Understanding Korea materials - Hangeul: 3.1 King Sejong and Hunminjeongeum

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Understanding Korea Series No.1
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2. Transcription of Korean Using Chinese Characters 1) King Sejong and Hunminjeongeum Appendix: King Sejong and Jiphyeonjeon(The Academy of Worthies)

3. The Creation of Hunminjeongeum

1) King Sejong and Hunminjeongeum

King Sejong (r. 1418~1450) was the fourth king of Joseon (1392~1897).5 It was during King Sejong’s reign when Joseon’s state foundation in all areas, such as politics, economics and social and cultural life, were firmly established. His contribution to cultural development was especially remarkable.

The most noteworthy cultural advancement achieved during King Sejong’s reign is the creation of Korean letters, Hunminjeongeum (Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People). As a benevolent king, he was not only fond of literature but had a keen interest in ordinary people’s lives. King Sejong always wanted to enlighten his people; an incident that illustrates this desire is indicated in a record written on lunar November 7, 1432 (Sejong 14) of Sejongsillok (the Veritable Records of King Sejong).

Even an erudite person can judge the weight of transgression only after he reviews the law. If so, then how can ignorant people realize the weight of their own transgression and correct themselves? It is impossible to teach all laws to the people. However, why not write down a selective list of major crimes, translate them into Idu and proclaim them to people so these unlearned men and women can realize ways to avoid committing crimes?

The law books of the day were useless to people who were unable to read or write Chinese characters. That is the reason why he commanded the books to be translated into Idu scripts for the people to understand. This reveals King Sejong’s concern for the importance of making his subjects aware of what constitutes a crime in order to eliminate it.

However, Idu also was a chajapyogi transcription system based on Chinese characters and could only transcribe a few lexical or grammatical words. Consequently, it could not notate Korean completely. There is no doubt that Idu was one of the easiest transcription methods in use at the time but it still had this inherent limitation. The desperate need for script that the people could easily learn and use was King Sejong’s motivation behind the invention of Hunminjeongeum. This intention is revealed in his written preamble to Hunminjeongeum haerye (訓民正音 解例, Explanation and Examples of the Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People), published after its creation in 1446.

Because the speech of this country is different from that of China, it does not match Chinese characters. As a result, even if the unlearned want to communicate, many of them cannot state their concerns in the end. I felt pity for them and created 28 letters anew. It is my wish that all the people may easily learn and conveniently use them daily.[1]

The first reference to the creation of Hunminjeongeum is found in Volume 102 of Sejongsillok within a record on Lunar December 30, 1443 (Sejong 25).[2]

This month the King created 28 letters of eonmun (the Vernacular Script) personally. The letters were modeled after the shape of the Old Seal Script, and divided into three groups: initial, medial, and terminal sounds. A syllable can be formed only after these letters are combined. Even though they are simple, both Chinese and Korean can be transcribed using these letters, and there are infinite ways of conversion so it is named Hunminjeongeum.

In 1446, Hunminjeongeum haerye was published to explain the letters of Huminjeongeum, and it came to be used as the native Korean alphabet. Many books written in Hunminjeongeum have been published ever since and, as King Sejong wished, not only the people of Joseon but also their descendants in present day Korea use the letters he created. This allows them to easily transcribe their spoken Korean language.


  1. Originally written in Hanja, this preamble was translated into Hunminjeongeum and posted at the beginning of Worinseokbo (Moon’s Reflection on the Buddha’s Genealogy, 1459). In the original, as shown in <Figure 7>, Hanja sounds, pitch-accent diacritics, the original Chinese text, and annotations are all present. Only the preface written by King Sejong is quoted here.
  2. Joseon was using the Lunar Calendar at the time; thus Lunar December 30, 1443 can be converted into January 23, 1444.

Understanding Korea Series No.1 Hangeul

Foreword · Acknowledgments

1. Korean Language and Hangeul in East Asia · Appendix: Korean and the Altaic Family

2. Transcription of Korean Using Chinese Characters

3. The Creation of Hunminjeongeum · 3.1 King Sejong and Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: King Sejong and Jiphyeonjeon(The Academy of Worthies) · 3.2 The Design Principles of Hunminjeongeum Letters · Appendix: Various Hypotheses on the Creation of Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: Special Features of the Korean Alphabet(called Hunminjeoneum or Hangeul) · 3.3 The Phonological Features of the 28 Letters of Hunminjeongeum · Appendix: The Philosophical Background of Hunminjeongeum · 3.4 Letter Usage

4. Changes of Hangeul · 4.1 Changes in the Name: From Hunminjeongeum to Hangeul · 4.2 Changes of Letters

5. History of Hangeul Usage · 5.1 Records Written in Hangeul · 5.2 Establishment of Korean Orthography · Appendix: Korean Romanization · 5.3 The Script Reform: Mixed Script to Hangeul-only Script

6. Hangeul Now

Reference · Glossary · Sources · About the Author