Sejong’s accomplishments are legendary. He commissioned research and publications in medicine, pharmacology, and agronomy (agri-cultural land management), making the latest advances in each field widely available. He supported the advancement of calendrical science and timekeeping (for example, during his reign a highly accurate water clock was developed), he standardized weights and measures to assure and encourage fairness in trading, and he improved laws and lightened punishments (Kim-Renaud 1992).
He also commissioned new maps of Choson’s borders, recently expanded and secured by his father and grandfather, which were par-ticularly important to the military men charged with defending them. He launched an attack against Tsushima, the island in the Korea Strait between Korea and Japan, to wipe out pirate bases, and then he negotiated an agreement with the So family, the lords of Tsushima, to control pirates who had been raiding Korean coastal towns.
Court ceremonies and other rituals were of utmost importance to King Sejong. He sent a delegation to Ming China to learn about their court ceremonies. His ambassadors returned to report that they were shocked at how far the imperial ceremonies in China had strayed from those described in the Confucian classics. King Sejong decided that Choson should follow the classics, and thus Korea was set on a course that was to make it more orthodox, more true to the Confucian texts, in actual practice than the Chinese.
Hangul, the Korean Alphabet
Of all of Sejong’s accomplishments, by far his greatest and the one for which he is best known was the creation of hangul, the Korean alphabet. Observing that the people did not have their own script—they could use Chinese characters only awkwardly—Sejong wrote a declaration in 1446 that he would introduce an alphabet for common use.
His stated objective was to provide a means of literacy for the common people. At the time only the upper class were literate because only they were conversant in Chinese, both in the way the Chinese themselves used it and in the specialized way that Koreans had developed it (see sidebar on idu, page 43).
The scholar-officials who composed the elite class were well educated in written Chinese, the lingua franca of Asia, and could write correspondence for the Chinese court, arguments about Neo-Confucian philosophy, poetry, and anything else that a well-educated Chinese person could. They could also write Korean in the modified Chinese script, idu, but it was so difficult and cumbersome that only the well educated, those who knew classical Chinese, could use it.
The new alphabet was originally called hunminjongum, which means “to teach the people correct sounds.” Clearly the alphabet had a prescriptive purpose, and a concern for the common people seems to have been foremost in King Sejong’s mind. Today the alphabet is known as hangul.Unlike the writing system of Japan, which is also influenced by Chinese, hangul is not a syllabary.
For example, the two writing systems used in Japanese, both hiragana and katakana, are based on syllables, that is, the consonants and vowels are not separable. The syllable ka, for instance, cannot be broken down into a “k” and an “a.” Korean Hangul, on the other hand, is a true alphabet, with 24 letters (10 vowels and 14 consonants) that can be combined in various ways to create just about any sound a person can pronounce.
The words are arranged in syllabic units, mirroring Chinese to some extent, rather than being written in a simple line. Traditionally the syllables were arrayed vertically in columns that were read from right to left, but today they are arrayed horizontally and read from left to right. The structure of the syllables accommodates the inclusion of Chinese characters if desired.
The Korean language includes many words from Chinese coupled with grammatical parts that are pure Korean.King Sejong commissioned his scholars to write an epic poem using the new alphabet. To the chagrin of the Confucian scholar-officials, he also had them write a biography of the Buddha, again showing his interest in the common people, many of whom were Buddhist.
The committee of scholars who helped with the alphabet and wrote other scholarly works were in a special office called the Chiphyon-jon, meaning the “hall of the assembly of the wise.” To it Sejong appointed his brightest scholars. He assigned some to travel to China to learn of other languages and scripts, but with all the help he had, remarkably, it was the king himself who was most concerned about the alphabet and who made the decisions about how it should be. Unlike many aspects of human endeavor, in which the one in charge gets the credit for work delegated to others, in this case the record shows it was the king himself who was directly involved in the cre-ation of the alphabet.
The alphabet was not well received by some scholar-officials who were committed to Confucianism and Chinese scholarship. They judged the alphabet silly, too simple, and something that no serious person would ever use. Some renounced it, but the alphabet was useful and has stood the test of time.
(Its widespread usage had to wait until the beginning of the 20th century, however, when han-gul emerged in newspapers and other popular media in response to Western influences.)The greatest challenge to hangul’s survival came from Sejong’s son, King Sejo. Because Sejo (b. 1417) usurped the throne, people wrote criticisms of him in hangul. In response Sejo outlawed the use of the alphabet and burned the books already printed in it.
Thereafter, the alphabet was seen as somewhat subversive and was used only clandestinely for the rest of the dynasty, from the late 15th century until the late 19th century. Though forbidden, it was still used privately, and a marvelous and large variety of literature circulated in handwritten copies. This large collection of handwritten stories and poetry has long been associated with female writers, but some experts believe that men also participated in the writing, copying, and circula-tion of this underground literary movement.
Sejo, the Usurper
King Sejong did not live to an old age. He died at the age of 47, leav-ing the throne to Munjong (r. 1450–52), his oldest son and, as the fifth king of the dynasty, the first to succeed to the throne in the prescribed fashion: The oldest son, he was named crown prince and then king, but this succession, too, was not to be normal, because Munjong died prematurely after only two years on the throne. His son, 12-year-old Tanjong (r. 1452–55), took the throne.
After three years his uncle Sejo staged a takeover, claiming that the boy-king was being manipulated by evil advisers. Sejo arrested Tanjong and sentenced him to internal exile. After another two years—time to see what opposition might sur-face—Sejo ordered the execution of the boy (he was poisoned) and the arrest and execution of six former advisers, high officials whom Sejo accused of plotting to restore Tanjong to the throne.
As in the palace coup dramatized in Shakespeare’s Richard III, a power-hungry uncle killed a nephew on the throne. Just four years earlier the six officials who were executed had been part of the court of Sejong, some having even served in the Chiphyon-jon, where hangul was invented. To their sympathizers they became known as the Six Martyrs.
These “best and brightest,” though discredited in life, lived on in glory in the memory of their descendants, while those who sup-ported the usurper, Sejo, were regarded as corrupt and evil. Even so, it was Sejo’s supporters who won control of the kingdom, and their descendants likewise gloried in the accomplishments of their ancestors. This split in the bureaucracy was a scar that was to mark the Choson period for the rest of its existence.