A quick look into the life of one of Korea’s great kings
Hangul. Religious tolerance. Rain gauge. Korean calendar. Celestial globe. Metal printing press. Movable type. These are just some of the inventions that became the legacy of King Sejong, one of Korea’s only two kings that were posthumously awarded the title of “The Great.”
He was not the chosen king as he was the third son of King Taejong, the third monarch of Joseon. Crown Prince Yangnyeong was the eldest of the King’s eight children with Queen Wongyeong and was groomed to succeed his father. Grand Prince Chungnyeong, later King Sejong, was described as a bookworm and a very bright and wise student, who loved his country and his people even at an early age. He was not afraid to question authority and traditional beliefs.
Although he was not supposed to be the king, he was favored by King Taejong. The Crown Prince believed that his younger brother was the better person to be king and behaved rudely in court, leading to his banishment. His second brother, Grand Prince Hyoryeong was next, following the rules of succession. He, too, did not want the throne and decided to be a Buddhist monk, thus leaving the throne open to the third son. King Sejong ascended the throne in 1418 at the age of 21.
His Life as King
King Sejong was a forward thinker. He wanted to break away from being a vassal of Ming China. He wanted a progressive country, and he wanted to rule with benevolence, placing the welfare of his people above politics.
He excelled in foreign relations, making several successful agreements with Ming China and Japan. He was also adept at military planning and supported the development of cannons, fire arrows, gunpowder and mortars.
The King created a handbook of farming techniques to improve Korea’s agriculture production. He reformed the Korean calendar, which at that time was based on the Chinese longitude. This enabled Korean astronomers to predict the occurrences of lunar and solar eclipses accurately. During his reign, Korean traditional medicine became different from China’s practice.
Some of the inventions during his reign were the world’s first, with most of them invented by Jang Yeong Sil, a commoner whose great talent was recognized by King Sejong and was given a government post. The world’s first rain gauge, called the Cheugugi, was invented in 1442. Another Korean, Choe Yun-ui invented the first metal printing press in the world in 1243, movable type printing block, called Gabinja, was created in 1434. A self-striking water clock, sundial and a Korean celestial globe were created during King Sejong’s glorious reign.
The highlight of his reign was his creation of Hangul, the 28-character Korean alphabet that survived to this day. Hangul was based on the patterns the mouth, teeth and tongue made when sounds were created. This came about by the king’s desire for his people, especially those from the lower classes to be able to read and write. Hangul was first published in 1446. The easy-to-learn alphabet allows people to learn it in a few days and accurately pronounce Korean script after studying it for a few hours.
King Sejong supported education and literature and he himself wrote Yongbieocheonga (1445) or the Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven in Hangul. He also authored Seokbo Sangjeol or the Episodes from the Life of Buddha (1447), the Worin Cheon-gang Jigok or the Songs of the Moon Shining on a Thousand Rivers (1447). During the same year, King Sejong also wrote the Dictionary of Proper Sino-Korean Pronunciation or Dongguk Jeong-un.
Sejong City opened on July 2, 2012. Sejongno Street and Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul were named after him. His life was depicted in the Korean historical dramas (sageuk) King Sejong the Great (2008) and Tree with Deep Roots (2011). King Sejong the Great is one of the linguistic scholars together with Wilhelm Grimm and Jacob Grimm (Germany), Elias Lönnrot (Finland) and Samuel Johnson (England) whose portrait appears in their country’s official currency.
King Sejong, with all his accomplishments and contribution to Korea’s politics, foreign policies, military, science and technology, literature and national language during his 32-year reign, was indeed a “great” king.