So, You Think You Know about King Sejong?

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Tuesday, August 30th, 2016
Yoobin Kim

Koreans have suffered from various hardships throughout their history, so they usually have a very critical attitude toward their leaders. Therefore, unfortunately, there are very few people who are admired by Koreans. As a result, when you ask Koreans whom they admire the most, one of the most common answers is King Sejong. King Sejong was the third king of Joseon dynasty and ruled Korea from 1418 - 1450. King Sejong is mostly known as the inventor of Hanguel, the Korean written language, but people usually don't know much more than that. Not only did he invent Hanguel though, he made other incredible achievements. So, it is a big tragedy that most Koreans don’t know more about King Sejong. King Sejong deserves his admiration, and we should know why.

The first achievement of King Sejong was cultural protection of Korea. King Sejong developed Korea’s own culture, trying to protect Korea from the invincible effects of China. China was a massive political and cultural threat to the small, nascent Joseon dynasty. One of the greatest results of Sejong’s efforts is Hangeul, Korea’s own letters. For a long time, Koreans had not had their own writing system. Chinese characters were hard for ordinary people to learn, and, since people couldn’t read and write, it was hard for the government to communicate with the people. Also, King Sejong felt that using the Chinese writing system led to excessive reliance on Chinese culture. The scientific and systematic system of Hangeul shows King Sejong’s wide knowledge of the language. Hangeul’s consonants imitate the form of our tongues and mouths. The vowels are based on Confucian theories. They can be combined to form various sounds. Hangeul was very easy for people to learn, and it spread quickly throughout Joseon. The government published books written in Hangeul, so that many people could understand what they were saying. Ordinary people could not only read books but they could write books, too, which was almost impossible when Chinese was only used.

King Sejong also made efforts to develop Korean music. In 1425, he created a musical institution to be in charge of writing music and making various musical instruments. With this institution, King Sejong developed and systematized the music of Joseon. Sejong also wrote some songs personally, and he created a very new method of musical notation called jeong gan bo, which was the first Asian notation that could notate the rhythm.

The second achievement of King Sejong was political protection. Koreans in the early 15th century suffered from the plunder of outsiders. The Manchus frequently plundered the northern border of Joseon. King Sejong took strong measures against these invaders. In 1433, general Choi Yundeok attacked the Manchus and installed four military fortresses. General Kim Jongseo installed six fortresses. King Sejong allowed people to live in the new territories, and the northern people were able to escape plunder. In addition, King Sejong paid attention to the development of military technology. He focused on ships and gunpowder. Since then, both of these have deeply contributed to the security of Korea, especially during the Japanese invasion that broke out 200 years later.

The final achievement of King Sejong was the economic protection of Korea. Choson ideology emphasized agriculture as being the most fundamental and important sector of the economy. One of the most important things while cultivating the land was the development of astronomy, since counting the dates and dividing the seasons of the year is essential. The first thing King Sejong did was to make Korea’s own calendar. King Sejong studied Chinese and Arabian astronomy and calendars and used them to guide him in making Korea’s own calendar to suit the Korean environment. The new calendar was called Chil jeong san. After setting up the calendar, the next thing King Sejong started was to develop instruments to measure the time. Under the leadership of King Sejong, many clocks were made. King Sejong also published an agricultural book called the Nong sa jik seol. The Nong sa jik seol contained various information on the different areas of Korea, which were collected from experienced farmers. The farmers of Korea were able to get the most effective methods that fit with their hometowns. The total production of agriculture during the Joseon dynasty was the highest during King Sejong’s reign. During this time, agricultural techniques became developed but also the census and tax collection worked properly too. During King Sejong’s reign, the government became wealthy and affluent.

King Sejong’s influence on Korean history is so huge that it is almost impossible to imagine the Korean culture without him. His knowledge and talent were so great, but the most important thing we have to remember is his love for his people.

By Yoobin Kim, Daedeok Middle School