[FICTION VS. HISTORY] Film about hangul’s history creates a firestorm

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[FICTION VS. HISTORY] Film about hangul’s history creates a firestorm

In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up — or were put in motion by — our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.

As soon as the historic flick “The King’s Letters,” directed by Cho Chul-hyun, hit local theaters, the film was met with a storm of criticisms from viewers saying the movie was “an apparent historical distortion.” They insisted that the director had crossed the line by being “too creative, to the extent that the film has disgraced King Sejong the Great (1397-1450).”


Top: A portrait of King Sejong the Great (1397-1450). Above: “Humnimjeongeum,” a manuscript that describes the Korean alphabet system was written by Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) court scholars in 1446 as a guide to hangul, the Korean alphabet system that was created by King Sejong the same year. The book is country’s National Treasure No. 70. [JOONGANG ILBO]

King Sejong, who Koreans learn from a young age was a genius who created the Korean alphabet system known as hangul during the final eight years of his life, is a revered figure in the country. Therefore, when “The King’s Letters” suggests that hangul was not entirely created by King Sejong (played by veteran actor Song Kang-ho), but with great help from a monk named Shin-mi (played by Park Hae-il), many patriotic Koreans were infuriated. The outrage led to a boycott of the film, and the issue was even taken to the Blue House’s public petition board, where people insisted for the film not be shown in theaters nor get overseas distribution.

Different theories have always surrounded the creation of hangul. That’s because there are no records of the actual process of creating Korea’s proud alphabet system. But the established theory has always been that King Sejong, as stated in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, created and promulgated hangul in December 1443, in an attempt to allow all Koreans, regardless of class, to be able to read and write. There are no other records of how the king created hangul. (Before hangul, Koreans used Chinese characters to write, and since it was very difficult to learn, knowing how to read and write created a wide gap between nobles and commoners.) Director Cho, who is making his directorial debut with “The King’s Letters,” said that he decided to “fill this blank part of history by shedding light on the character of Shin-mi,” depicting him as the hidden helper who played a critical role in assisting the king create the language.

If Shin-mi was a fictional character, the film wouldn’t have received as much backlash from Koreans as it did. But the monk’s name appears in various historical records, including 69 times in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, though none of them state that he was involved in the hangul creation project with the king.

After finding historical records related to the country’s Tripitaka Koreana (the complete collection of Buddhist scriptures carved on over 80,000 woodblocks) and the Hunminjeongeum (the initial name of hangul), the director decided to create a fictional story based on his belief, assuming that the hangul creation project that was linked to the Buddhist community had to be kept a secret from the king’s loyal subjects in such a strong Confucian country.


Scenes from the recent historical flick “The King’s Letters” directed by Cho Chul-hyun. The film created some controversy as it suggests that King Sejong, right, did not create hangul on his own but with the help of a Buddhist monk named Shin-mi, left. [MEGABOX PLUS M]

This assumption, according to the director, was inspired by a book titled “Creation of Hangul” written by Jeong Gwang, a scholar of Korean literature and an honorary professor at Korea University. In the book, Jeong insists that hangul was influenced by the system of ancient Sanskrit. The professor also insisted in various interviews with local media that Shin-mi is believed to have helped King Sejong to create the 11 vowels of hangul.

Hangul Cultural Solidarity, a civic organization that attempts to correct incorrect uses of hangul and promote Korea’s unique writing system, spoke out against the film, arguing that “although it’s a film, of which many parts are fictional, it disparages King Sejong’s achievements, and it can give the wrong idea to younger and foreign audiences.” The group added that the movie should not be seen as a piece of creative expression from the director because “the film is based on the director’s beliefs that can influence others rather than just his imagination.”

Detractors also pointed to a historical document written by King Munjong, the eldest son of King Sejong who succeeded the throne after his father, which states that Sejong was acquainted with the monk Shin-mi in 1446, which is three years after the king invented the hangul.

Other than this critical issue, the film stays quite true to history. King Sejong is known as the king who did not have a bite to eat unless there was meat on the table.

This is shown in the film when Queen Soheon, played by late actor Chun Mi-sun, says “eating boiled meat for his health is not a problem because the king does not eat if there’s no meat on the table.” In the film, the queen is portrayed as a devoted believer in Buddhism, which provoked a backlash from the King’s royal subjects. Historical records back this up. Prince Suyang even commissioned the creation of “Seokbosangjeol,” a Korean biography of Gautama Buddha, after the death of his mother, Queen Soheon.

Eventually it helped in propagating Buddhism, as the text was written in hangul and made available to the general population.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]
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