On the Korean script war

One of the silent wars that has been raging on the Korean peninsula is between those who promote only hangeul usage and those who wants to conserve the traditional mixed script usage where both hanja (traditional Chinese characters) and hangeul are used interchangeably. It’s true that in the linguistic history, specifically the history of written script, of East Asian countries, especially in Korea and in Japan, the use of phonetic scripts have been looked down upon as inferior to the use of classical Chinese idiomatic characters.

It seems that Korean people (those who are living in Korea) are evenly split between the all-hangeul-use camp and the mixed-use camp, with a lot of nonopinionated stuck in the middle. I’ve memorized around 500 hanja characters so far, and in spite of my large ignorance, I incline towards the mixed-use, not because I am an elitist but because I believe there is more to lose than to gain. History is already a largely marginalized subject in schools due to overt emphasis on job skills in education, and it doesn’t help to establish any more sense of connection to history if you herd an entire generation people to an ignorance of scripts used by their forefathers. Take the example of the writings by Ahn Jun-geun (Korean: 안중근 (安重根)).  Thanks to a popular bumper sticker, everyone is familiar with his hand print along with the word, “大韓國人,” (Korean: 대한국인), literally translated, “The Person of the Great Country of Han.” However, the main writing which this was part was “黃金百萬兩不如一敎子 ” (Korean: 황금백만냥 불여일교자), translated, “100,000 pounds of gold can’t equal to a [proper] teaching of [one’s] child,” is largely unknown to the populace. He wrote this while in jail, waiting for his execution, which was the penalty for trying to assassinate Ito Hirobumi.

And then there is the deeply honored historical figure called General Yi Sun-sin, whose writing was only in hanja. Some Koreans may have heard of Diary during the War (Korean: 난중일기 (亂中日記)), even may have read a translation of it, but only very few has ever read it in its original writing. Of course, it doesn’t help that he wrote mostly following the Chinese grammatically rule, just as the literatis of his day did, but even knowing the characters themselves would help to identify the words with which he wrote. Continuing to neglect the linguistic heritage, and marginalize its use for the future generations of Koreans is to distance the Koreans to the real historical identity of its past, and only to ostracize its people from sharing the common heritage of its own history, as well as its connection to its neighbors.