Contest #115 winner 🏆

116 comments

Historical Fiction East Asian Creative Nonfiction

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.

Worthless.

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.

October 11, 2021 16:04

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116 comments

Alex Sultan
16:04 Oct 11, 2021

first time trying historical fiction. It is a challenging genre. I tried my absolute best to write a winner, and it was a lot more difficult than I thought it'd be. Also, while this story is a bit dramatized, it is true. Sejong is the founder of the Korean alphabet. All feedback would be appreciated. Thanks for reading - 읽어줘서 고맙습니다 Update: It was a nice surprise to wake up and see this win. I'm glad I could bring light to Korean history.

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David Hubber
19:58 Oct 21, 2021

Very well written story. It is true that the Korean script is quite easy to learn. I was in Korea 10 years ago for a 2-week work visit and easily learned it in that time and even started to understand some basic road signs. Unfortunately as soon as I got home I forgot it all almost as quickly >.< Really hope to read more of your stories in the future :-)

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Cory Sinnott
15:52 Oct 22, 2021

Terrific story, well done!

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Jaime Metcalf
16:10 Oct 22, 2021

You deserved the win. Great story. I thoroughly enjoyed it and you, my friend, have a great talent for writing.

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Keya Jadav
13:57 Oct 12, 2021

hey Alex, All your previous east asian stories have excelled without any flaw and this too follows through. Everything is well elaborated and beautifully described. I like that even after so many opposing voices, Sejong didn't give up. It is a brilliant story. Keep writing :>

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Keya Jadav
15:20 Oct 22, 2021

OH MY GOD!!!! Alex!! I cannot believe this. I told you, I told you. Wohhooo! Lot many congratulations!! 🥳🥳 I am so excited and happy for you!

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Alex Sultan
17:43 Oct 22, 2021

I could do this in my sleep 😴 In all seriousness, 고마워요 - thank you for the kind words. I'm looking forward to writing about Korean history again 😁

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Dorsa S.
16:42 Oct 11, 2021

this such an amazing story! gosh i love it so much. :) historical fiction is a difficult genre to tackle, but you did it nicely. i could vividly picture this; it's wonderful. my favourite part has to be, "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." i don't have specific critique for this story, so well done!

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Alex Sultan
17:41 Oct 11, 2021

Thank you, this is such a kind comment :) I was worried about how people would see this story, and it is reassuring to know you liked it. I'm so used to thriller and fantasy stories that writing this was a complete mix-up for me. Thanks for reading.

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Dorsa S.
20:39 Oct 11, 2021

you're such an amazing storyteller in that genre, my favourite has to be "a thousand years in tokyo" and "mistweaver." but it's good to broaden and write in a genre we won't normally write in! i have to try it sometime.

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Jon Casper
15:51 Oct 13, 2021

Very enjoyable read! I especially enjoyed the descriptions of Sejong's deliberation over every detail of the new language. For example the parts describing the relationship between the characters and the mouth/tongue position. The prose is quite poetic and sensory, and it has a strong message of facing adversity. Nice work! Like Katharine, this line was difficult to parse for me: "Understand that knowledge does not ruin the world; it falls to those pointing fingers for selfish gain." I saw in your comment that it's a direct quote so I appre...

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Alex Sultan
18:03 Oct 13, 2021

Thank you, Jon. I put hours into research for this piece - I didn't want to get anything wrong, and I'm glad you liked it. I'm going to brainstorm ways to fix up the clarity of the quote before the week ends. Thanks for pointing it out and reading it through.

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Kevin Broccoli
20:42 Oct 13, 2021

The opening line of this is fantastic.

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Evynne Eradost
04:52 Oct 12, 2021

I really love this story! It’s not for everybody, but I especially love that your story spanned time (those single-scene overly ambiguous ones aren’t really my thing). Your style is unique and engaging, with a perfect mix of vivid descriptions and quick, sharp action. Really well done!

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Tommie Michele
02:20 Oct 12, 2021

I love this story! Historical fiction is pretty far beyond my wheelhouse, but it's clearly within yours. I can tell you've done your research and you make the story compelling and detailed without it being an information dump. The beginning I found especially compelling--your story drew me in from the get-go. Nice work! --Tommie Michele

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20:20 Oct 11, 2021

Hi Alex, I really like the way this is written, it's got a poetic quality and is very atmospheric. You have word count to play with so if you wanted to you could describe the setting a bit more, give it some additional local feel. I'd like to know what the king's room is like where he works for example. What the queen looks like maybe? What they characters are wearing. With it being a very different culture from my own I'd be interested to learn a bit more about it. Maybe you could do some additional world building? You will have to fo...

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Alex Sultan
22:22 Oct 11, 2021

Thank you! I always enjoy writing about Korea, and I plan to write more about them. I've implemented the changes you've suggested. As for adding more, I don't want to add too much(I'm afraid of this story dragging on) but I like the idea of a couple more sentences on Korean imagery and culture. I'll see what I can do. As for the history, you are forgiven :) This is a true story! A bit dramatized for the purpose of creative writing, but Sejong the Great was a real king in the 1400s, and he did create a 28 letter alphabet for his people, who ...

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20:09 Oct 11, 2021

Hi Alex, A few thoughts: His wife stood, her smile turning to worry (a frown) at the sight of the tired king. It feels like a smile is a thing you can see and should turn into another thing you can see. Also avoiding worry here prevents repetition in the following paragraph. Children who can not (cannot) grow into scholars, and workers who can’t write their concerns. Understand that knowledge does not ruin the world; it falls to those pointing fingers for selfish gain.” - what is "it" in this line? I'm a bit confused. is it knowledge...

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Annalisa D.
18:10 Oct 11, 2021

This is a really beautifully written story with a nice, inspirational message. I think a lot of people will value it and enjoy reading it. I think historical fiction is one of my least liked genres, so I probably can't offer much for insightful genre advice, but I can say that I did really enjoy reading this so it seems like a better than usual example of the genre to me at least.

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Sikkle Sikkle
21:13 Oct 13, 2021

To read this story is to admit defeat in any writing contest. Well done.

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Alex Sultan
22:36 Oct 14, 2021

Thank you for the kind words, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. I hope it does well in the competition - I like writing about Korean culture and would want to shine more light on it.

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18:41 Oct 13, 2021

Hi Alex, I've had a re-read. It's great. I just have a few comments: She sat on the wooden floor(s) with a script out in front of her, writing out poetry, stopping to bow. Her dress, (the colour of) red and gold, flowed behind her. - OR Her dress flowed, red and gold, behind her. He ran (his) fingers through his beard. Sejong ordered (for) his books to be rewritten. I think it's really good.

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Alex Sultan
18:50 Oct 13, 2021

I'm thankful for your help. I was hesitant to write this story at first, but I'm glad it worked out and I could shine a light on Korean history. I really like how polished the story feels now. Thanks again 😁

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19:23 Oct 13, 2021

You might want to consider tagging it as "creative non fiction" as well as historical fiction? Just a thought.

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07:41 Oct 18, 2021

Hi Alex, I've posted a draft of this week's story if you feel like taking a look. If you check the comments I've noted a few things I may add in later. I'm actually considering a complete rewrite because the story itself doesn't feel strong enough for the premise. Any ideas welcome.

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Johana Htwe
05:01 Oct 23, 2021

OMG! I was coming here to congratulate. And I learned that you spoke Korean!!! OMG!! I didn't know that. Anyway, I came here to CONGRATULATE YOU. Congratulation!! You deserve a win!! This story is brilliant! 축하합니다

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Alex Sultan
06:46 Oct 23, 2021

댓글 감사합니다! 저는 한국어를 조금 할수 와 더 배우고 있어요. 한국어 어렵지 않아요 - 익숙해지면. Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad this won, and I'm looking forward to writing more about Korea. 😁

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K. Antonio
11:23 Oct 19, 2021

I really enjoyed the prose here. As someone who's getting a degree in language I found the descriptions of the Korean alphabet and how the sound was produced to be very interesting and well-written. I liked how I learned something in this piece, it flows nicely between being sentimental while providing historical info.

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Alex Sultan
09:52 Oct 21, 2021

Thank you for reading! I think the most challenging part of writing this was balancing how much info I wanted, and how much to leave out. I didn't want it to be an essay on the Korean alphabet, but at the same time, I did want readers to learn something. I'm glad it worked out. Best of luck with your language degree 😁

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K. Antonio
14:46 Oct 22, 2021

WOOHOOOOO! YOU WON. CONGRATZZZZZ 🎉🎉

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Jessie Hartness
12:20 Oct 23, 2021

“There are voices I would never hear.” This story was absolutely beautiful. Many emotions came from this sentence alone; it was very easy to resonate with the main character. I was intrigued from the start. Good job, a well-deserved win!

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Faith Ogedegbe
08:00 Oct 23, 2021

Congratulations!!!

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David Carr
06:03 Oct 23, 2021

Excellent story. Congratulations on your win. Well deserved.

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Alex Sultan
06:35 Oct 23, 2021

Merci beaucoup pour les mots gentils. C'était très amusant à écrire cette histoire - j'aime beaucoup l'histoire coréenne.

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Suma Jayachandar
04:38 Oct 23, 2021

Congratulations! It was just a matter of time before you got your due. The story flows effortlessly and it's a joy to discover the history of other cultures.

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Danny G
21:42 Oct 22, 2021

Congrats on the win!

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Susan Van Hoose
21:35 Oct 22, 2021

Great writing ! I look forward to reading more from you.

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