The Hunmin Chongum Manuscript
From the beginning of Korean civilisation, writing in Korea was in Chinese. Chinese characters cannot be used to write Korean, and the use of Chinese therefore tended to restrict literacy in Korea to an elite few who had mastered classical Chinese as a second language. King Sejong (1418–1450) was concerned about this. He wanted to see literacy spread much further within Korean society, and could see that this would require a new script, one designed for the writing of Korean. He set up a committee of scholars to advise on this, and they came up with an entirely new alphabetical system in 1443. This system, today called hangul, is still used for the writing of Korean. Many scholars view it as the most perfect form of writing ever invented since it allows a proper representation of the Korean language and is easy to learn.
In 1446, King Sejong issued a book, Hunmin Chongum ("Proper Sounds to Instruct the People") as an introduction to the new writing system. The book is made up of the main text and Commentaries which explain the purpose of the creation of the new writing system with detailed comments and examples. This edition is often referred to as the Haerye Edition of Hunmin Chongum and was widely published. The Chinese Government, the Korean overlords, objected to what they saw as the sidelining of Chinese culture. King Yonsan-gun cancelled the new writing system and ordered all copies of Hunmin Chongum destroyed in 1504. This was ineffective as far as the writing system was concerned as the bulk of the people were by then using it. It was believed that all copies of Hunmin Chongum had disappeared until one copy surfaced in 1940.
The invention of an entirely new and extremely effective alphabetic writing system is a major world cultural development and a historical event of great importance. The extant copy of Humin Chongum was inscribed on the International Memory of the World Register in 1997.