[FOUNTAIN]Our language could be our top treasureKorea’s top national treasure is the Namdaemun. It is the best of the cultural properties managed by the state, but it was not designated by Koreans. In 1934, during the Japanese annexation period, the colonial government issued an ordinance to preserve the major Joseon Dynasty cultural properties.
During the last 70 years, not everyone was proud to have the leading national treasure picked by Japan. Backed by strong convictions, some critics repeatedly suggested a change, claiming that the nation endured a cultural stigma from the colonial era even after the independence.
Then, what would be the right candidate for top national treasure? Scholars and cultural experts agree that the Hunminjeongeum, the Korean script, deserves the honor. It is unfortunate the Hunminjeongeum is 70th on the list of national treasures. “Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings,” proclaimed King Sejong upon inventing the Korean script. The spirit of King Sejong was a kind of a cultural declaration of independence.
The precious cultural property of Hunminjeongeum was almost lost at the end of 1930s. Lee Han-geol’s family in Andong, North Gyeongsang province, had kept the original copy of Hunminjeongeum. In 1938, when the colonial government had eliminated the Korean-language classes from the schools and forced Koreans to use Japanese only, possessing the Hunminjeongeum could be dangerous. That’s when Gansong Jeong Hyeong-pil came along.
The wealthy patron of art and culture had spent his fortune to protect Korean cultural relics from falling into Japanese hands. He was not about to pass the opportunity to safeguard the Hunminjeongeum. When an antique merchant informed him that the Hunminjeongeum was on the market, he was so excited that he gladly offered to pay.
While still not yet completed, the Hunminjeongeum and other collection of Gansong are gathered at Gansong Museum in Seongbuk-dong, Seoul.
The museum presents special exhibitions twice a year, in spring and autumn, to introduce the traditional Korean culture, and currently, the 67th regular exhibition is being held. Gansong Museum is the home to the Hunminjeongeum, the National Treasure No. 1 on our minds.
by Chung Jae-suk
The writer is a deputy culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.