King Sejong is widely recognized as one of the most influential and greatest Koreans in history. The proof is even in his name 세종대왕 – literally translated as Sejong Great King! His most famous accomplishment is the invention of Hangeul (한글, the modern script of Korea). This alone would have made King Sejong more than worthy of his name, but there is much more to his legacy than this!
King Sejong lived from 1397-1450, he was the 4th king of the Joseon Dynasty – reigning from 1418 until his death. His 32 years sitting on the throne brought about some of the most important changes in Korean history.
The inventor of Hangeul (한글)
King Sejong is best known for personally inventing the Korean script of Hangeul. The script was completed in 1443 and published a few years later in 1446. The above picture is an extract from a document known as Hunmin Jeongeum (훈민정음 – ‘the proper sounds for instructing the people’). This accompanied the announcement of this new alphabet, explaining the philosophy behind the script.
Before the introduction of Hangeul, Korea primarily used Hanja (한자, Chinese characters) along with a clumsy combination of various phonetic writing systems that were developed over the years. These systems did not mix well. This meant that basic literacy was achievable to only those with access to a high education, such as nobles and scholars. King Sejong’s invention of a simple 28 letter alphabet (4 of which have since become obsolete) meant that people of all ages and classes were able to learn to read and write Korean in a matter of days!
The introduction of this new script was initially met with opposition from many of the Korean elite. Court officials and scholars of the time were worried that Hangeul would diminish the value of the Korean language. However, King Sejong strongly believed that this new writing system benefited all the Korean people. As a result, literary rates skyrocketed to some of the highest in the world in a very short time. Today, Korea remains at the top of world literacy rankings due to Hangeul.
Hangeul is recognized worldwide for its ingenuity and many redeeming features. Besides having its own holiday in Korea on October 9th annually, UNESCO even honors this great achievement with the ‘King Sejong literary prize’.
King Sejong’s legacy
King Sejong was a great humanitarian and thinker of the time. He helped Korean society progress in all kinds of ways and was always kind and benevolent to his subjects. He was well known in times of trouble, such as flooding or drought, for providing shelter and relief centers for those affected.
His way of thinking was based a lot on Neo-Confucianism philosophy. Justice and righteousness between sovereign and subject is very important to this philosophy. Neo-Confucianism rejected a lot of the more spiritual based cultures and superstitions of the time. Focus was put on education and more rational thought.
Great leaps were made in literature, science, and agriculture due to King Sejong’s influence. One of King Sejong’s first acts as king was to create an institute on palace grounds known as Jiphyeonjeon (집현전, the jade hall). This institute was responsible for conducting and advancing studies and research in Korea. Many of the country’s greatest minds went there to work on various projects. During this time he also established government grants and scholarships to encourage young scholars in their studies.
King Sejong’s influence stretches far and wide. He went as far as to write his own farmer’s handbook called Nongsa Jikseol(농사직설, Straight Talk on Farming). This book contained all kinds of useful information about the various farming techniques adopted at the time, such as intensive cultivation.
You can see King Sejong’s statue in front of Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) – A Palace of History in Seoul. This prominent position symbolizes his great importance to the Korean people. Koreans think of Great King Sejong of one of the most, if not the most significant figure in Korean history. To this day, people consider his legacy and accomplishments to be part of the Golden Age of Korea.