[VIEWPOINT]Tempered praise for hangul

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[VIEWPOINT]Tempered praise for hangul

Newspapers and broadcasting stations always praise “hangul,” the Korean alphabet, on Hangul Day. Sometimes foreigners join in the praise too. When foreigners, notably scholars from advanced countries, praise the superiority and scientific aspect of hangul, everybody may feel twice as happy.
This used to make me happy too. I thought that I was part of a truly great nation. However, unfaithful thoughts that betray the sensible happiness of Hangul Day crept into my mind somehow.
It is metal type and the printing press that has caused a problem in my mind. As everyone knows, hangul was invented in 1443, and King Sejong produced the first metal type widely used in Korea, called Gabin type, around 10 years before this, in 1434. Metal type was originally created in the Goryeo Dynasty, but it wasn’t used widely. It was only after the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty that metal type began to be used to print books full scale.
Gyemi type was made in the third year of King Taejong’s reign (1403) but was replaced by Gabin type in the sixteenth year of King Sejong’s reign (1434) due to the former’s inefficiency. Since then, Gabin type has produced an amazing number of and amazingly diverse kinds of books. Gabin type also became a model for many other types for 500 years during the Joseon Dynasty.
Gabin type is produced with Chinese characters. Why is there no hangul type then? To enlighten his people, King Sejong published a book, “The Three Basic Principles of Conduct,” in the same year that Gabin type was created. Three years after that, the king told his subordinates who were against the invention of hangul, “If I translate ‘The Three Basic Principles of Conduct’ into hangul and distribute it to the common people, all the ignorant men and women will learn its contents easily and will become patriotic royal subjects, obedient sons and virtuous women.”
King Sejong fully understood the necessity and importance of distributing hangul books to the people. During his reign, Gabin type continuously produced large volumes of books. Then, why didn’t the king produce metal types with hangul?
King Sejong did not have the imagination to make a link between hangul and metal type. Of course, a few hangul metal types were made as some Chinese books were translated into hangul. However, these types were only tied to the books translated.
“The Three Basic Principles of Conduct” was finally translated into hangul during the rein of King Seongjong, but the hangul version was printed with wooden printing blocks. The strange thing was that the hangul version printed with wooden blocks was almost the only book that was available for the common people of the Joseon Dynasty to read.
In other words, the hangul version of “The Three Basic Principles of Conduct” and a few other books on ethics were all that were distributed to the people. In comparison, Gabin metal type was used to produce a great number of books in Chinese characters for upper class people. Thus, during the reign of King Sejong, metal type only served as an instrument that produced knowledge and culture for the powerful upper classes of the Joseon Dynasty.
It was during the latter half of the Joseon Dynasty that printed matter in hangul started to appear in large numbers. But most of them were printed with wooden printing blocks and could not be compared to the quality and number of copies of the Chinese character books printed with metal moveable types.
It was only in the 20th century that hangul metal type were used in full to print books. Actually, hangul entered the 20th century without pouring out printed matter with the use of metal types.
The fact that a nation has its own script means that the people there are free from ignorance. This freedom is accomplished through printed matter, that is, books. Although hangul was invented during the Joseon Dynasty as a script for the people, the leading upper class was stingy about printing books for the public.
Metal types were improved and used full scale during the era of King Sejong and hangul was also made during the same period of time, but these two were not put together to serve the poeple. The metal type were all Chinese character type, and the government and the upper class people monopolized them.
It seems that the king and the upper class people did not find the need to free the people from ignorance through books from the beginning. How regrettable that was!
Every year on Hangul Day we praise the superiority of the Korean alphabet and the greatness of King Sejong. Nobody can be blamed for singing their praises, but isn’t there a need to examine the other side of the praise too?

* The writer is a professor of classic Chinese literature at Pusan National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kang Myung-kwan
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