The Drama of Creating Hangul

In 1446 Korea (then called Joseon) had an uproar over the announcement of a new writing system called Hunminjeonguem, meaning The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People. The new letters had been created in secrecy by King Sejong over the course of two to three years because at the time, the official written language for Joseon was Chinese. But the number of Chinese characters a person would have to learn in order to communicate was too overwhelming for the lower and middle class. This situation resulted in vast amounts of corruption due to the upper class taking advantage of those who could not read by enforcing written signage and documents to be followed in Chinese. So, King Sejong intended to create a writing system that would be easy to learn and lead to a decrease in societal corruption. But of course he was met with overwhelming opposition.

The corrupt people of the government would not be stopped so easily. They linked up with the Confucianists who argued that Chinese was the holy language and should not be thrown away so carelessly by letters that were created within such a short time period (King Sejong had only reigned for three years at this point, so he would have had to develop the letters within this time). A valid argument considering that the Chinese characters had existed and been improved upon since around 2000BC and even the Latin alphabet has it’s roots starting from around 3000BC; Hunminjeonguem seemed quite inferior in many ways. But there was even opposition from other countries. The Chinese urged that the new alphabet be stopped with war threats as they feared it would weaken their power over Asia as Chinese had always been the main written language within the continent.

The king’s new letters were immediately turned into a demeaning form of communication that was meant for slaves, women, and children. But this proves something very important, the new writing system was extremely easy to learn and put into use. It even took on a modular system which, combined with the printing press technology, made printing extremely efficient (a moveable type press was invented in Korea around 1378, Hunimjeonguem was announced in 1446, and the Gutenberg press was created in 1450). Lets take a look at how some of the letters were made.


The vowels in hangul are based off of the yin, yang, and neutral.

Korean Vowels


The consonants in hangul correlate the structure of the mouth and throat with the sound being made.

Korean Consonants


How did King Sejong know what the inside of a persons mouth and throat looked like you ask? Well, this is yet another controversy that supported the opposition of Hunminjeongum. King Sejong snuck in cadaver’s and dissected them to study the vocal organs, of which was extremely taboo at the time and was looked upon as an extreme disrespect for a human body.

The fight for the use of Chinese characters prevailed shortly after the release of a new alphabet, and though Hunminjeongum lived for a short while through a revival and was renamed as Hangul, it remained as an inferior writing system until 1946, which is when Korea regained its independence from Japan (but that’s another story, for another time).