight basic letters were based on simple forms of "dot, line, and circle", and other characters were expansions of the 8 basic letters. It was said that "a wise person can comprehend in one day and even an unwise one can learn in 10 days". I can attest to that. Because I learned how to sound out the Korean letters back in 3rd grade, I was able to get by when I visited Korea. Of course there were words I would sound out and not know what they meant but...hey, I was able to at least read it!


Opposition

The creation of this new written language did not come without opposition. Scholars and the elite felt that this new language would separate us from the traditional cultural ties with China which they held to a high standard. Of course, the expansion of the written language could also take away the power they held as well.


Although Hangeul was created in 1443, it didn't become the official script of Korea until 1894. In 1504, it was banned by King Yeongsangum after a document criticizing the king was published. Also, in 1506, King Jungjong abolished the Ministry of Eonmun, a government institution related to the research Hangeul.


Japanese rule

My uncle went to university in Japan and spoke and read the language. However when he refers to the language, he calls it the "oppressor's language". Although Hangeul became the official language in 1894, the joy was short lived as Japan took control of the country in 1910 and Hangeul lost its status as the official script.


Through the first Joseon Education Ordinance in 1911, the Japanese language was specified as the "national language" and Korean as the "Joseon language". When teaching the Joseon language it always had to be linked to the Japanese language. Japanese was used instead of Korean in the national language textbook symbolizing the situation when Korea lost its freedom in speech and writing.


Hangeul guarded

Japanese imperialism, in an effort to exterminate the language, implemented various policies to prevent the education and publication of the Korean language. However patriotic writers continued their creative activities in Hangeul. Writers and activists often resorted to publishing underground materials that utilized Hangeul. These publications included literature, newspapers, and educational materials that aimed to keep the Korean language alive and resist Japanese cultural assimilation.


Secret schools, known as "Dojongso," operated to teach Korean language and culture. These covert educational institutions played a crucial role in ensuring that Hangeul continued to be taught and used, especially among the younger generation.


Symbolic acts, such as writing in Hangeul and using Korean names, became acts of defiance against the cultural suppression. Writers and intellectuals demonstrated their commitment to Korean identity through these symbolic gestures.


Continues to transform

King Sejong originally made 28 characters, but today's Hangeul has 24 characters. 4 characters were removed because the sound of the words expressed by those letters disappeared or became less used and the characters gradually became obsolete. As such, Hangeul has been adapted to changes in Korean and will continue to transform.


Hangeul Tshirt inspired by my trip to the museum.






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