Understanding Korea materials - Hangeul: 5.1 Records Written in Hangeul

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Understanding Korea Series No.1
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2) Changes of Letters 1) Records Written in Hangeul 2) Establishment of Korean Orthography

5. History of Hangeul Usage

1) Records Written in Hangeul

After the invention of Hunminjeongeum, otherwise known as Hangeul,[1] how has this brand-new script been used? One of the most common misconceptions about Hangeul is that it was shunned for a long time and only barely survived due to the efforts of a handful of people. This misunderstanding may have come from the view that Hangeul was rarely used in official records, and instead only used in letters and novels written by women.

Of course, Hangeul did not oust the influence of Chinese characters instantaneously as King Sejong intended as the 500-year records of Joseon showed. Even so, the claims that Hangeul was never used in official documents or was only used by women are not true. Hangeul, along with Chinese characters, proved to be an excellent writing method for government publications. Hangeul records are not only found in writings of common people but in the writings of the royal family, and writers were both men and women. Moreover, it is evident that Hangeul was used in legally binding documents such as sales contracts or bestowal documents.

King Sejong claimed that he invented Hangeul so that the people could learn it easily and express their thoughts freely. Examining Hangeul usage since its creation, it is evident that Hangeul has been fulfilling its responsibility as a medium of communication among the people and between the government and the people. King Sejong’s aspiration to promote communication among people with different ideologies and backgrounds, and the understanding, cooperation and social advancement that stems from such communication, has been fully realized.

After Hangeul was created in 1443, many books using it were published. Initially, the publications were mainly by government institutions like Eonmuncheong (the Vernacular Script Commission, also called Jeongeumcheong) or Gangyeongdogam (the General Directorate for the Publishing of Sutra). However, as time passed, not only the government but common people started using Hangeul in various books and documents. While every book written in Hangeul cannot be introduced here,15 a few selected books and resources either written in Hangeul or translated into Hangeul will be introduced, so the general theme and trends of these works in specific periods can be comprehended. Observing the subjects discussed in those books and resources and the authors of such publications promotes the understanding of Hangeul usage and context.

The first book in Hangeul was Yongbieocheonga (龍飛御天歌, The Song of the Dragons Flying Through Heaven). It was written in 1445 but published in 1447. This book praises the achievements of the ancestors of the Joseon Royal Family, emphasizes the fact that Joseon’s present success is the result of those achievements and proclaims justifications for the founding of Joseon.

In 1477, Seokbosangjeol (釋譜詳節) and Worincheongangjigok (月印千江之曲) were published as well. Written by Suyangdaegun who later became King Sejo, the seventh king of Joseon, Seokbosangjeol documents the family tree and life of Buddha. This book was written to provide condolences for Soheonwanghu, King Sejong’s queen, who died in 1446, and the book also encouraged the public to convert to Buddhism. Worincheongangjigok was written by King Sejong as poetry. It is said that King Sejong wrote it to praise Buddha’s merits after Suyangdaegun presented Seokbosangjeol.

These three books were published in the same year (1447) but the transcription systems are different. All three books use a mixture of Chinese characters and Hangeul. In Yongbieocheonga, the Sino-Korean nouns were transcribed in Chinese characters, and Chinese phonetics were not added. In Seokbosangjeol, the Sino-Korean nouns were transcribed in Chinese characters, and Chinese phonetics were added in small Hangeul letters. Worincheongangjigok transcribed the phonetics of the Sino-Korean nouns in Hangeul and added Chinese characters below. Between these parallel methods of Hangeul and Chinese characters, Seokbosangjeol’s method became the most popular.

Many books were published in the 15th century beside these, mainly related to Buddhism. As for non-Buddhist books and resources, Bunryudugongbusieonhae (分類杜工部詩諺解, 1481), Samganghaengsildo (三綱行實圖, end of the 15th century), Gugeupbangeonhae (救急方諺解, 1466), and Odaesan Sangwonsa Jungchang Gwonseonmun (五臺山 上院寺 重創 勸善文, 1464) will be covered here.

Bunryudugongbusieonhae is often called Dusieonhae. This book is a translation of a compilation of poems by a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty, Dù Fŭ. Dù Fŭ’s poems were very popular during this period and critically acclaimed for their literary achievements. This Hangeul translation is of immense importance because by translating a literary genre, poetry, it showed Hangeul’s diverse uses. From the fact that it was published again in the 17th century, one may conclude that this book was read widely.

Samganghaengsildo is a compilation of worthy anecdotes about loyal subjects, filial sons and virtuous wives from Joseon and China. King Sejong said that it was good to spread the core teachings of Confucianism, loyalty, filial piety and virtue before handing out harsh punishments to people, and he commanded the publication of such a book for the people to read about them. The Chinese version of Samganghaengsildo was written in 1434 according to this command. Since the purpose of this book was education, it included drawings of the anecdotes so people could understand them at a glance, along with the explanations. It is estimated that the Chinese version of Samganghaengsildo was translated into Hangeul and published toward the end of the 15th century during the reign of King Seongjong (r. 1469~1494).

Gugeupbangeonhae is a medical reference book with first-aid techniques for various diseases and injuries. The contents of other publications of the day were usually Buddhist doctrines, the virtues and morals of Confucianism or high literature, but this book contained medical knowledge that the general public could use in everyday life. This feature makes this book noteworthy.

The majority of the books written in Hangeul in the 15th century were published in xylography. Therefore Odaesan Sangwonsa Jungchang Gwonseonmun is special, since it is a handwritten historical manuscript. It is a copy of the documents written to raise offerings for the rebuilding of the Sangwonsa Temple located in Odaesan Mountain in Gangwon-do to heal the illness of King Sejo (r. 1455~1468), Joseon’s seventh king, and of the document King Sejo wrote when he sent materials to help rebuild Sangwonsa.

As the 16th century dawned, the topics of the books translated into Hangeul become more diversified. First of all, the classic books of Confucianism, such as Sohak (小學, the Lesser Learning), Saseo (四書, the Four Books) and Samgyeong (三經, the Three Classics) were all translated into Hangeul: Beonyeoksohak (飜譯小學, the Translated Lesser Learning) was published in 1518; Noneoeonhae (論語諺解, the Translated Confucian Analects), Maengjaeonhae (孟子諺解, the Translated Mencius), Jungyongeonhae (中庸諺解, the Translated Doctrine of the Mean) and Daehakeonhae (大學諺解, the Translated Great Leaning) were published toward the end of 16th century; Sigyeongeonhae (詩經諺解, the Translated Classic of Poetry), Seogyeongeonhae (書經諺解, the Translated Book of Documents), Juyeokeonhae (周易諺解, the Translated Rites of Zhou) were translated at the end of 16th century and published between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century. Besides these, there were books on Buddhism, education for learning basic Chinese characters and conversation, medical treatments for fever, and veterinary medicine. Beonyekbaktongsa (飜譯朴通事, the Translated Baktongsa, circa, 1510), Hunmongjahoe (訓蒙字會, the Teaching Materials for Mastering Chinese Characters for Children, 1527), Wumayangjeoyeomyeokbyeongchiryobang (牛馬羊猪染疫病治療方, the Veterinary Remedies for Livestock, 1541), the letter excavated from Yi Eungtae’s grave (1586), and King Seonjo’s Gukmun Yuseo (1593) will be introduced here.

Complied by a famous interpreter of the time, Choe Sejin (1468~1542), Hunmongjahoe is a teaching materials for children to master Chinese. It explains the definitions and sounds of 3,360 core Chinese characters, and a discussion of the names of Hangeul letters (consonants and vowels) is included in its commentary section. Hunminjeongeum haerye talks about its usage and the sounds of Hangeul consonants and vowels but does not mention the names of Hangeul letters. In contrast, this book indicates the name of ‘ㄱ’ as ‘Giyeok’ by writing down commentary in Chinese characters ‘其役’ (Korean pronunciation of 其役 is [kiyək]). After going through slight adjustments, the names of Hangeul letters revealed in this book have come to be used in the present day.

A book on learning Chinese, particularly Chinese conversation, Beonyeokbaktongsa was also compiled by Choe Sejin. The original Chinese was translated into Hangeul, and the Chinese sounds were transcribed in Hangeul. This book is of paramount importance for studying Korean in that period, and the Chinese phonetics recorded in the book are also valuable for the study of Chinese phonetic history.

Wumayangjeoyeomyeokbyeongchiryobang is a single volume book that introduces cures for contagious diseases in cows, horses, sheep, and pigs. The king commissioned the publication of this book after an outbreak of contagious disease among cows started from Pyeongan-do in the spring of 1541 and began spreading to other parts of the country and to sheep and pigs. As mentioned, medical documents that deal with treatments for human diseases have been translated into Hangeul steadily since the 15th century. However, the emergence of a translated book that covers treatments for veterinary diseases shows that the topics of translated books were diversifying, covering practical aspects of people’s lives.

The previously-examined books were written in Chinese and translated into Hangeul while the letter excavated from Yi Eungtae’s grave and King Seonjo’s Gukmun Yuseo were originally written in Hangeul. The letter excavated from Yi Eungtae’s grave, written in 1586, validates the assumption that Hangeul was widely used among ordinary people. It is a love letter written in Hangeul by a widow addressed to her late husband that was buried in his tomb. King Seonjo’s Gukmun Yuseo was a conciliatory letter written by Joseon’s 14th king Seonjo (r. 1567~1608) in order to win back the hearts of Joseon people captured in Imjinwaeran (the Korean-Japanese war during 1592~1598) as prisoners of war by the Japanese. This letter is significant because the king’s official commands to his subjects were recorded in Hangeul.

Books with topics similar to the prior period such as medicine, religion and foreign languages, were continuously published in Hangeul in the 17th century. Military and culinary themes were newly introduced in the publications and writings of this period, such as Yeonbyeongjinam (練兵指南, 1612), Cheophaesineo (捷解新語, 1676), Eumsikdimibang (circa 1670), and Sukmyeongsinhancheop (淑明宸翰帖, end of the 17th century).

Yeonbyeongjinam is a book about how to train soldiers published in Hamheung of Hamgyeong-do. After the publication of this book, military books were published regularly, though not with great variety. Cheophaesineo is a textbook for learning the Japanese language in question and answer format. In the 16th century, only textbooks for learning Chinese were translated into Hangeul as Beonyeoknogeoldae and Beonyeokbaktongsa. The publication of a textbook for learning the Japanese language in this period suggests that foreign languages learned by Korean were grafually diversified.

Eumsikdimibang is a cookbook written in Hangeul around 1670 by Mrs. Jang (1598~1680), a wife of Yi Simyeong who lived in the Andong and Yeongyang areas of Gyeongsang-do. It is the very first cookbook written in Hangeul and includes total of 146 recipes. It is reputed to be the oldest culinary publication in East Asia.

Sukmyeongsinhancheop is a compilation of letters written in Hangeul. Princess Sukmyeong (1640~1699), the daughter of the 17th king of Joseon, Hyojong (r. 1649~1659) collected 67 letters she received from her family members, including her father, mother, brother, sister-in-law and grandmother. This collection is not from common people but members of the royal family. Even her father and brother wrote to her in Hangeul: this shows that Hangeul usage was not limited to just commoners or women.

In the 18th century, more books with diverse topics were published than in any other period. Books with familiar topics were still in publication, as well as textbooks of the Manchurian and Mongolian languages. Among the abundant documents of this period, Myeongeuirokeonhae (1777), Yugyeonggimininyuneum (1783), and a Contract Deed for Dealing in Farmland (1794) will be introduced here.

Myeongeuirokeonhae is a translated version of Myeongeuirok, which was originally published in Chinese characters in 1777. This book is solely in Hangeul and does not include a single Chinese character, showing the new trend in this period. The eldest grandson of the 21st king of Joseon, Yeongjo (r. 1724~1776), who would become the 22nd king of Joseon, Jeongjo (r. 1776~1800), ruled the country instead of his gradfather. At this time there were a few people against this mandatory rule. The book records the treason committed by them and describes the process and details of their punishments and officials’ opinions on the incident.

Yugyeonggimininyuneum, is a document of a royal mandate. King Jeongjo proclaimed a royal mandate on his birthday for the people of Gyeonggi-do, who had been suffering from two consecutive years of bad crops. ; He offered to help by lending them rice and exempting them from military rice taxes. The beginning of the document is written in Chinese characters, and the last part is in Hangeul. Just like Myeongeuirokeonhae, the translated part is solely in Hangeul.

A Contract Deed for Dealing in Farmland shown in <Figure 29> is a document that records the event of landowner Gim Junggeun selling his farmland to Gim Chungeun in 1794. The existence of a document written solely in Hangeul, used in a legally binding activity like buying and selling land, illustrates the fact that Hangeul was used in public affairs as well as a private.

After the 19th century, books with diverse topics were published by people from different backgrounds. New kind of publications from this period included Korean grammar books, dictionaries and the Bible translated by missionaries. These were intensively published from the end of 19th century to the beginning of the twentieth. Modern newspapers and novels were published and read popularly in this period as well. However, the most important post-19th century development may be the establishment of the concept of ‘state’ and ‘nation’ which resulted in the subsequent adoption of the concept of ‘native script’. The birth of the name ‘Hangeul’ discussed in Chapter 4.1, the Korean orthography establishment process elaborated in Chapter 5.2, and the script reform dealt with in Chapter 5.3, all emerged in this period.


  1. The name change process for the script invented by King Sejong from Hunminjeongeum to Hangeul was explained in Chapter 4.1. Hunminjeongeum and Hangeul both refer to the same script created by King Sejong. From Chapter Five, the name Hangeul has been used, even if the period discussed did not use that name, in order to promote better understanding.

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