LinguaTute

Symbols of Identity: The Role of the Hangul Writing System in Korean History

Hangul (한글), the Korean writing system, stands as a powerful symbol of Korean identity and culture as a result of its survival and perseverance in the face of recurrent political suppression. Its history begins with, and remains today, a testament to the strength Korean national identity. From its beginnings as a writing system created purely for the nuances of the Korean language, to its resistance of Japanese imperialism, Hangul maintains an indisputable significance in Korean culture.

The birth of Hangul

 Before the invention of Hangul in the 15th century by King Sejong (세종) of the Joseon (조선) Dynasty, the primary writing script used in Korea was Chinese Hanja (漢字). Hangul was introduced to provide a writing system which would both complement and provide an alternative to Hanja. Many Koreans were illiterate because of the costly expense of learning the thousands of Hanja characters in order to transcribe Korean, resulting in literacy being confined to the elite. Sejong sought to combat this widespread illiteracy by creating the Hangul writing system with a team of scholars. The script was completed in 1443, and in 1446 the Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음), a document which described the new writing system, was published. (picture right)

 Sejong’s writing system had the significant impact of opening up literacy to everyone, regardless of social class or gender. In a postface to a commentary on the Hunminjeongeum, a scholar who worked on the script, Jeong Inji (정인지), wrote of the Hangul characters, “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; even a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days”. As a result, Hangul was quickly adopted by the Korean people and became a key feature of Korean nationalism as it was unique to the Korean language, while it allowed Koreans to no longer rely on a Chinese system.

 Naturally, the yangban (양반) – the Korean ruling elite during the Joseon Dynasty – were opposed to Hangul as it threatened their status as a ruling educated minority. Additionally, they believed Hanja to be the more advanced and respectable writing system for Korean. In 1504, King Yeonsangun (연산군) banned the use of Hangul, and in 1506 his successor, King Jungjong (중종), abolished the ministry for the study of Hangul.

Revival

Against the odds, this suppression of Hangul would not succeed in effacing this resilient script. In the late 16th century, Hangul began to rise through popular literature, such as poetry and fiction.

In the early 17th century, the benefits of Hangul as an accessible script began to be rediscovered, with publications in Hangul becoming increasingly widespread. However, it would only be in 1894 King Gojong (고종), would implement the Gabo (갑오) Reform which declared that official documents were required to be written in Hangul. The nationalistic tone of this among the other proposed reforms resulted in a rise in Hangul, and the realisation of many that using this writing system would combat the issues Korea faced with illiteracy and threats from Western influence. As a result, schools began teaching in Hangul in 1895, and the first Hangul newspaper was printed in 1896. 

The Japanese annexation of Korea

 At the start of the 20th century, the survival and full implementation of Hangul was on the rise, but so were looming threats from abroad. In 1910, Korea was annexed into the Japanese Empire after many years of political intimidation, violence, and power struggles. Despite the declaration of Japanese as the official language of Korea, the beginnings of the Japanese colonisation did not wage an outright attack on Korean culture, allowing for Korea to have some (albeit limited) independence in its culture.

As such, for a brief time, Korean literature and Hangul were still taught in schools, and in 1912, linguist Ju Si Gyeong (주시경) named the writing system ‘Hangul’, and partially standardised its spelling and grammar. This does not mean that Hangul was completely free to be studied, as the Japanese imperial administration proposed restrictions on Korean education, which included the promotion of Hanja over Hangul. Korean came to be commonly written in a mixed script of Hanja and Hangul in a parallel to the Japanese writing system which had its own roots in Hanja.

 As a result of this oppression, Hangul came to symbolise national pride and resistance from Japanese imperial rule. The writing system was used in peaceful protest against Japanese imperialism, and private institutions emerged which promoted the learning of Hangul as a way of preserving Korean identity and culture.

However, in 1938 the Japanese Empire took up a more aggressive policy of cultural assimilation which phased out all Korean language education in schools and eventually led to teaching and speaking Korean being entirely prohibited. Official documents were written in Japanese and Korean culture and identity was effectively outlawed. Yet again, Hangul found itself dangerously at risk of succumbing to political oppression and being lost forever.

Korean Independence

 Just when all hope seemed to be lost for Hangul, the Japanese Empire fell in 1945 and Korea regained its independence, allowing for Hangul to regain its status as the official writing system of Korea. Hangul was fully standardised, and its proper usage was promoted through the publishing dictionaries and textbooks for use in the education system. 

In 1949, North Korea entirely banned Hanja, making the North Korean version of Hangul, Chosŏn’gŭl (조선글), its official and only writing system. In South Korea, the writing system remains a mixture predominantly of Hangul but with some Hanja remaining, especially for expressing abbreviations and distinguishing between words that sound the same. 

Throughout its history, Hangul has both been directly involved in the politics of Korea, and has transcended it entirely, remaining a symbol of Korean identity despite the many challenges that threatened its existence. In this condensed study outlining the vastly more complicated history of Hangul, we can get a glimpse at the undeniable importance and power of a writing system. 

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