“Meat tastes better each time you chew, while books taste different each time you read”
King Sejong, of course, is one of the most beloved historical figures in Korean history, and both his portrait on the 10,000 won bill and his bronze statue in front of Gwanghwamun Gate can be attributed to one major accomplishment: his sponsorship of the creation of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.
The king’s decision to support Hangeul probably stemmed from his exceptional devotion to reading. He not only read books from a variety of fields – astronomy, history, law, music, politics, and economics – but read each of these books at least 30 times, or even 100 times in the case of Confucian scriptures. King Sejong’s love of reading is exemplified in his famous remark, “Books taste different each time you read.” By the time he became a true ruler, he was an expert in multiple fields, allowing him to plan critical aspects of the newborn dynasty, including Hangeul.
October 9 is the 567th anniversary of Hangeul Day. Before this historical moment, Koreans did not have their own writing system, even though they had their own language. They used the difficult ideographs that served as Chinese letters. Because the reader could not easily infer sound from the letters, he or she had to memorize individual letters together with its sound. This made literacy a privilege for elites. Without proper education and the time to dedicate to reading and writing, the public was illiterate.
Hangeul was made to solve this problem, to increase the literacy of the public and stimulate communication. King Sejong and his subjects published the first Hangeul book Hunminjeongeum, “A Book To Teach The Public.” Simplicity was a key issue for its purpose, so the book was an easy combination of basic consonants, vowels, and a point. The consonants made Hangeul much easier than the Chinese letters because it imitated the shape of the mouth when making its sound. For example, the first consonant, giyeok (ㄱ), comes from the shape of the tongue sticking to the ceiling when making the sound. The vowels are also just combinations of the horizontal line, vertical line, and a point, which makes them much easier to memorize.
At first, some of King Sejong’s subjects opposed his of popularizing Hangeul in fear that nobody would learn Chinese letters. However, Hangeul was later found to be very useful. Hangeul did largely increase the literacy of commoners, which gave more political power to the public. Hangeul has also been found very suitable for modern devices, since its simple combination of consonants, vowels and points make typing easy, even in small cell phone keyboards. And most importantly, Hangeul is a source of ethnic pride to Koreans, just like other languages are to their people.