The Chinese of the early 15th century referred to their king as ‘Son of the Heavens’, while isolationist Japan gave the title ‘Ruler of the Heavens’ to its emperor. At a time when the monarchs of neighbouring states were glorifying their offices with divine-like honours, King Sejong of Korea established the notion of the ‘People of the Heavens’. Sejong, who revered each and every one of his people as being of Heavenly origin and served them as such, believed that the duty of a king was no more than to look after the people of a noble, heavenly race.
Sejong’s care and attention extended to every member of his kingdom. Female servants in government office, for example, were given thirty days of leave prior to giving birth. He also considered the rights of prisoners, frequently inquiring after the temperatures at which the prisons were being kept, and ensuring that they were kept clean and maintained properly. The ‘People of the Heavens’, in King Sejong’s view, were not simply the people of Korea. Even foreign peoples, such as the tribes of Jurchens, then considered by Korea and China as barbarians, were, as he believed, no less worthy of his respect.
“To share in the joys of living with Heaven’s People” was the goal of King Sejong, and he never rested for a moment in his pursuit of it. When his people starved, he starved with them and prepared himself for death, offering up prayers to Heaven. Even when his eyesight became seriously impaired and his health was in a grave condition, he sacrificed everything he had for his people. He fortified the nation’s defences by strengthening the army and improving its standards of weaponry. He also revolutionized the sciences, particularly those of agriculture, medicine and astronomy. A scientific dictionary, published in Japan in 1983, recorded that twenty-nine of the world’s scientific achievements in the early 15th century were made in Korea, five in China, none in Japan, and twenty-six in the rest of the world. In step with scientific progress, literature and the arts also flourished, and the people’s standard of living greatly rose substantially.
In politics, King Sejong’s reign was characterized by democratic discussion and constructive partnerships, founded upon mutual respect and tolerance. Kyong-yon, a formal occasion for reading and debate between the king and his courtiers, took place at least once a week during Sejong’s reign, 1,898 times in total. Through discussions of this kind, the king was able to identify and resolve issues of national importance, and took care to ensure that every man’s voice would be heard, regardless of his social position. An extract from the Sillok, an official shorthand record of the king’s affairs, describes the courtiers’ staunch opposition to Sejong’s introduction of Hangul and his proposal to build a Buddhist temple in the grounds of the Royal Palace (the state religion of Korea was at that time Confucianism, and the King’s practice of Buddhism was viewed with disapproval by certain members of the court). By means of judicious policies, improvements and reforms, the benevolent King Sejong led country into a golden age.
There have been many rulers in the five thousand years of Korea’s history, but Sejong is the only king to have been given the title ‘Great’ by the people of Korea, who even today remember his name and great wisdom with gratitude and respect.
Sejong was born on the 15th of May, 1397 (April 10th by the lunar calendar) in the Chunsu district of the country’s capital Hanyang (now Seoul). He was the third son of Queen Wonkyong and King Taejong, himself the third in the line of the Choson kings. At the age of 12, he became a prince and was given the name of Chungnyong. At 16 he assumed the title of Grand Prince, and was inaugurated Crown Prince in June 1418, in place of his older brother Yangnyong. In the August of the same year, he ascended to the throne as the fourth king of Choson Korea. His reign spanned more than 32 years, and he left many legacies behind him, such as Hangul. He died in April, 1450, at the age of 54, and his royal tomb is enshrined at the town of Nungsu, in Kyonggi Province.
Towards the close of the 14th century, the Choson dynasty was in the process of replacing the old dynasty of Koryo, and the country was undergoing a period of turbulent transition. The final years of Koryo (A.D. 918-1392) had been a particularly difficult time for the people. In 1388, he disobeyed an order to conquer the town of Liao-tung, and instead marched his army back from Wihwa to seize power. He then ascended to the throne on July 16, 1392 as King Taejo, so establishing a new dynasty called Choson.
When Sejong was crowned in 1418, it had been 28 years since the founding of the new dynasty. While much of the public unrest and political confusion had by now calmed, thanks to the efforts of previous rulers, it was nevertheless a crucial period for Choson, and one on which the success of the new dynasty and Korea’s new national identity would depend. Governing with compassion and wisdom, Sejong laid the foundations of a royal household that would endure for another 500 years, leading Korea into an extraordinary era of cultural and scientific progress, unmatched by any other nation of the day. The golden age enjoyed by Korea during the 15th century is an example of how, in the words of the proverb, an era produces a leader, and the leader leads it forward.
III. The Character and Spirit of King Sejong
Sejong firmly believed that it was the duty and mission of a king to serve his country as well as he possibly could, and to sacrifice himself for the sake of its people. The people’s happiness was the sole standard against which he measured his success as ruler. This chapter contains various extracts from the Sillok, or Annals of the Choson Dynasty, giving examples of Sejong’s words and behaviour, and an insight into his character and spirit.
1. Love for the People
5 February, 3rd year of Sejong’s Reign
By the Royal Order,
“The continuous flooding and drought of recent times have led to successive years of bad harvests. This last year has been particularly severe, and the lives of the people have become wretched. The Governor and the Chief Administrator of each province must provide relief for all, giving priority to the sick and handicapped. In due course, an official from the central government will tour and inspect the various districts. If it is discovered that there is one person who has died from starvation in the residential district of any province, the official responsible for that province will be convicted of felony.”
3 July, 5th year
The King said,
“The common people are the foundation of any country. It is only when this foundation is strong that a country may be stable and prosperous.”
20 June, 7th year
“The courtiers and officials will keep in mind the hardships of the people, and endeavour to point out every one of my faults, as well as errors and oversights in my ordinances and commands, so that I may fear the Heavens and have the utmost regard for the wellbeing of the people.”
1 July, 7th year
The King said,
“The drought is too severe. There has been a shower, but it has merely filled the air with fog and dust. As this climate is abnormal, I will go out today to learn how the rice farmers have fared.”
Whenever the King saw a rice field in poor condition, he would stop his horse and ask the farmer for the reason. When he returned later without having taken his midday meal, having thoroughly examined the fields outside the West Gate, he said to the courtiers,
“I was informed that the rice farming this year had been reasonably good, but when I saw the fields today, it brought tears to my eyes. How dry are Yongsoyok and Hongjewon, the areas I viewed today, compared to the rest of the country?”
23 February, 10th year
To the inspectors who were leaving to investigate reports of starvation in their provinces, the King said,
“Go in person to the hamlets hidden in the hills and the mountains, and if you come across a person in hunger, give him rice, beans, salt and soy sauce, and save his life. If a local governor has hidden anyone who has died or suffered from malnutrition, you must punish him according to the disciplinary laws. If his position is equal to or higher than 3 pum, you must first inform the Central Government. If his position is equal to or less than 4 pum, you may judge his offence there and then. If the need for relief is urgent, open the storehouses yourselves and give the people relief. “
18 December, 12th year
The King inquired about the state of harvest in each province, and discussed the assessment of land for taxation to be carried out that year by the officials.
Sin Sang of the Ministry of Rites said, “This year, the inspections have been carried out on too lenient a basis.”
To this the King replied, “I have heard that the people of Kyonggi are pleased that the inspections were lenient.”
Sin Sang began to offer further arguments against the leniency of the inspection.
The King said to him, “It is not unjust that the inspection has been favourable to the public. If the people are satisfied, that is enough.”
29 September, 14th year
When his horse ate a handful of rice from a farmer’s store, the King said, “The farmer has taken great troubles to farm this rice, and since my horse has eaten it, he should receive what would have been due to him.” He then ordered that the farmer be given a sack of rice in recompense.
21 June, 18th year
A Royal Ordinance delivered to the Ministry of Finance:
“The drought this year has again been more severe than usual. I am troubled for fear that the crops have been damaged and will not produce a good harvest.The three Provinces of Chung-chong, Kyong-sang and Cholla must review their tributes to the Central Government, and declare which items should qualify for exemption, either on the basis that they are difficult to transport or that they are not essential to the State.”
Another ordinance to the Ministry of Finance:
“Since the drought has been particularly severe in Chung-chong Province, do not collect the barley grain, but let it be used as seed for next year’s harvest.”
25 July, 26th year
The King said,
“May the people work diligently, revere their parents, bring up their offspring wisely, and live long, so that the foundation of the country will be strong, every household plentiful, and every person affluent. May courtesy and humility arise in all men, so that we may dwell in lasting harmony and peace, gather in good harvests, and reap the joys of blessed and prosperous times. “
15 November, 31st year
The King said to Yi Kye-jon,
“In the Year of the Serpent [the 7th Year of the King’s Reign, and a year of great drought], my illness became so grave and my chances of survival so small that a coffin was prepared for me by those outside the palace.”
2. Filial Duty
When Sejong’s father Taejong became ill, Sejong brought food and medicine to him in person, and when his condition worsened, Sejong stayed at his side throughout the night without taking any rest. When he learned of the death of his mother, Queen Wonkyong, he cast aside his wooden seat and lay upon a straw mat on the ground, lamenting in the rain both day and night.
According to Korean tradition, bereaved sons and daughters would mourn the death of a parent by wearing funeral garments, following a simple vegetarian diet, and leading a life of abstinence. During the mourning period for his parents, Sejong neglected his body to such an extent that the people grew very worried for his health.
10 February, 3rd year
Taejong passed away at the New Palace.
Since King Sejong would not eat, the government and the Six Ministries asked for permission to bring him porridge, but none was granted.
11 May, 4th year
Yun Sajong and Pyon Kaeryang said,
“Your Majesty has not eaten since he began to mourn the late king, and we are afraid that your body will be seriously harmed.”
The King replied, “Yesterday the government and the Six Ministries submitted their pleas, and since you have pleaded again today, I will eat tonight.”
After the evening ceremony, the ministers of government and the Six Ministries all came before him weeping, and declared,
“Ever since the late King’s illness became critical, Your Majesty has not eaten. Remembering the warning of the sage, One should not harm one’s life for the sake of the dead’, restrain your sorrow and eat, so that your great piety may become whole.”
In obedience to their request, the King accepted a bowl of thin porridge, but ate no more than once a day.
21 September, 4th year
Yi Chik, in company with others, said to the King,
“Even after the cholgok (a memorial service held in the third month after burial), your Majesty still eats only vegetables. Everyone is astonished at the sight of your haggard looks and dark complexion. Since you have eaten no meat for a long time, we are worried that Your Majesty may fall ill.”
The King replied,
“Would it be seemly to dine on meat while I am in mourning? You are concerned that I may fall ill since I am not used to a diet of vegetables, but I am not ill now and have not offended against propriety in any way. Monks eat only vegetables, and yet some of them gain weight. How is it that only I cannot dine on vegetables? Do not speak of this again.”
3. Respect for the Elderly
Worried that the senior courtiers might suffer from the summer heat, King Sejong searched for cool buildings in the palace grounds where they could work in comfort. He also invited the elderly to a banquet in their honour at the government offices in each of the Provinces, including the Royal Palace. It was the first time in Korean history that a king had invited the elderly to the Palace and dined with them in person.
17 August, 14th year
The Royal Secretariat said to His Majesty,
“Sire, do not invite the elderly of lowly origin to the banquet.”
The King responded,
“I hold these banquets to honour the dignity of old age, not to measure rank and status. Therefore, permit entrance even to the lowest of the low, excluding only those bearing the mark of chaja (a tattoo on the face or the forearm, and the symbol of a convicted criminal).”
27 August, 14th year,
The King went out to the Kun-jong Hall to hold a dinner party for elderly men aged 80 or above. When several of them came out to the courtyard to bow before him, he ordered An Sung-son to stop them. The guests were divided between the East and the West side of the Palace, and the King ordered their sons, sons-in-law, nephews and other relatives help them to their seats.
At the end of the banquet, when all the guests had returned to the pae-wi (the place of bowing before the King), the King again ordered them to be prevented from bowing to him.
The King declared to the Secretaries,
“The weather today was clear and fine, and the banquet was successful, so I am pleased. We shall do as we did today when we receive the aged women at the banquet tomorrow.”
3 August, 15th year
The King proceeded to the Kun-jong Hall for the feast. Again, he ordered that the elderly should not bow down before him, and when they came up in turn, he stood up to receive each guest. Towards the end of the banquet, some of the aged guests left singing and holding on to each other, happily intoxicated. During the banquet, Yi Kwi-ryong said, “This year I am 88, and of all the Kings I have lived under, none has treated the elderly with such respect as you have done today. Your Majesty held a banquet for us last year and fed us well, and now you have again given us a great feast, even standing up to receive old men like us when we approach your seat. Although I may long consider how to repay your gracious acts, there is little I can do. I can only offer up prayers for your health and long life.”
The King replied, “Your appearance was lean and thin last year, but this year you are full of lustre and health. I am very pleased.”
28 August, 15th Year
An official letter to the Governor of the Provinces:
“In recognition of the fact that respect for the elderly is of great importance to a nation, I held a banquet in their honour for the first time in the Year of Imja [the 14th year of Sejong’s reign]. However, I have heard that when local magistrates receive the elderly, they do not welcome them with kindness, and even when they do so, the selection of dishes they offer is so plain and meagre that their respect seems far less than it should be. Hereafter, any magistrate who does not perform this office wholeheartedly will be put on trial. Even the Governor of a Province will not escape culpability if he transgresses this command.”
4. Fatherly Devotion
When his eldest daughter, Princess Chongso, died unexpectedly in April 1424, Sejong’s grief was beyond words. It is said that the king held on to the body of the princess and would not be parted from it, and that consequently the funeral preparations were delayed. The sudden loss of the twelve-year old princess so distressed him that he composed a memorial address to comfort the soul of his daughter.
Later, Sejong suffered the misfortune of losing his two sons, who also died at a young age. In the 26th year of his reign, the twenty-year old Prince Kwang-pyong suddenly died of abscess. Deeply saddened, the King and Queen went into mourning and fasted for three days. Officials from the Court of Justice and the Secretariat requested that Pae Sang-mun, the Royal Doctor, be put on trial for failing to save the Prince’s life. But even amid his sorrow Sejong rejected this proposal from his courtiers, replying, in a manner worthy of a wise king, that since it had been by the hand of fate that his son had died, it could not have been prevented by anyone.
The king’s misfortunes mounted further when his seventh son Prince Pyong-won died a month and ten days later. The unexpected deaths of the two princes, within the space of little more than a month, came as a great shock to Sejong. Therefore, two days after the death of Prince Pyong-won, believing that the wrath of Heaven had been provoked by grave miscarriages of justice being carried out in the Provinces, Sejong informed Kim Chong-so of his feelings, together with others, and sent out ordinances to the Governors of the Provinces, sternly reminding them to administer penal laws with justice and fairness. On that day, he also made clear to his courtiers, through Prince Chinyang, that it was his intention to abdicate the throne and hand over the administration of the State to the Crown Prince. His courtiers, moved and alarmed by the King’s decision, did their utmost to dissuade him and made clear that they would never accept this command, even if they were to lose their lives. Since his courtiers were adamant, Sejong could do nothing but postpone his abdication.
5. Spirit of Compassion
Sejong’s love for his people was not confined to a particular class. When we consider his warm compassion for the young and old, his concern for the rights of slaves and prisoners, and his policies of welfare and openness to the peoples of other nations, it seems incredible that Sejong inhabited an age in which kings were generally cruel and brutal oppressors of their subjects.
27 November, 12th year
A Royal Ordinance to the Ministry of Justice:
“To be imprisoned and tortured is an ordeal for any man. In the case of children and the elderly, it is pitiful indeed. From this day forward, the detention of those aged below 15 or above 70 is forbidden, unless the charge is one of murder or robbery. Persons below the age of 10 or above the age of 80 shall under no circumstances be detained or beaten, and any verdict passed in their case must be given on basis of many testimonies. Let this Ordinance be known throughout the country, and anyone in breach of it be punished.”
24 March, 12th year
A man named Choi Yu-won beat one of his slaves to death. The King ordered the Ministry of Justice to bring him to trial, declaring,
“Even though a man is a slave, he is no less a man, and even if he has sinned, to punish him with death in private and without the sanction of the law is to disregard a master’s duty to love and care for his servant. This man’s sin should therefore be judged.”
19 October, 12th year
The King said to his Secretaries:
“In the past, when a government servant gave birth, she was expected to return to service seven days later. This provision was made out of concern for the fact that harm might come to the baby if she returned leaving the child behind her, and so this period of leave was later increased to a hundred days. However, there have been instances of women whose time was near, and who gave birth before reaching home. I therefore suggest that one month of full leave be granted prior to giving birth. Please amend the relevant laws.”
26 April, 16th year
Dispatched to the Ministry of Justice:
“It has been enacted that a female servant, who is due to give birth in a month’s time or has given birth within the past hundred days, shall not be required for government service. Since no leave has been granted to the husbands of such women, however, they have not been able to provide assistance to their wives in childbirth, and because of this some women have even lost their lives, which is most pitiful. From this day forward, a husband is not required to return to service for thirty days after his wife has given birth.”
28 January, Year 16
Sin Sang, an official from the Ministry of Rites, reported:
“The Alta Tribe of the Jurchens have submitted this message to the Royal Court, We understand that you have established a military base in the region of Hwaeryong, and wish to know whether you will allow us to live in peace with you as before, or intend to drive us away.’ I believe, Your Highness, that it is their genuine wish to settle with us in peace.”
And the king responded:
“If they wish to become part of our nation, we cannot drive them away, and if they wish to leave, there is no need for us to prevent it. Our establishment of a military base will not please them, but it cannot be denied that the rural district of Hwaeryong is our rightful possession. Tongmaeng Kachop Moga [the chief of the Jurchens] once leased the land from us, but after his tribe was defeated by the rival Oljokhap, the region became desolate and empty, and so now we have been compelled to establish a military camp there to maintain peace. Other Jurchens have settled in Hamgil Province, and if the Alta Tribe wish to come and live in our country, it would be unjust to discriminate against them.”
14 May, Year 21
A Royal Message to Kim Jong-so, Commander-in-Chief of the Hamgil Province:
“When the Heavens nourish the earth, they do not distinguish between the great and the small. When a king loves his people, it should be the same.”
This message was one of Sejong’s injunctions to General Kim, urging him to render aid and support to the nomadic tribes of the North, as though they were the people of his own kingdom.
2 July, 30th year
The King said,
“In the past, I have not been afraid of the heat. As the climate has grown more extreme in recent years, I have begun to soak my hands in water during hot weather. When I do so, the feeling of heat immediately disappears. This has led me to reflect how easy it must be for a man in a prison to be affected by the heat. Some, I believe, even lose their lives because of it, and this is greatly distressing. When there is very hot weather, let us place small jars of water in the cells of the prisons, and replace the water frequently, directing the prisoners to wash their hands so that they are not affected by the heat.”
6. Learning and Diligence
4 August, 5th year
A private order from the King was sent to the Governor of each of the Provinces to send quantities of lacquer tree fruits to Seoul. The oil that is extracted from these fruits burns brightly and without smoke, and could be used for the King’s reading at night.
23 December, the 5th year
The King said to a court attendant,
“While I am at the Royal Court, there is never a time when I set my work aside and sit idle.”
19 March, 20th year
The King said,
“No classical or historical works have escaped my attention, and although I am now unable to remember with ease due to my age, I do not stop my reading, because as I read, my thoughts are awakened, and many of these thoughts become deeds in my administration of the State. Seen in this light, reading is indeed a source of great benefit.”
16 June, 24th year
The King said to several of his Secretaries,
“Ever since I came to the throne, I have thought nothing more worthy of diligent effort than consideration of the affairs of state. Therefore, I have held councils every day to debate and discuss issues of national importance. Through these, I have met with many officials each day, and have given my personal attention to state affairs, dealing with them individually. For this reason, the delivery of sentences has never been delayed, and no important matter has been left unheard.”
22 February, 32nd year
The King would rise at dawn every day, and would hear debriefings from his Ministers at daybreak. He would then consider general affairs, and hold council to determine the principles of governance. He would personally interview the governors as they left for their provinces. He participated in Kyong-yon in order to reflect upon the Literature of the Sages, and hold discussions about past and present events. Later, he would go to read in the Royal Chamber and would not set down his book until retiring late into the night.
6th Year, 4 July
The King said,
“Though a crime may justly have incurred the death penalty, if mitigating circumstances can be found, it has always been my way to pardon and forgive it all.”
19 April, 7th year,
The King said,
“Appreciation of the good must be long-lasting; hatred for the bad must not.”
26 March, 11th year,
The officer Chong Yon said,
“Yesterday, a man leaped out in front of Your Majesty’s carriage. According to the laws, he should be executed.”
The King replied,
“That is most unjust. If he jumped in full awareness of the law, the rule should be applied as you have said. But to punish an ignorant person who acted out of bewilderment, not knowing his way, is not right.”
23, February, the 14th year,
A stray arrow fell into the King’s Quarters.
An Sung-son and others said,
“An ordinance forbidding the firing of arrows towards the Palace has been in existence for many years. Although Your Highness is here in person, they have aimed arrows towards the Royal Quarters. This is no minor transgression. Therefore let them stand trial before the court.”
The King replied,
“The arrow was fired in competition and it fell here by mistake. Let there be no further investigation of the matter.”
25 February, 14th year,
While the King’s ostler was on guard in the mountains, a large wild boar, struck with many arrows, managed to break through the fence and charged into the King’s Horse, killing it. The officers Choi Yun-dok and Chong Yon declared,
“In their neglect, the palace staffs have allowed the Royal Horse to be killed. We request that Your Majesty permit their offence to be judged.”
The King replied,
“It happened quite unexpectedly. How could they have known that a large boar would run into this particular horse? Do not speak of this again.”
In matters that concerned himself alone, Sejong’s conduct was always governed by strict frugality. He would write his commands on paper torn from used government warrants and wore patched and threadbare clothing when not undertaking official business. He also forbade the regional authorities to send local delicacies to him as tribute, concerned that this would be a burden on the people.
7 May, 3rd year
The King had ordered two rooms to be built using discarded timber from the eastern part of the Kyonghoe pavilion. The stairways were not to be made of stone, the roof was to be covered with straw, and only simple decorations were used, according to the King’s request. When the new chambers had been built, he no longer used his old offices, but stayed in these new rooms instead.
11 November, 12th year
Yi Chung-ji of the Ministry of Military Affairs said to the King,
“Your Majesty, the bare appearance of the helmets worn by your carriage escort is unworthy of your dignity. Please grant permission for them to be given lead plating.”
To this the King replied,
“Since lead is not a native product of our country, we should not use it for this trivial purpose. Moreover, since the purpose of a soldier’s armour is to offer protection, decoration is unnecessary. A light covering of paint and oil will be sufficient.”
25 March, 13th year
The King said, “Since I visit the Royal apartments in the Taepyong Quarters only for brief periods of rest, use only rough, unpolished stones when you build the staircase. Save the workman his sweat, and do not burden the people with needless expense.”
21 August, 14th year
The courtiers said to the King,
“Your Highness writes Ordinances in a cursive hand on pieces of used warrant paper. While this is economical and concise, it does not appear to us befitting the Royal authority, nor in accordance with the standards of our civilized society. Since Royal Ordinances are usually distributed to every corner of the nation, they should appear in keeping with the authority of the Royal Court, and should be of such exquisite beauty that the eyes and ears of all are struck with awe, as if the commands came from the heavens themselves. As it is, Your Highness uses only white paper and employs little grandeur in his writing. To the eyes of the ignorant, the Royal Ordinances do not differ greatly from the documents issued by the local authorities, and so fall short of inspiring reverence in the minds of the people.”
18 September, 15th year
The King said,
“When I heard that a soldier named Kang In-su was killed while carrying stones for the construction of the new Kangnyong Apartments, I was filled with great remorse. Since coming to the throne of my royal ancestors, I have been able to enjoy the comforts of the Palace, and so ceased to pursue my own wants and fancies. As the Kangnyong chamber was narrow and its roof was leaking, my intention was to make a simple repair, but the work was delayed and is still unfinished. Living in wealth and tranquillity, I should have been grateful and content, and remained in my old house. But in my attempt to have it repaired, a human life has been lost. What use is remorse now? The decision to rebuild the chamber showed my lack of virtue, and now since a person has been killed, my flaws are even clearer than before. I have given a hundred bags of rice to the household of the dead man, but what can be done to help their distress?”
22 January, 19th year
The King said to his secretaries,
“The duty of a king is to love his people. Since the people are now suffering from starvation, it is impossible for me to accept delicacies offered by the provinces. Owing to the bad harvests of last year, the custom of offering delicacies was discontinued in the three southern provinces, and only the Kangwon and Kyonggi provinces continued in their offerings. But now I hear that many are starving to death in Kyonggi, and I am very ashamed. I suggest that we should discontinue the offerings of these two provinces as well.”
The secretaries replied,
“Your Majesty, if we put an end to the offerings from these two remaining provinces, we will have no means of providing Your Majesty with meals. If this is Your Highness’s wish, we will resort to other means, though we fear that other problems may arise from this. Given, however, that it is your wish, we suggest that we should require offerings to be sent only from the Southern Kyonggi Province, from those districts which have had good harvests.”
The King said,
“We cannot discriminate within a single province in this way.”
Finally, the King delivered an ordinance,
“With the exception of offerings for the Royal Tomb, all offerings from Kyonggi Province to the Palaces and Government Offices shall be discontinued. Only the ports shall continue as before.”
9. Other Records
The following anecdotes are taken from the writings of many officials and scholars of the Choson period..
A commoner named Cho Won began legal proceedings owing to a dispute over his rice fields. Infuriated by the delays caused by the official responsible for his case, he remarked “The king must be an ignorant man if he has sent such a feckless governor to rule us.” The staff of the Court of Justice and officials all pressed for the punishment of Cho Won, but the King ruled against his being put on trial, saying, “Because of the recent flooding and drought, the people have been in great distress. Cho Won’s district governor, giving no thought to their sufferings, delayed the final hearing of a lawsuit because he was busy entertaining a personal acquaintance. Cho Won spoke as he did out of resentment at this injustice.” And the king refused their request to have him punished. – Kukjo Pogam (Precious Mirror of the Government)
The Sillok records the same incident:
The Six Ministries and the State Council asserted in the King’s presence that Cho Won’s case should be tried according to the laws, as a warning to future generations.
The King declared to them,
“On account of the rudeness of his words, you ask for his punishment. This would be appropriate if considered from a purely legal point of view, but I cannot bring myself to punish Cho Won for condemning me. The people have suffered great hardship because of the recent flooding and drought, and yet Cho Won’s governor paid no heed to their hardships, but entertained his guest and drank wine, and so delayed the hearing of the dispute over his rice fields. Since Cho Won spoke these words because of this, out of indignation, you should not press for his punishment.” –Sejong Sillok, 25 April, 6th year
IV. Invention of the Korean Alphabet
1. Hunmin Chongum, The Proper Sounds for Instructing the People
The spoken language of our country is different from that of China and does not suit the Chinese characters. Therefore amongst uneducated people there have been many who, having something that they wish to put into words, have been unable to express their feelings in writing. I am greatly distressed because of this, and so I have made twenty eight new letters. Let everyone practice them at their ease, and adapt them to their daily use.
– King Sejong’s Preface to Hunmin Chongum
Widely considered as the greatest legacy of King Sejong the Great, the Korean alphabet or Hangul was created in 1443, the 25th year of Sejong’s reign. Three years later in 1446, it was set out in published form together with a manual explaining it in detail. Sejong named the alphabet and its accompanying volumeHunmin Chongum (The Proper Sounds for Instructing the People). The Korean alphabet is nowadays commonly referred to as Hangul, which means ‘the Script of Han (Korea)’ or ‘the Great Script’.
Of the six thousand languages in existence, only one hundred have their own alphabets. Of these one hundred languages, Hangul is the only alphabet made by an individual for which the theory and motives behind its creation have been fully set out and explained. Roman characters have their origins in the hieroglyphics of Egypt and the syllabic Phoenician alphabets, and had to undergo a process of gradual evolution to become what they are today. Chinese characters, similarly, began as inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells, and took thousands of years to reach their current form.
Hangul is neither based on ancient written languages nor an imitation of another set of characters, but an alphabet unique to Korea. The Hunmin Chongum, which contained a systematic analysis of the new alphabet, is also without precedent in history, and October 9th, its original date of publication, has been designated ‘Hangul Day’ by the Korean Government in recognition of its importance. UNESCO has also created an award called the ‘King Sejong Literacy Prize’, as part of its worldwide campaign against illiteracy.
The Hunmin Chongum is only 33 pages long, consisting of four introductory pages written by King Sejong, and twenty-nine pages of commentary added by Jade Hall scholars. Its structure is orderly and its content logical and scientific. The original version, for 500 years thought to have been lost, was rediscovered in a deserted house near Andong in 1940. It is currently being kept in the Kansong Museum as National Treasure no. 70, and was included in UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage in 1997.
2. The Principles and Theory behind Hangul
China was the superpower of 15th century Asia, and its culture, outlook, and written language had a considerable presence and influence in Korean society. Since the tongues of the two nations belonged to different linguistic families, however, Korean was not ideally suited to be expressed in Chinese letters. In Chinese, sentences are qualified with particles, whereas in Korean inflections and suffixes are used to add or modify meaning.
As both a scholar and a cultural pioneer, Sejong was able to analyze the basic units of medieval Korean speech using his own knowledge of linguistics, and finally succeeded in alphabetizing it in the Hunmin Chongum. An entry in the Sejong Sillok on 30 December, the 25th year of the King’s reign, shows that theHunmin Chongum was Sejong’s own invention: “This month the King has personally created 28 letters ofOnmun (the vernacular script)… Though simple and concise, it is capable of infinite variations and is calledHunmin Chongum.”
According to the Explanations and Examples of the Hunmin Chongum, the basic consonant symbols were schematic drawings of the human speech organs as they articulate certain sounds, while the other consonants were formed by adding strokes to these five basic shapes.
The velar ㄱ (k) depicts the root of the tongue blocking the throat.
The alveolar ㄴ(n) depicts the outline of the tongue touching the upper palate.
The labial ㅁ (m) depicts the outline of the mouth.
The dental ㅅ (s) depicts the outline of the incisor.
The laryngeal ㅇ (zero initial) depicts the outline of the throat.
The pronunciation of the aspirated velar ㅋ (k’) is more forceful than that of ㄱ (k), and therefore a stoke is added.
The vowel symbols were formed after the three fundamental symbols of Eastern philosophy.
The roundㆍrepresents Heaven.
The flat ㅡ represents Earth.
The uprightㅣrepresents Man.
These three basic shapes are combined to derive other vowels:ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ, ㅗ. ㅛ. ㅜ, ㅠ. The consonants and vowels each represent a phoneme, or unit of speech, and together the letters make a syllable. For example, ‘Moon’ in Korean is “달”, which consists of: ㄷ(consonant)+ㅏ(vowel)+ㄹ(consonant). In other words, Korean is both an alphabetic and a syllabic language.
Founded on philosophical as well as scientific principles, Hangul embodies certain elements of the Confucian outlook: in traditional Eastern thought, yin stands for the concepts of feminine, passive, dark, dry and cold, while the yang encompasses the masculine, active, bright, humid and hot. From the interaction between these two principles arise the five elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, which represent dynamic processes rather than physical entities.
Corresponding to the principle of yin-yang and the five elements, each vowel and consonant in Hangul is assigned the properties of either yin or yang, and the five basic consonants represent the five elements, according to their place of articulation.
3. An Alphabet for the 21st Century
The true worth of Sejong’s Hangul has been proven in the course of time, and now draws interest and admiration from linguistic scholars around the world. Hangul has now replaced Chinese characters in all Korean books and newspapers, and the great invention of King Sejong has, after five centuries, finally achieved its goal.
The Korean alphabet is like no other writing system in the world. It is the only alphabet completely native to East Asia … The structure of the Korean alphabet shows a sophisticated understanding of phonological science that was not equaled in the West until modern times.
– Robert Ramsey, “The Korean Alphabet”, King Sejong the Great, p. 198
We may well marvel at the outstanding simplicity and convenience of Hangul. Whether or not it is ultimately the best of all conceivable scripts for Korean, Hangul must unquestionably rank as one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind.
– Geoffrey Sampson, Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction, p. 144.
One of the most unique and interesting features of the Korean alphabet is the strict correspondence it shows between graphic shape and graphic function. Not only are the shapes of the consonants of a pattern different from those of the vowels, but even within these two main groups the shapes decided upon by Sejong clarify other important relationships. No other alphabet in the world is so beautifully, and sensibly, rational. It is really impossible to withhold admiration for this conception of a shape-function relationship and for the way it was carried out. There is nothing like it in all the long and varied history of writing. It would be quite enough merely to have the systematic shapes within classes. But for those shapes themselves to be rationalized on the basis of the speech organs associated with their sounds that is unparalleled grammatological luxury! The Korean phonologists were skillful indeed, but they were not lacking in creative imagination either.
-G.K. Ledyard. “The Korean Language Reform of 1446: The Origin, Background, and Early History of the Korean Alphabet”, p. 199-203.
The king’s 28 letters have been described by scholars as “the world’s best alphabet” and “the most scientific system of writing.” They are an ultra-rational system devised from scratch to incorporate three unique features. First, Hangul vowels can be distinguished at a glance from Hangul consonants.Even more remarkable, the shape of each consonant depicts the position in which the lips, mouth, or tongue is held to pronounce that letters. Twentieth-century scholars were incredulous that those resemblances could really be intentional until 1940, when they discovered the original draft of King Sejong’s 1446 proclamation and found the logic explicitly spelled out.
-Jared Diamond, “Writing Right”, Discovery, June 1994
In the Age of Information, Hangul keeps its competitive edge over other alphabets. On a computer keyboard, the consonants are arranged on the left, the vowels on the right, and words formed as consonants and vowels are typed alternately. In terms of ergonomics, this allows for maximization of productivity by, inter alia, an efficient distribution of tiredness in the fingers. Moreover, the fact that each letter has one single sound is extremely advantageous. Since the Chinese is unable to be accommodated on the keyboard, its input is through Roman characters, and the speed of information management similarly suffers in case of Japanese, as it relies heavily on the Chinese letters. With Hangul, as the sound changes, the frequency also changes at a fixed rate, allowing speech recognition by computers to be done logically and easily. The sound and the writing of Hangul, therefore, have a vast sphere of application, from the system of translation to the internet.
-Yi Hwa-yong, Humanism, the Power of Korean Culture, p18-19.
The perfect alphabet may be a hopelessly remote ideal, but it is possible to do a better job than history has made of the western alphabet, in any of its manifestations. We know this because there is an alphabet that is about as far along the road towards perfection as any alphabet is likely to get. Emerging in Korea in mid-fifteenth century, it has the status among language scholars normally reserved for classic works of art. In its simplicity, efficiency and elegance, this alphabet is alphabet’s epitome, a star among alphabets, a national treasure for Koreans and ‘one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind’, in the judgment of British linguist, Geoffrey Sampson.
– John Man, Alpha Beta: how 26 letters shaped the Western world
Linguists of many nations acknowledge the originality and philosophy behind Hangul, and its logical and pragmatic basis. More valuable than the alphabet itself, however, is the spirit of King Sejong embodied within it. His sincere wish that all the people of his country should learn to express their thoughts at will is the true pride of Korea and a spiritual heritage to be shared with the world. Used now as an alternative alphabet for minority peoples who have no written language, it continues even today to be a lamp illuminating illiteracy and ignorance.
King Jesong created 4 useful science technologies.
VI. Concluding Words
A tree deep-rooted, unshaken in the wind,
Its blossoms fair and its fruits abundant.
A spring deep-founded, unceasing in the drought,
Its stream flowing down to the open sea.
–Song of Flying Dragons, Canto 2-
Unlike many other kings given the title ‘Great’ by posterity, Sejong’s greatness did not lie in brute force or in the conquering and subduing of other peoples, but in a series of intellectual and cultural achievements that have continued to benefit his nation through many generations, and which enrich the lives of his people today.
Through his intelligence, creative energy, compassion, and good judgment, the King worked with untiring dedication to free his countrymen from poverty, injustice, and ignorance. He surrounded himself with capable scholars and scientists whose ingenuity found an ordered and splendid means of expression under his leadership.
It is for this reason that the name of Sejong is given to many streets, schools, research institutes, cultural centers, and even businesses in modern Korea. Over time, he has come also to win the respect and admiration of people outside Korea as well. The American linguist Dr. Macaulay has been celebrating Hangul Day for the past 30 years. On September 9 of every year, he prepares Korean food and invites his colleagues, students, and close friends to celebrate the creation of the Korean alphabet. Japanese scientist WatanabeGatso of the International Astronomical Union chose to give a minor planet he discovered the name of ‘7365Sejong 1996 QV’. And in Warsaw, Poland, one of the leading high schools has recently changed its name toSejong High School and added the Korean language to its curriculum.
Sejong was a king who served the people with reverence and humility, who promoted the power and beauty of culture out of love and benevolence, and instilled in his country a sense of independence and a new cultural identity. He possessed a deep respect for history and tradition, valued learning and scholarship, and led his country forward with bold and innovative reforms. Dressed in patched clothing and living beneath a humble roof, he never faltered in his sense of duty and responsibility even in the days when his work on the alphabet caused him to become blind. He was a father to the poor, the weak, the ignorant and even those who sinned.
Sejong, the fourth and greatest monarch of Choson Korea, continued after his death to be a deep root and inexhaustible spring for all Korean people. And despite the many words that have been written about this king, and may yet be written, his virtues can never be described in full.