Defining a Slave – Choe Manri’s Opposition to Hangul

Well, I don’t know how a person can be such anti-nationalistic. Even though the king proposes to introduce a new script, this guy vehemently opposes it stating we will b shamed if we don’t imitate the great and venerable Chinese. Well, the story is not as plain as it looks. This guy, Choe Manri is a Confucian scholar and if people stop learning Chinese where the whole of Confucian canon is, he and his way of life will lose prominence in Korea. He is just trying to make a living by opposing change, that’s all.

Choe Manri, Deputy Minister for Education in the Privy Council, and others make this submission: We humbly believe that the invention of the Korean script is a work of divine creation unparalleled in history. There are, however, some questionable issues we wish to raise for Your Majesty’s consideration.

  1. Ever since the founding of the dynasty, our court has pursued the policy of respecting the senior state with utmost sincerity and has consistently tried to follow the Chinese system of government. As we share with China at present the same writing and the same institutions, we are startled to learn of the invention of the Korean script. Some claim that the Korean script is based on old writings and is not a new alphabet at all. Although the letter shapes are similar to the old seal letters, the use of letters for phonetic value violates ancient practice and has no valid ground. If this becomes known to China and anyone argues against it, it would shame our policy of respecting China.
  2. Although winds and soils vary from region to region, there has been no separate writing system for local dialects. Only barbarian peoples as the Mongolians, Tanguts, Jurchens, Japanese, and Tibetans have their own writings. But this is a matter that involves the barbarians and is unworthy of our concern. It has been said that the barbarians are transformed only by means of adopting the Chinese ways; we have never heard of the Chinese ways being transformed by the barbarians. Historically, China has always regarded our country as the state that has maintained the virtuous customs bequeathed by the sage-king Kija and has viewed our literature, rituals, and music as similar to its own. Now, however, our country is devising a Korean script separately in order to discard the Chinese, and thus we are willingly being reduced to the status of barbarians. This is like abandoning the fragrance of storax in favor of the obnoxious odor of mantis. Is this not a great embarrassment to the enlightened civilization?
  3. Although the idu writing devised by Sol Chong of Silla is vulgar and rustic, it uses the graphs widely used in China as auxiliaries to our tongue, and hence the graphs are not different from the Chinese. Therefore, even the clerks and the servants sincerely want to study the Chinese graphs. At first they read several books to acquire a rough understanding of the Chinese graphs; only then are they able to use the idu. Those who use the idu must depend upon the Chinese graphs to communicate their ideas, and a number of people become literate through the use of the idu writing. Therefore, the idu is a useful aid in stimulating learning. If the Korean script is widely used, the cleric officials will study it exclusively and neglect scholarly literature. If they discover that knowledge of the twenty-(eight) letter Korean script is sufficient for them to advance in their official careers, why would they go through agony and pain to study the principles of Neo-Confucianism? If such a situation lasts several decades, then surely the people who understand the Chinese graphs would be reduced to a very small number. Perhaps they could manage their clerical affairs using the Korean script, but if they do not know the writings of the sages, they will become ignorant and unable to distinguish right from wrong.

This Korean script is nothing more than a novelty. Though this script could be beneficial, it is only one of the six arts for an accomplished scholar, and has nothing to do with the political art of governance. Spending too much thought and effort on this is a waste of time, detrimental to the timely pursuit of scholarship. No matter how one looks at it, one cannot find any good in it.

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