Contest #115 winner 🏆

139 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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139 comments

Rob H
20:02 Oct 22, 2021

For the first time writing about historical fiction, I thought it was brilliant. The way you described him learning his own language and making sure to describe how the sounds were made, I found myself trying it too as I read a sure enough the mouth and tongue made the exact movements you described. A truly win-worthy story. Congratulations and please keep them coming.

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S. C. Muntsy
19:54 Oct 22, 2021

28 Letters is an amazing story. Congratulations, well deserved win.

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A. Kangiser
19:51 Oct 22, 2021

Fantastic work! Not only was it educational but really well written. You deserve the win.

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Philip Ebuluofor
19:51 Oct 22, 2021

I tell you, I was impressed especially by the dialogues. It is educative too.

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Mariah Cheng
19:50 Oct 22, 2021

Very well written Alex! This was a great read and very informative. Thank you for sharing your historical fiction.

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Amanda Lieser
19:16 Oct 22, 2021

Hi Alex, I really love how you took this prompt. I found this piece beautiful and educational. You did a wonderful job of keeping the reader involved in the story while weaving in exposition so they could understand your purpose. Thank you for writing this story. It’s a well deserved win.

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Annalisa D.
18:49 Oct 22, 2021

Congrats on the win! 🎉 That's so exciting! I'm happy for you!

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Alex Sultan
07:06 Oct 23, 2021

Thank you, Annalisa, I always like reading your comments. I'll make sure to check out your newest story and leave my notes when I get the chance :)

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18:07 Oct 22, 2021

King Sejong is brilliant, a visionary indeed. Learning Korean had been made easy due to the Hangul. I learned Hangul alphabets in a day and still remember them, but I had been on and off trying to remember the Chinese characters and had to painfully draw them with fingers on the air to remember them. Great story about how king Sejong conceived the Hangul alphabet.

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Alex Sultan
18:18 Oct 22, 2021

Thank you for the comment. When I started learning Korean, I was surprised at how easy the letters were. It took me only two days to get them down. As for Chinese, as much I love the history behind their character system, I don't think I could memorize the thousands needed without trouble. I had a lot of fun writing about Sejong - a very gifted person. Thank you for reading.

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Swapnil Kamble
17:29 Oct 22, 2021

Heart touching and gripping

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Beth Jackson
17:18 Oct 22, 2021

Congratulations Alex! What an awesome story, I can certainly see why it won! Yay!! :-)

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Palak Shah
17:18 Oct 22, 2021

Nice story Alex, I loved the way that you have written this historical fiction. Great job and congrats on the win!

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17:01 Oct 22, 2021

Oh wow! You won!!!! Congratulations 🥳 well deserved 🎈👏

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Alex Sultan
17:08 Oct 22, 2021

친구 감사합니다 - Thank you, friend. This is the first win of many 🥳

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Dorsa S.
16:57 Oct 22, 2021

alex, congratulations on the win! well deserved. :)

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Alex Sultan
18:41 Oct 22, 2021

감사합니다 - Thank you. I'm looking forward to writing about Korean history again 😁

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Carla Ward
16:35 Oct 22, 2021

I loved this because it spoke to something which has always fascinated me, the development of written language. Your story reminds me very much of the great Cherokee genius, Sequoyah, who in 12 short years created the 85 letter Cherokee Syllabary, which is considered one of the most phonetically perfect alphabetical systems in the world. He did this despite not knowing English, nor how to speak, read, or write in any other language. Thanks to his contributions, the entire nation became literate in a generation. Well done, and well written.

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Arthur Alexander
16:28 Oct 22, 2021

What a wonderfully written story! I hope to see more amazing stories from you. You never fail to impress me with your amazing writing skills. Also, congratulations on the win Buddy! 🥳❤ Love, Arthur (PS: Sorry i saw the story lateee! :( )

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Tommie Michele
16:27 Oct 22, 2021

Congrats! Well-deserved win, Alex!

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Alex Sultan
16:43 Oct 22, 2021

Thank you, friend. This is only the first win of many. 😁

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Nichole Anderson
15:19 Oct 22, 2021

Congrats on the win!

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Tommie Michele
23:27 Oct 21, 2021

Huge congrats on the shortlist! I noticed it on your profile and had to say something :)

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Faith Ogedegbe
10:53 Oct 21, 2021

I really love the composition of this story.keep soaring.

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Bruce Friedman
19:43 Oct 20, 2021

Superb job on this Alex. When I lived in Seoul in 1971, I heard many stories about how hangul was an alphabet created by a committee. The newspapers at that time had news stories written in hangul for the common man and book reviews in Chinese characters for the elite. No sure if that practice continue today. One small suggestion. In the early paragraphs you use the term "king." I think it would be more understandable to capitalize the word to King to refer to Sejong.

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Alex Sultan
09:43 Oct 21, 2021

Thank you, Bruce. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it through. It's cool to hear you lived in Seoul, and can relate to this story in a way. There are a couple of theories on how Hangul was created, with one being Sejong commissioning scholars, but I went with the one where he wrote it alone - I believe it is the most popular and worked well for a short story. Your suggestion is great here - I'd forgotten the rule while writing the story. Thanks for bringing it up - I'll remember it for the next one I write. 감사합니다

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