One thing that will strike you on a trip around Korea is hangeul, the peninsula’s distinctive, almost Tetris-like alphabet. Amazingly, this was a royal creation, having been the brainchild of King Sejong in the 1440s. Most of this creative king’s subjects were unable to read the Chinese script used across the land at the time, so he devised a system that would be easier for ordinary people to learn. Sejong was forced to do much of his work in secret, as the plan did not go down well with the yangban – Confucian scholars who were even more powerful than the royalty at the time. As the only truly educated members of society, the yangban argued fiercely against the change in an effort to maintain their monopoly over knowledge.

Hangeul experienced periodic bursts of popularity, but was almost erased entirely by the Japanese during their occupation of the peninsula (1910–45). However, it’s now the official writing system in both North and South Korea, as well as a small autonomous Korean pocket in the Chinese province of Jilin; it’s also used in Bau-Bau, a small town in Indonesia.

The alphabet, while it appears complex, is surprisingly easy to learn, and demonstrating that you can read even a handful of simple words will generate gasps of admiration across Korea. Just a few hours of hard study should suffice.

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