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Laying the foundations of Joseon

2012/02/18 | 383 views |  | Permalink | Source

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Ascending the throne while the newly founded nation underwent difficult times, Sejong the Great laid the foundation for 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty.

It is Sejong the Great (1397~1450) who is acclaimed as the Joseon Dynasty's sage-king, the only Korean ruler posthumously honored with the appellation the Great, and his face appears on the denomination of South Korea's currency, the 10,000 won bill. The fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea left remarkable achievements in science, literature and policy and laid fundamental basis for the nation. That's why it is widely said that he is the essence of prosperity of the nation. A drama recently aired on TV, 'Deep-rooted Tree', which is based on the story of the creation of Hangeul by Sejong the Great, reiterating the magnitude of his achievements.

Born in 1397, five years after the Joseon Dynasty was founded by his grandfather, Lee Seong-gye, Sejong was the third son of Lee Bang-won, who became the third king of the Joseon Dynasty, King Taejong. When he was born, the nation had been undergoing a transition period and the nation's foundations and public sentiment were unstable.

For 32 years since Sejong succeeded to the throne at the age of 22 in 1418, he accomplished outstanding achievements in science, political theory, military arts and literature, which marks Sejong as one of the most innovative kings. Highly respected for his benevolent disposition and diligence, King Sejong was also a passionate scholar whose knowledge and natural talent in all fields of study astounded even the most learned experts. He was a king with a strong drive to push ahead with what he thought was right. He was always concerned about the common people and care for the people was the center of his reign. His care for his subjects is revealed in his statement, "A monarch governs all creations in place of the Heavens. A good governor must have the utmost regard for the wellbeing of the people".

The invention of the rain gauge came 200 years ahead of the West and contributed to the development of agricultural science.

Humninjeongeum, Korean unique alphabetic system

Needless to say, the most outstanding invention that Sejong the Great had is Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. He felt sorry for the common people who did not have an appropriate script for their spoken language; he wanted to provide Koreans with a convenient and efficient written means of expression. Even though he endeavored to make an entirely new native script for the Korean language, he faced a strong backlash from the elite scholars and the established, which is vividly described in the drama 'Deep-rooted Tree'. However, that didn't stop him from creating the Korean script.

Hangeul is not only scientific but philosophical. The consonants of Hangeul are patterned on vocal organs and the shapes of its letters were modeled on the human articulatory organs and the three basic components of the universe: heaven, earth, and man. His continuous efforts to create the script resulted in success. In 1443, he created Hangeul and named it Hunminjeongeum. Hunminjeongeum, which literally meant "the correct sounds for the instruction of the people", was completed in 1443. Before he proclaimed it three years later in 1446 with Hunminjeongeum Haeryebon; which stated the principle of the invention of Hangeul and information on its usage in detail, he strived to perfect it. It was in the 28th year of King Sejong's reign when the unique Korean script was finally made public.

With Hangeul, he ushered in a cultural golden age. He composed Yongbi eocheon ga (Songs of Flying Dragons)-a eulogy rationalizing both the illegitimacy and immorality of the dynasty establishment and Worin Cheon gang Jigok ('Songs of the Moon Shining on a Thousand Rivers', National Treasure No. 398) a translation of the Buddhist scriptures. He also published numerous books on agriculture, geography, and other fields. Furthermore, he initiated the development of musical notations for Korean songs and music that had been orally transmitted.


Hunminjeongeum recorded the principle of the invention of Hangeul and information on its usage in detail.

We can't leave out his inventions. Sejong enlightened in science and technology; sponsored a variety of inventions or refinements of previous technologies. In the 16th year of his reign, Korea's first sundial, Yangbu Ilgu (National Treasure No.845) was made. There are written tables of shadow lengths between sunrise and sunset. When sunlight hits the sundial, it accounts for variations in the sunrise and sunset from the orbit of the sun. In his 23rd year, a rain gauge was invented. The invention of the rain gauge came 200 years ahead of the West contributing to the development of agricultural science.

Sejong the Great ascended to the throne at the age of 22 and passed away on May 18, 1450, at the age of just 53. In the 32 years of his reign, Sejong the Great laid the foundation for the dynasty that was to rule for more than 500 years. It is quite natural that he is still respected and exalted as the greatest king in Korean history.

* Article from Korea Magazine (February 2012)

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