On October 9, 1446CE, one of Korea’s historical heroes, the Great King Sejong, published a text that would release the peninsula from its centuries-old dependence on the Chinese writing system. The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People introduces a new 28 letter, Korean script that better reflected the actual sounds of spoken Korean and extended the bounds of literacy to include the common people who had never had the luxury of mastering the difficult Chinese writing system. Though it was known by many names over the centuries, Koreans still use and refer to Sejong’s alphabet as hangul. This was one of King Sejong’s most important contributions to the consolidation of a unique Korean language and cultural identity.
This consciousness of being distinct, of being Korean comes through in the opening lines of his book: “Because the speech of the country is different from that of China, it (the spoken language) doesn’t match the (Chinese) letters. Therefore, even if the ignorant want to communicate, many of them cannot achieve their intent. Because I am saddened by this, I have newly made 28 letters. It is my intention that everybody learn the letters easily so that they can conveniently use them everyday.
” In conjunction with this linguistic project, King Sejong was also seeking to legitimize his own reign in the line of the Joseon (1392-1910CE) through artistic declarations. Sejong ordered the compilation of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, the oldest extant work using his newly introduced phonetic script. Its importance as a keystone of Korean cultural identity can not be understated, as scholar James Hoyt explains in his introduction to the English translation: “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven was compiled to establish the legitimacy of Sejong’s lineage, but it is now recognized as a monument to the cultural independence of Korea from China, a most important source for the study of the Korean language, and the beginning of Korean national consciousness and of vernacular literature.” (30) The following excerpts from the compact, 125 canto work are part comparative Sino-Korean history, part royal exhortation to the Great King Sejong. The cantos are riddled with allusions to classical Chinese and Korean history that strike even the most learned as elaborate. These needn’t bog down our focus, however, on the divine mandate of rulership (the so-called “Mandate of Heaven” to rule) that Sejong was after for him and his Korean predecessors in searching to emphasize the notion of an independent Korea.
* Young-Key Kim-Renaud. King Sejong the Great: the Light of Fifteenth Century Korea. Honolulu: International Circle of Korean Linguistics, 1992.