Tour Through Time: Stop 17: Yeoju-Gun

Se-Jong (born Yi-Do) was the grandson of King Taejo (Yi Seong-Gye) and the 3rd son of King Tae-Jong. He was born on 7th May 1397 and excelled in his studies, being named Grand Prince Choong-Nyung at the age of just 12. His older brother Yi-Je recognised his “kingly” qualities and in order to ensure Se-Jong became king, manoeuvred his own banishment from the royal court by behaving rudely to court officials. Se-Jong’s other brother also stepped aside for him, instead becoming a Buddhist monk. Se-Jong became King of Joseon at the age of just 21 and immediately began to revise the government, bringing in people based on merit, not class, and encouraged his people to follow the guidelines of Confucianism in their everyday lives. He famously said “If I have to chose two, amongst army, finances and people’s minds, I would discard the army. If I had to choose one between the rest, I would discard finance. The thing that should not be discarded until the last, is the people’s trusts and their minds.

One lower class man that Se-Jong promoted into government was Jang Yeong-Sil. Jang built a celestial globe to track the sun, moon and stars, he also improved the iron printing press, water clocks, weaponry, sun dials and most notably invented the first Korean rain gauge in 1441. King Se-Jong was also hard at work himself, creating a book, the Nongsa Jikseol, which detailed various farming techniques to aid farmers across Korea. He pushed for military technology to be developed such as canons, mortars and other gun powder based weapons. He even reformed the Korean calendar to make it more accurate for the Korean people.

Most notably Se-Jong invented the Korean alphabet, or Hangul, as it is known today. He felt that Chinese Hanja was too complicated for the common man and wanted something simpler so that reading and writing wasn’t just something for the highly educated upper classes. By 1444 Se-Jong had devised 28 distinctly Korean letters (only 24 are used today). Many Korean scholars opposed the new alphabet but Se-Jong pushed forward and on 9th October 1446 (celebrated as “Hangul Day” in South Korea) he published a document describing the new system which would be easy for all Koreans to understand after just a few days of study, regardless of class. Later in September 1447 Se-Jong published “Dongguk Jeong-Un” (“Dictionary of Proper Sino-Korean Pronounciation”) and Hangul became the official national written language of Korea.

Sadly, Se-Jong passed away at 53 from diabetes, but his reign was known as the “Golden Age of Korean Culture” and he is one of only two Kings bestowed with the additional title “the Great”. In 1994, Hangul was described by Discovery Magazine as “the most logical language writing system in the world”, and in 2009 the United Nations Development Programme reported an outstanding literacy rate of 99% in both North and South Korea due to the invention of Hangul. Se-Jong is so revered that every year in the restored Gyeongbokgung Palace his original inauguration is re-enacted in a massive colourful ceremony. His face also appears on one side of the Korean 10,000 won note, with Jang Yeong-Sil’s celestial globe on the other.

We are celebrating our arrival here with 37 Celebration Flutter Crunches before continuing 77 miles east to a birthplace on the 38th degree latitude.

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