A gem can not be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.
Sejong swept his books off the shelf. Rain pelted the world outside. The king opened one of his many works, the spine of it splitting under his force, and read off a page. Nongsa jikseol, methods of cultivation in agriculture. A guidebook to farming in Korea’s geography. Words that could keep his people from famine.
He threw it into the rain.
It splashed against the mud-coated field, water distorting the ink. A second book followed, sliding against the ground, into a puddle. A third. A fourth. They piled in the courtyard, works he had commissioned to better Korea’s people. To educate the illiterate.
What good is knowledge that can not be read?
Music echoed inside the palace. String instruments, a wavering bamboo flute, the quick beat of a drum. A compliment to the heavy rain. On his way to his chambers, Sejong passed a woman humming along. She sat on the wooden floor with a script out in front of her, writing out poetry, stopping to bow.
The king raised a hand in dismissal. The woman’s poems would do nothing for their culture, written in Chinese characters. A waste of paper—none other than the privileged could read it. The words would have no meaning for the common people.
He stepped into his chambers. Lamps glowed with dim flames, and rain tapped against the roof. His wife stood, her smile fading at the sight of seeing the king so tired. She hurried over and guided him to sit. Her dress, red and gold, flowed behind her.
“What worries you, my husband?”
Sejong exhaled. He considered himself a scholar, yet his kingdom could not read or write.
“There are voices I will never hear,” he said. “Farmers who don’t have the wealth or status to learn to read. Children who cannot grow into scholars, and workers who can’t write their concerns. My people lack the gift of education, and I lack the means to educate them.”
The queen took his hand. A soft, calming touch.
“And what shall you do?” she asked.
He ran his fingers through his beard. Sejong took time to think, then turned his head to the queen.
“My people need a new system of writing, and I will craft one for them myself. A script a wise man can acquaint himself with before the morning is over, and a fool can learn in the space of ten days.”
At dawn, Sejong sat alone in a common room. Sunlight shone through the open windows, ethereal motes of dust dancing in the light. Scrolls, ink, and books surrounded him. Panels of artwork—birds and flowers—enveloped the room. Sejong spent the morning reading of phonetics, of alphabets with fifty letters, and others with seventy.
Too many relied on complex lettering.
He would keep his simple for the busiest of men.
Around midday, he painted hundreds of symbols. He started with one stroke of the brush, ㄱ, ㄴ,ㅣ. Two strokes for ㄷ, ㅋ, ㅅ. Three for ㅎ,ㄹ,ㅈ. Never going above four. He hung papers upon the walls, blocking the sunlight. He crossed out any he deemed too complicated.
Servants left food outside the door as he worked.
By dusk, he walked through the courtyard, stars glistening above. Sejong spoke words to himself. He singled out their noises and pointed out the vowels. Oak, oath, oasis. Yam, yarn, yang. Water, wasp, wary. He pressed fingers into his mouth, feeling his teeth and tongue move at the pronunciations. His lips separated for a shh noise, but closed for ph. Some required more air, others less.
The days passed, and a concerned adviser sought him out.
“The dynasty will not agree with your choice,” the adviser said. “Knowing Chinese is what puts them above the common man. Your choice to create this script will cause an uproar, your majesty. It could divide our kingdom.”
“Let it be so,” Sejong said, looking up from his script, “as I will no longer be cut off from my people. Understand it is not knowledge that ruins the world; it falls to those pointing fingers for selfish gain.”
Dozens of sheets lined the walls. Ink stained his hands. Crumpled-up papers littered the room, drafts he deemed failures, too complex. His wife told the council members he had fallen ill, and he needed time to recover as he crafted his script.
Sejong spoke until his throat grew sore, attaching noises like ‘ch’ and ‘tah’ to some symbols while discarding others entirely. He kept his work common and crude, strong and tough, easy and efficient.
He had to write letters that would last a thousand years.
The vowels remained as lines and dots. A silent ‘ㅇ’ shape came before each to signify an open mouth. Consonants followed suit. ‘ㄴ’, an ‘n’ sound, signified the tongue touching the back of one’s teeth. ‘ㄱ’, a ‘kuh’ noise, showed a raised tongue blocking air from one’s throat.
Lingual, dental, molar and glottal sounds made up for his script of twenty-eight letters. Seventeen consonants and eleven vowels, blocked together for organization, compared to the thousands needed for Chinese.
He wrote short sentences from top to bottom. Candles melted down beside him. Incense burned, releasing the scent of sandalwood throughout his chambers, and Sejong sat cross-legged on the floor. Weeks of work came down to reading aloud.
남자는 인내했다 - The man persevered.
The language flowed off his tongue like water.
He presented his script to the council at first light. Two charts, one for consonants and the other for vowels, each letter with its phonetic equal written next to it. Easy to follow stroke orders. He sat upon his throne, royals whispering before him.
“Chinese characters,” he said, his voice echoing in the throne room, “are incapable of capturing our unique meanings. Many of our common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of twenty-eight letters.
“They are very easy to learn, and it is my hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”
Not a soul agreed.
They shouted their concerns.
The Chinese would perceive it as a threat. It would be the end of Confucianism. Korea’s social hierarchy would fall. The scripts would have to be burnt, down to ashes, to prevent an uprising. The dynasty erased the twenty-eight letters and deemed them a worthless use of time.
Yet, for the good of his people, Sejong persevered.
He taught the language to any who wanted to learn. In turn, they carried it throughout the land. Women found their voices, teaching children the simplicity of the symbols. Men stood straight, proud to have a language of their own. Monks wrote prayers in the sand. Merchants kept records of their stock, and artists could sign their names.
The letters birthed poets, playwrights, and philosophers. Astronomers learned to write the names of constellations. Winemakers created labels. Apothecaries devised written names for their medicines.
Sejong ordered for his books to be rewritten.
The dynasty failed to suppress the flow of knowledge—Korea’s illiteracy ceased to exist as the letters blossomed within the country. The script billowed in use after Sejong’s death, four years later, as the great king ushered his people into a golden age of culture and literature.
A land where every soul could read and write.
Where all could learn the teachings of the wise.