All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
The most valuable reason for being here is to learn about and from the Korean people.
What brings you to Korea? Time and again educators, businessmen, researchers, and people simply wondering what I am doing here ask me this question
This is my answer:
I want to gain insight into your history and culture. I want to try to see reality through your eyes to have a better understanding of your values and ways of living.
One way to gain that intercultural understanding is by visiting museums. Although these places are “static” to many, for me they are a place where I can glean at a nation’s history. Artifacts, photographs and the buildings where they are housed give me a sense of the importance a nation bestows to not only its past, but also its present and future.
So this week, I visited a museum I had been waiting to explore with great anticipation:
The National Hangeul Museum
My first reaction as I was walking along the beautifully landscaped entrance to the building was of pure pleasure. Stone pillars, different trees and shrubs, a stream running along one side of the path where a gazebo sits inviting us to rest and reflect, all leading us to a modern structure whose purpose is to teach Koreans and the rest of the world about the creation and importance of their alphabet, Hangeul.
Learning about their alphabet was a group of Kindergartners and their teachers!
What is Hangeul? What lies behind the fairytale of a king and his alphabet?
Once upon a time, more than six hundred years ago, there was a King who lived with his people in the Kingdom of Joseon, later known as Korea. His name was King Sejon.
The king was troubled because his people could communicate with each other but they could not read or write. In those times, people spoke Korean but writing was something only the noblemen and priests could do because the language that was used for writing was Chinese. China was a very powerful country that had influenced many nations around it. The use of the Chinese alphabet was one of those influences. The Chinese alphabet was extremely difficult to learn to read and write.
So King Sejong thought and thought of how he could help his people. He had a brilliant idea – to create an alphabet that would be easy enough for all of his people to learn so they could read and write.
And that is the story of how Hunminjeongeum, now known as Hangeul, was created.
The Hangeul alphabet has twenty eight letters, including five basic consonants and three basic vowels! One beautiful thing I learned about the vowels is that they reflect the idea of the sky, earth and man. They are connected by a way of thinking or philosophy of nature. They relate to the balance between sky (positive force or yang), earth (negative force or yin) and human or man (neutral force).
The king and his team added strokes or combined the basic letters together to make different characters.
King Sejong had a vision for his people, to record and preserve their culture through their language – quite a democratic way of thinking for a King in 1443!
Once the people in King Sejong’s kingdom had an alphabet to read and write with, their lives changed forever… and at times, they lived happily ever after.
At times they did not. In 1910, over 100 years ago the Japanese colonized their land. One of the things the Korean people could not do was to use their language. They had to learn to speak and write in Japanese.
However, there were many was in which people kept Hangeul alive. After Korea became independent from Japan in 1945, Hangeul was used again. Now it is a very big part of being Korean, of the Korean identity.
This is how the story begins:
“나랏말ᄊᆞ미 中國에 달아…… “because the speech of this country is different from that of China…”
Look at the photos and take a walk through the National Hangeul Museum.