Some scholars say the first paper was invented in Korea and was introduced to Europe by way of China, which is usually given credit for inventing the first paper. Early Koreans made handmade rice paper and traditional "hanji" from mulberry trees. See Below

Koreans developed the world's first rain gauge n 1442 and the worlds first ironclad ships, known as turtle ships, in the 1500s. Known as turtle boats, because the were shaped like turtles and turtle means long life, they were not really iron clad ships as we know them. They were propelled by oars and covered with metal spikes mainly to repel boarders. On the bow was a dragon’s head, which emitted a vile-smelling smoke, produced by burning sulphur and acid and was intended to spook the enemy not poison hem. The oars went through the bottom, instead if the sides, an innovation that kept the vessels from braking up during collisions. Sailors pumped up and down on the oars to maneuver the boat. A drummer pounded out a rhythm for the oarsmen to follow. On August 15, 1597, 12 turtle ships confronted a fleet of 133 Japanese vessels and destroyed 31 of the Japanese warships.

The Emille Bell (at the National Museum in Gyeongju) is one the largest, oldest and most resonant bells in Asia. Cast in one piece in A.D. 771, it is 11 feet long and weighs 23 tons. After earlier casting failed, legend has it, a small child was tossed into the molten metal to ensure success. The sound of the bell is reminiscent of a child's cry and word Emille comes from the Korean word for Mama. When the bell is wrung by a particularly strong monk, it is said, the sound can be heard 40 miles away.

Tripitaka Koreana: Oldest Woodblock Printing

The oldest existing work completely printed with woodblocks is the “Mugujonggwang Taerdaranigyong” (Pure Light Dharani Sutra), Buddhist scriptures (sutras) printed sometime before the Silla monarch King Kyongdok was enthroned in A.D. 751. The oldest woodblocks have been dated to A.D. 704. They were found in Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju in October 1966.

The “Tripitaka Koreana” (housed in a repository at Haeinsa Temple) is a set of 80,000 wooden printing blocks regarded by some scholars as the first examples of large-scale printing. Completed in 1252 after 26 years of work by an army of monks, the blocks contain the entire catalogue of Buddhist sutras at that time, and are one of the most comprehensive compilations of Buddhist scriptures in the world. The Tripitaka Koreana woodblocks are admired for their craftsmanship and scientific advancement. They were made by monks who repeatedly carved the wood and dipped it in salt water to preserve it. Despite their age the blocks are in perfect condition today and can still be used for printing.

Tripitaka Koreana is a complete collection of Buddhist scriptures, including Buddha’s sutras (rules of discipline), "discourses" (basic teachings), explanations of the discourses, and rules for the priesthood that extend into thousands of volumes, all carved into wooden printing blocks. The work is also known as the Palman Daejanggyeong (meaning Eighty Thousand Tripitaka in Korean due to the number of the printing blocks in the collection). Since the first half of the Koryo Dynasty (918~1392), the Tripitaka Koreana was stored in the buildings of Janggyeongpanjeon Hall of Haeinsa Temple in Gyeongsangnam-do with other existing printing blocks, and was designated as the country's national treasures altogether. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

In addition, this heritage is recognized as the most comprehensive example of the woodblock printing technique in all known Buddhist scriptures of that time in terms of its scholastic excellence (comparing, proofreading, adjusting, and arranging) as well as technical aspect. Lacquered using sap from the lacquer tree, the woodblocks have excellent durability and can still print crisp copies 760 years after their creation.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: The Tripitaka is “one of the most spectacular achievements of Korean Buddhism....Devout Korean Buddhists had craftsmen carve everything in the Tripitaka onto 84,000 printing blocks (each block could print four pages), a massive project that took many years, partly as a pious response to the fact that Korea was under attack from northern Khitan invaders. By the time it was finished the Khitan actually had been defeated by the Jurchen. It is ironic to note that the entire Tripitaka printing-block collection was burned by the invading Mongols in the thirteenth century, following which Korean Buddhists set about carving it all over again. Today, the second set of 84,000 printing blocks can be seen in a large storage facility in the mountainside temple of Hae'insa. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Tripitaka Koreana: in the UNESCO Memory of World Register

Tripitaka Koreana & Miscellaneous Buddhist Scriptures; The Oldest Printed Woodblocks was added to UNESCO Memory of World Register in 2007. According to UNESCO: The Goryeo Daejanggyeong (Goryeo dynasty Tripitaka), known as the “Tripitaka Koreana” to the modern scholarly world, is a Korean collection of the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures). Carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century, under commission by the Goryeo [Koryo] dynasty of Korea (918-1392 CE), it is currently stored at Haeinsa Monastery in the southwest of the Korean Peninsula. It is often called the Palman Daejanggyeong ("Eighty-thousand Tripitaka") due to the number of the printing plates that comprise it.

The Tripitaka (in Sanskrit, meaning "Three Baskets"), or Daejanggyeong in Korean, refers to the collection of Buddhist scriptures, or Buddhist canon, that relate to discourses with the Buddha (Sutta-pitaka), regulations of monastic life (Vinaya-pitaka), and commentaries on the sutras by renowned monks and scholars (Abhidhamma-pitaka). When Buddhism was transmitted to East Asia through China, and the Buddhist scriptures translated from various Indian and Central Asian languages to classical Chinese (the lingua franca of educated discourse throughout East Asia, including Korea), there were several attempts by several countries to inscribe them in wooden printing blocks for distribution. However, the Tripitaka Koreana is the only complete canon still extant on the mainland of Asia.

Though the Tripitaka Koreana was a task commissioned by the Goryeo dynasty to produce an edition of the Tripitaka in wooden printing blocks, there were also individual woodblocks of miscellaneous Buddhist scriptures commissioned directly by Haeinsa Monastery. With year of scribing dating from 1098 to 1958, there are 5,987 miscellaneous woodblocks that have been created and stored at Haeinsa Monastery. These miscellaneous scripture woodblocks, some of which are the only extant copy in the world, were created to supplement the Tripitaka.

The woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana and miscellaneous scriptures possess high cultural value as an example of the best printing and publishing techniques of the period. Each block was systematically and meticulously prepared, and individually and beautifully inscribed with a great degree of regularity. Their excellent durability has been proven well, as the printing blocks can even now print crisp, complete copies of the Tripitaka, 760 years after its creation. Due to the sophistication of its editing and process of compilation and collation, the Tripitaka Koreana is known as the most accurate of the Tripitakas written in classical Chinese; as a standard critical edition for East Asian Buddhist scholarship, it has been widely distributed and used over the ages.

The woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana and miscellaneous Buddhist scriptures show an outline of a complete "knowledge system" that produces and distributes knowledge. The Tripitaka is a compilation of Buddhist literature including scripture, disciplinary manuals, commentary, doxography and history; based on this collection of information a unique system of scholastic research was established.

These wooden printing blocks became a medium through which knowledge could be produced and distributed continuously. Using these woodblocks, Haeinsa Monastery printed copies every time need arose, as resources for research and material for the education of the ordained. Accordingly, Haeinsa Monastery was able to become a central locus for the traditional practice of knowledge transmission, where Buddhist education, the preservation of knowledge, and scholastic research could be conducted. Even in the present, Haeinsa Monastery reflects this tradition as a centre of Buddhist scholastic study as the designated Dharma-jewel Monastery of Korea, responsible for the teaching and transmission of the Dharma, amongst the Three Precious Jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, i.e. Buddha, the Law, and the Ecclesia or Order.

Confucian Printing Woodblocks in Korea

“Confucian Printing Woodblocks in Korea,” was added to UNESCO Memory of World Register in 2015. According to UNESCO: This documentary heritage, collectively named the “Confucian Printing Woodblocks in Korea,” comprises 64,226 hand-carved blocks used for printing 718 titles of works written during the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910). They have been entrusted by 305 family clans and Confucian academies. The woodblocks are a prototype of text communication technology that enabled exploration and dissemination of ideas, engaging scholars and intellectuals across time and distances. They covered a wide range of subjects, including literature, politics, economy, philosophy, and interpersonal relations. The ultimate theme is creating ideal communities built on Confucian morality.

Confucian Printing Woodblocks in Korea were made during the Joseon Dynasty to print the studying materials for scholars. Over 60,000 woodblocks were produced on wooden boards donated by 305 families living in the region to print a variety of contents such as literature, politics, economics, philosophy and more. These woodblocks are high in scarcity value as the first attempt in Korea to gather records from different sources and eras in one place. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

These confucian printing woodblocks became academic mediums for several local intellectual communities over the years, and a form of a collective intelligence was created. The collection is now recognized as a world treasure on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Hand-carved wooden panels holds a rare value and historical importance for being living proof of the process of producing books by a collective community; deciding the contents and sharing the costs among scholars to print the books.

Movable Type Before Gutenberg

The oldest printing with movable type was done in Korea in 1160, nearly 300 years before Gutenberg printed his first Bible. The world's oldest existing book made with movable metal type, the “Pulch'o Chikchi Shimch'e Yojol,” was printed in 1377. It is now in a collection of the Paris National Library.

Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeol (Vol. II); The Second Volume of “Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings" was placed on the UNESCO Memory of World Register in 2001. Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeol is a book printed using the metal type method in 1377, at the Cheongju Heungdeoksa Temple Site. Monk Baegun (1299~1374) selected several holy scriptures, and compiled them to form this Buddhist book carrying valuble pinriciples of zen teachings. It is the world's oldest movable metal type printing evidence available and thus showed us an important technical change in the printing history of humanity. This practical printing method invented by Korea has especially influenced the history of Oriental printing, and thus its recording inheritance is highly valued til today.

"For a brief interlude Koreans were actually the most advanced printers in the world," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin in “The Discoverers”. "Printing with wooden blocks in the Chinese manner had been well developed in Korea by the eighth century. By the early twelfth century the kings of the Koryo dynasty had set up a printing office in the national college, and they too were collecting Buddhist documents, not for education but to establish a standard text."

The development of movable type was brought about in part by a scarcity of certain kinds of wood. "Although Korea was rich in pine forest useful for making ink," wrote Boorstin, "she was poor in the hard cross-grained woods (jujube, pear, or birch) best for printing blocks, and so had to import them from China. Why not try metal? They ingeniously adapted the mold they were using to cast coins into a novel device for casting type. A character carved in boxwood was pressed onto a trough containing clay to leave the impression for the type about the size and thickness of coins."

Some historian have suggested that the Korean experiments with movable type may have influenced Gutenberg, but there is no concrete evidence to support this. "In Korea itself," wrote Boorstin, "the pioneer experiments in movable metal type proved a dead end. Korean printers supplied familiar texts to those who already knew them. Most editions counted only two hundred copies, and none exceeded five hundred. Without commercial circulation, there was no incentive to widen the range of titles or increase the numbers printed. There was no effective demand for books printed in the vernacular."

Korean Paper

Hanji, literally “the paper of Korea”, is one of world’s oldest papers and one of its most durable. The main material is the fibrous skin of the mulberry. Hanji is not simply paper. It is used in a variety of ways, and has a different name according to its use. If it is glued on a door it is called a window paper It is copy paper if it is used for a family registry book, Buddhist sutra or old books, while it becomes drawing paper. if four gracious plants or birds are drawn upon it. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

The strong vitality of Korean paper is the reason it can be used in a multitude of ways. There is an old saying that paper lasts a thousand years and textiles (such as silk or hemp) last five hundred, reflecting the superior strength of paper over cloth. Koreans even used Korean paper as a suit of armor after varnishing the lacquer. It is known that the life span of Korean paper is 1,000 years. In the West, products made of paper more than 300~400 years old are rare. But Korea has preserved quite a few books and drawings which are almost 1000 years old. The most typical example is the , which is the oldest printed material in the world. The year the was created was 751.

Korean paper was also very famous as much as Sodongpa, a famous Chinese poet in the 11th century Chinese poet said that he would like to publish his anthology with paper produced from Goryeo (The name of the Korean dynasty at that time), which was one of Korea’s main export good at that time. Koreans use Korean paper made by traditional methods for government documents or other documents.

The superiority of Korean paper comes from the material with which it is made. The bark of the mulberry is strong and can endure without decomposition when it is immersed in the water for 1 year. It allows both air and light through as the fibers are wide. High-quality Korean paper can be produced with trees that are only 1 year old, while cheaper modern paper must use the pulp from trees 20~30 years old.

Making Korean Paper

The manufacturing process of Korean paper is complicated, slow and laborious. The dry mulberry is cut after the frost has arrived and is peeled off after steaming. It is immersed in water for one day and, after being dried under the sunlight, the bark is peeled off, steamed again inside an iron pot and immersed in caustic soda. The steamed bark is smashed inside a stone mortar after the water has been squeezed out. Then it is rinsed in flowing water after being placed inside a wrapper. The washed mulberry is mixed with water and a natural adhesive. Next, the fibers are strained through a bamboo screen, which is shaken back and forth to create a crisscross pattern of fibers. The pulp is then dried by stacking it on a wooden panel and placed in the sun, completing the process. Learn more about the manufacturing procedure of traditional Korean paper through a visit to the Korean paper museum in Jeonju (www.hanjimuseum.co.kr), Jeollabuk-do. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

The traditional methods for making Korean paper are not being passed down as greatly as before, making the manufacturing process quite challenging these days. It is such a difficult job that traditional masters of hanji say, “I will not let my son be a container man (the person who strains the fiber through a bamboo screen) even if I am driven to the worst”.

The small quantities, a long production process and distribution limited to specialty markets make it difficult for traditional Korean paper to compete with the mass distribution of cheap easily produced modern paper. The Korean government has therefore appointed the masters of Korean papermaking as intangible cultural assets and protects the industry with special care. The superiority of hanji has endured despite historical and global changes. There is a trend toward using hanji for another purpose, like for artwork. Artists for calligraphy and dyeing insist on using Korean paper. Black Chinese ink spreads evenly because the paper is strong and lacks impurities despite being thin. Korean paper is used widely in various art industries. Fashion shows for clothing made of hanji have been held on the Champs Elysee in Paris. A study on potential protective properties of hanji paper for space shuttles is currently underway in a joint study by Korea and the USA. Korean paper has been developed for use as a substitute for styrofoam as internal packing material.

Hangul Alphabet

Hangul (hanguel), the Korea's phonetic alphabet, is perhaps the world's clearest and most logical alphabet. It is consists of 24 phonetic symbols and 40 elements that are linked with sounds in the Korean language. Unlike English, there are no tricky spellings or unclear pronunciations. Most children in Korea know some hangul before the enter elementary school and most foreigners can learn its basic on the plane ride from North America or Europe to Seoul.

Hangul is a series of creative and scientifically created characters. With consonants and vowels as the fundamentals, a dot or a line is added to form an alphabet. The five main consonants imitate the shape of lips and tongue make when trying to pronounce that particular sound while the three main vowels symbolize the sky, the earth and mankind, , which are thought to be the building blocks of the universe. Originally composed of 17 consonants and 11 vowels when it was first conceived, hangul has only 14 consonants and 10 vowels used now. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Hangul refers to the series of letters that form syllables with which the Korean language is written. The most unique aspect of Hangul is that it was intentionally created by the government as a written means of expressing the Korean language. Hangul is a series of creative and scientifically created characters. The five main consonants reflect the five core elements of Oriental philosophy. Consonants and vowels are used to write words by crossing and addition. 12,768 phonemes can be made in this way however, it is easy for everyone to learn Hangul because the composition principle of the words is so simple.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The Chinese and Korean languages are very different. Korean, for example, has many suffixes that attach to verb stems to indicate tense, mood, attitude, formality, and the relative status of speaker and listener, while Chinese does not inflect verbs in this way. Nonetheless, until the 15th century, Korean authors had had no choice but to use Chinese ideographs to transcribe Korean speech, sometimes employing hybrid writing forms, such as hyangch’al and idu, in which such ideographs could be used alternately to express meaning and sound. Such systems were awkward and difficult to use. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]

The hangul alphabet did not come into general use until the twentieth century. Since 1948 North Koreans have used the Korean alphabet exclusively while South Koreans have retained usage of a mixed Sino-Korean script. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Therefore, over a period of years culminating in 1443, King Sejong (1418-1450) of Chosun, widely considered the best king in Korean history, led a group of scholars in the development of a twenty-eight-symbol alphabet and then proclaimed the new system in 1446 in a work entitled Hunmin chongŭm (Correct Sounds to Instruct the People). Now known as han’gŭl, with slight modification this alphabet is still used today. It is widely considered easy to learn, and is beloved by many linguists for its scientific qualities — the shape of its consonants, for example, represent the way in which the tongue and lips are formed to produce different consonant sounds in the mouth. Its vowel system, meanwhile, reflects Confucian metaphysics of the time of its origin: vowels are composed of three sub-units reflecting concepts of heaven, earth, and humans.” ^^^

Korean, Japanese and Chinese Written Languages

The Korean language today is be written using a mixture of Chinese characters (hancha) and hangul or in hangul alone, much as in a more limited way Indo-European languages sometimes write numbers using Arabic symbols and at other times spell numbers out in their own alphabets or in some combination of the two forms. Before the invention of hangul, documents were laboriously written in Chinese characters that didn't fit Korean pronunciation and sentence structure.

Chinese, Koreans and Japanese use the same Chinese characters. The meanings of the characters is usually the same but the pronunciation is different. The character for soy sauce, for example, is pronounced "shoyu" in Japanese and "jiangyou" in Mandarin Chinese. After World War II, the Japanese simplified their characters (made them easier to write) and changed their appearance. The Chinese did the same thing but used a different system, while the Koreans stuck to the old character system. Now the characters in all three languages are the same but they look different and are pronounced differently, if that makes any sense.

Because of its greater variety of sounds, Korean does not have the problem of the Japanese written language, which some experts have argued needs to retain a sizable inventory of Chinese characters to distinguish a large number of potentially ambiguous homophones. Since 1948 the continued use of Chinese characters in South Korea has been criticized by linguistic nationalists and some educators and defended by cultural conservatives, who fear that the loss of character literacy could cut younger generations off from a major part of their cultural heritage. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Since the early 1970s, Seoul's policy governing the teaching and use of Chinese characters has shifted several times, although the trend clearly has been toward writing in hangul alone. By early 1990, all but academic writing used far fewer Chinese characters than was the case in the 1960s. In 1989 the Korean Language and Education Research Association, citing the need for Chinese character literacy "at a time when the nation is entering into keen competition with Japan and China" and noting that Japanese educators were increasing the number of Chinese characters taught in elementary schools, recommended to the Ministry of Education that instruction in Chinese characters be reintroduced at the primary-school level.

Although the Korean and Chinese languages are not related in terms of grammatical structure, more than 50 percent of all Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese loanwords, a reflection of the cultural dominance of China over 2 millennia. In many cases there are two words — a Chinese loanword and an indigenous Korean word — meaning the same thing. The Chinese-based word in Korean sometimes has a bookish or formal flavor. Koreans select one or the other variant to achieve the proper register in speech or in writing, and to make subtle distinctions of meaning in accordance with established usage.

Large numbers of Chinese character compounds coined in Japan in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries to translate modern Western scientific, technical, and political vocabulary came into use in Korea during the colonial period. Post-1945 United States influence has been reflected in a number of English words that have been absorbed into Korean.

Koreans read books and newspapers both left-to-right and top-down. Unlike the Japanese who read books from back cover to the front (in Western terms), Korean read Western style from the front to back. Traditional Buddhist scriptures however are read from top-down, right-to-left, back-to-front.

Before the Hangul Alphabet

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “”Countries and Their Cultures””: Before hangul,, Korea's aristocratic society used Chinese characters, while the government and people used the writing system known as idu (a transcription system of Korean words invented in the eighth century by Silla scholars using Chinese characters). The Chinese writing system requires a basic knowledge of several thousand characters. Commoners who did not have the time or means to master Chinese could not read or write. Moreover, it is difficult to express spoken Korean in Chinese characters.” [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “”Countries and Their Cultures”,” The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Korean scholars were writing poetry in the traditional manner of Classical Chinese at least by the A.D. 4th century. A national academy was established shortly after the founding of the Unified Silla dynasty (668–935), and, from the time of the institution of civil service examinations in the mid-10th century until their abolition in 1894, every educated Korean read the Confucian Classics and Chinese histories and literature. The Korean upper classes were therefore bilingual in a special sense: they spoke Korean but wrote in Chinese.

By the 7th century a system, called idu, had been devised that allowed Koreans to make rough transliterations of Chinese texts. Eventually, certain Chinese characters were used for their phonetic value to represent Korean particles of speech and inflectional endings. A more extended system of transcription, called hyangch’al, followed shortly thereafter, in which entire sentences in Korean could be written in Chinese. In another system, kugyol, abridged versions of Chinese characters were used to denote grammatical elements and were inserted into texts during transcription. Extant literary works indicate, however, that before the 20th century much of Korean literature was written in Chinese rather than in Korean, even after the invention of Hangul.

Invention of the Hangul Alphabet

King Sejong the Great (born 1397, ruled 1418-50), the fourth monarch of the Chosun Dynasty, is often credited with inventing it but actually the alphabet was devised by a group of scholars at his court that he commissioned to come up with a writing system to fit the Korean language.

Hangul, it is said, was introduced by King Sejong help all commoners to easily read and write, Hunminjeongeum (“The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People” in Korean) is the former name for the present day Korean alphabet. A sort of guidebook by the same name was created to explain the principles and purpose of hangul, as well as how to use and pronounce the letters. The name of the alphabet was changed to ‘hangul’ in the early 20th century and is the term widely used today. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “”Countries and Their Cultures””:“Considering the frustrating situation of mass illiteracy and troubled by the incongruity between spoken Korean and Chinese ideographs,” hangul “was created in 1443 and promulgated in 1446. South Koreans observe Hangul Day on 9 October with a ceremony at King Sejong's tomb. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “”Countries and Their Cultures”,” The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Hangul was invented by scholars, not solely to promote literacy among the common people as was sometimes claimed, but also, as Professor Gari K. Ledyard has noted, to assist in studies of Chinese historical phonology. According to a statement by the king, an intelligent man could learn hangul in a morning's time, and even a fool could master it in ten days. As a result, it was scorned and relegated to women and merchants. The script, which in its modern form contains forty symbols, is considered by linguists to be one of the most scientific ever devised; it reflects quite consistently the phonemes of the spoken Korean language. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Hangul originally had 28 letters and was initially considered only suitable for women and peasants because it was so easy to master."While Korean was the language of the marketplace," wrote Boorstin, "the ideographic language of China remained the language of learning. Even more than the learned language in China, the learned language — the Latin of Korea — was isolated from everyday speech. Even today the Chinese written in Korea is said to have an especially archaic flavor."

It took a while for hangul to catch on but once it did it helped democratize learning as the "script for the people" and was eventually by embraced the ruling and scholarly classes. The hangul used today has 24 letters but otherwise it has changed very little since the time it was conceived.

Korean Pride over the Hangul Alphabet

Koreans take pride in their hangul alphabet. They believe that Hangul best demonstrates the creativity of Koreans during the past 5000 years of Korean civilization. Koreans mark the 9th of every October as a national celebration to commemorate the creation of Hangul. As the only national celebration for an alphabet in the world, this day reflects the uniqueness of an alphabet created and systematized by a government to reflect the unique sounds of a language. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

The quality of Hangul has been extensively studied and praised by experts worldwide. It is easy to learn since each letter corresponds to a phoneme, and Korea now has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. UNESCO established the King Sejong Literacy Prize in 1988 and offers it annually to an individual or group that contributes to the eradication of illiteracy worldwide.

Hangul is a national written language that does not have any direct influence from pre-existing writing systems. Artwork utilizing the geometric features of the Korean alphabet are found in South Korea. One typical example is the work of the fashion designer Sang Bong Lee. Lee received many compliments on the oriental yet modern clothing she has created using the images of the Korean alphabet while exhibiting at the pret a porter collection presentation in Paris.

King Sejong, the creator of Hangul, is regarded as a national hero in Korea. There are in fact only two kings commemorated as truly great kings of Korean history. One is Gwanggaetodaewang of Goguryeo, who ruled over the largest territory in Korean history, and the other is King Sejong, who created hangul and many other significant inventions. King Sejong appears on the 10,000 won note and a statue of him stands at Gwanghwamun Square, which is a symbol of Seoul.

Failure of to Adapt Movable Type to the Hangul Alphabet

"The crucial new opportunity for Koreans to exploit the advantages of movable type came from innovations in the written language," Boorstin wrote. "For centuries the Koreans had written their language only in Chinese ideographic characters...In 1446 they came up with the new Hangul...not based on any existing alphabet."

"If Korean scholars and printers had been willing to seize the advantage of their newly devised phonetic alphabet," he wrote, "the future of typographic printing and perhaps the paths of their science and culture might have been quite different. But they stubbornly hung on to their Chinese characters, or at least the Chinese style, and finally made their own alphabet into a syllables similar to that of the Japanese. The ironic result was that Korean printing, like the Chinese, still required thousands of different characters...In the seventeenth century, when a popular literature did appear in the Korean language it was circulated in manuscript."

An reason hangul failed to be adapted to movable type was perhaps because the Korean and Chinese system of characters was so complex, and Korean printers were illiterate and their many concern was not making any mistakes. According to one regulation: "The supervisor and compositor shall be flogged thirty times for an error per chapter; the printer shall be flogged thirty times for bad impression, either too dark or too light, of one character per chapter."

Hunminjeongeum; The Hangul Manuscript

Hangul was named Hunminjungeum at the time of its creation. Hunminjungeum means “ Correct Sounds to Instruct the People ”. The Hunminjungeum Explanation Book King Sejong created has been passed down throughout history; the Korean government has named it National Treasure No. 70 and it is now housed at the Gansong Art Museum in Sungbuk-dong, Seoul.

Hunminjeongeum; The Hangul Manuscript was added to UNESCO Memory of World Register in 1997. According to UNESCO: The manuscript published in the ninth lunar month of 1446, contains the promulgation by Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Chosun Dynasty (reigned 1418-1450), of the Korean alphabet of the same name, now called han-gul, the development of which he completed in 1443. It also contains the Haerye, or Commentaries, later explanations and examples by scholars of the Hall of Worthies, including Chong In-J'is So, or Postface. This edition is therefore often referred to as the Haerye Edition of Hunminjeongum or Hunmin Chongun. It is kept by the Kansong Art Museum. [Source: UNESCO]

Hunminjeongeum (carrying the meaning of "Proper sounds to instruct the people" in Korean) is the former name for the present day Korean alphabet, hangul, and it is a book that explains the principles and purpose of hangul, as well as how to use and pronounce the letters. King Sejong, the 4th king of the Joseon Dynasty, created the Korean alphabet in order to help all commoners to easily read and write. The task was promulgated in 1443 by the scholars of Jiphyeonjeon Hall (or "The Hall of Worthies") and in 1446, the alphabet was distributed and made known to all citizens. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

The shape of each letter is made according to the position of the vocal organs used to articulate the specific sound. In addition, hangul is known to be unique among the world's writing systems for having been created at a specifiable time by identifiable people, without any direct influence from pre-existing writing systems, to become a national written language. Moreover, no other writing system has ever been implemented in an explanatory volume.

Sejong himself wrote a brief preface to the Hunmin chongŭm, while a scholar named Chong Inji who had worked on the project wrote a postscript. He wrote: “Yet climates and soils in the four corners of the world are different, and enunciations and material force are likewise diverse. In general, the languages of different countries havetheir own enunciations but lack their own letters, so they borrowed the Chinese graphs to communicate their needs. This is, however, like trying to fit a square handle into a round hole… In the winter of the year kyehae [1443], His Majesty, the king, created twenty.eight letters of the Correct Sounds and provided examples in outline demonstrating their meanings. His Majesty then named these letters Hunmin chongŭm. [Source: translated by Yongho Ch’oe, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 517-518]

Ch'oe Malli's Opposition to the Korean Alphabet

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: When, in 1443, King Sejong introduced the twenty-eight symbol alphabet for writing Korean, not all scholars or court officials agreed that the new alphabet was advantageous. This passage from court annals records the 1444 dissent of Ch’oe Malli (fl. 1419-1444). His sort of attitude remained important for the rest of the Chosun dynasty. Indeed, though the new alphabet found some uses, Chinese remained the preferred medium of most writing by educated elites until the beginning of the twentieth century. [Source: translated by Yongho Ch’oe, Asia for Educators Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]

On “Opposition to the Korean Alphabet,” Ch’oe Malli’s wrote in the Sejong sillok: Twentieth day of the second month of the year [1444]. Ch’oe Malli, first counselor in the Hall of Worthies, and his associates offered the following memorial: We humbly believe that the invention of the Korean script is a work of divine creation unparalleled in history. There are, however, some questionable issues we wish to raise for Your Majesty’s consideration. [Source: translated by Yongho Ch’oe, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 519-520.

  1. Ever since the founding of the dynasty, our court has pursued the policy of respecting the senior state with utmost sincerity and has consistently tried to follow the Chinese system of government. As we share with China at present the same writing and the same institutions, we are startled to learn of the invention of the Korean script. Some claim that the Korean script is based on old writings and is not a new alphabet at all. Although the letter shapes are similar to the old seal letters, the use of letters for phonetic value violates ancient practice and has no valid ground. If this becomes known to China and anyone argues against it, it would disgrace our policy of respecting China.

  2. Although winds and soils vary from region to region, there has been no separate writing system for local dialects. Only such peoples as the Mongolians, Tanguts, Jürchens, Japanese, and Tibetans have their own writings. But this is a matter that involves the barbarians and is unworthy of our concern. It has been said that the barbarians are transformed only by means of adopting Chinese ways; we have never heard of Chinese ways being transformed by the barbarians. Historically, China has always regarded our country as the state that has maintained the virtuous customs bequeathed by the sage.king Kija and has viewed our literature, rituals, and music as similar to its own. Now, however, our country is devising a Korean script separately in order to discard the Chinese, and thus we are willingly being reduced to the status of barbarians. This is like abandoning the fragrance of storax in favor of the obnoxious odor of mantis. Is this not a great embarrassment to the enlightened civilization?

  3. Although the idu writing devised by Sol Ch’ong of Silla is vulgar and rustic, it uses the graphs widely used in China as auxiliaries to our tongue, and hence the graphs are not different from the Chinese. Therefore, even the clerks and the servants sincerely want to study the Chinese graphs. At first they read several books to acquire a rough understanding of the Chinese graphs; only then are they able to use the idu. Those who use the idu must depend upon the Chinese graphs to communicate their ideas, and a number of people become literate through the use of the idu writing. Therefore, the idu is a useful aid in stimulating learning. … If the Korean script is widely used, the cleric officials will study it exclusively and neglect scholarly literature.

If they discover that knowledge of the twenty. [eight] letter Korean script is sufficient for them to advance in their official careers, why would they go through agony and pain to study the principles of Neo.Confucianism? If such a situation lasts several decades, thensurely the people who understand the Chinese graphs would be reduced to a very small number. Perhaps they could manage their clerical affairs using the Korean script, but if they do not know the writings of the sages, they will become ignorant and unable to distinguish right from wrong. … This Korean script is nothing more than a novelty. It is harmful to learning and useless to the government. No matter how one looks at it, one cannot find any good in it. … His Majesty, having read the memorial, responded to Ch’oe Malli and his associates as follows: You said that the use of letters for phonetic value violates the old practices. Is not the idu of Sol Ch’ong also based on alien sounds? Is not the main objective of devising the idu to make it useful to the people? If it is useful to the people, is not this new Korean script also useful to the people? You and your associates believe the work of Sol Ch’ong to be good, yet you reject the work of your sovereign. Why? What do you know about the book of rhymes? Do you know how many vowels there are in the Four Tones and Seven Sounds? If I do not correct the book of rhymes now, who is going to do it?

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

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