[KS] Exporting Hangeul Writing System

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at koreaweb.ws
Mon Aug 10 08:20:36 EDT 2009

Professor Ledyard's notes -- pointing out the 
connection (or comparison) to/with earlier 
attempts by Koreans to simplify Han'gûl and by 
the Chinese to simplify the Chinese writing 
system -- is interesting. It brings me to another 
point: writing systems and power relations. I 
would like to argue that the introduction of 
Han'gûl in some part of Indonesia is all about 
political power, at least more so than anything 

Typing "Brushes with Power" into Amazon.com 
search window results in lots of electric 
toothbrush offers (that's important too), but 
there also is a 1991 book by Richard C. Kraus 
with that title, a study of the connection 
between calligraphy and political power in China. 
The most often quoted modern example is probably 
Mao Zedong's calligraphy for the Renmin Ribao 
(People's Daily). He produced the paper's actual 
masthead. There you go, the head of state and 
mastermind of the Chinese revolution designs the 
masthead of the main national daily newspaper. 
You will find that even today's Internet version 
of the paper, even the English version, still 
uses Mao's calligraphy. Kraus writes: "On the eve 
of victory, when many Chinese Communists thought 
that calligraphy would be abolished as feudal, 
Mao Zedong wrote this 'pretty' masthead for 
People's Daily." (p. 63) In all East Asia we saw 
attempts to (a) simplify the existing writing 
system, and (b) to use replacement systems to 
write the national language(s). The height of 
these tendencies was in the 1920s and 1930s, but 
there are also some later attempts, even after 
1945. All serious activities seem to have ended 
in the late 1950s, however.

The magazine Kaebyôk (1920-26), for example, had 
an -- to use Ross King's smart term -- Han'gûl 
"online" (= on one line) version of its title on 
the cover.


Others were far more radical, did not just try to 
"modernize" (read Westernize) Korean script, but 
tried to replace both, script and language, with 
Esperanto. The Esperanto movement was at the time 
indeed very popular in all East Asia (and of 
course in Europe). To many it seemed to offer a 
third way to achieve modernization without 
colonization, a pro-active integration into the 
modern world system on congenial terms with the 


The Esperanto experiment pretty much ended in the 
1930s when the "transfer" of the main European 
political fronts to East Asia -- liberal 
democracy, Marxism, anarchism, Fascism -- had 
been completed. Anarchism had already been turned 
away by the early 1930s, and Esperanto with it. 
The transfer of Western modernity, of course, was 
far from complete. Various attempts at 
Westernizing national scripts were continued. 
Professor Ledyard already mentioned the Chinese 
debate in the late 1950s, and in North Korea we 
see the "purification" of the Korean script 
system (stopping the use of Hanja) at about the 
same time. After liberation until the beginning 
of the Korean war we also see the online debate 
reappearing in North Korea. And Ross King wrote 
some highly interesting articles about such 
debates within the Korean minority in the Russian 
Far East. With the strengthening of the East 
Asian nation-states and the stabilization of the 
current political systems all such debates 
disappeared. I even doubt that, if it were not 
already done in the 1950s, China would today want 
to simplify its script. The terms of 
modernization changed because the power 
structures have changed and are rapidly changing. 
"Simplification" and "online writing" -- or even 
a new, constructed, universal language 
(Esperanto), all associated with the West and 
therefore taken as quintessentially "modern," are 
not necessarily anymore believed to be more 
"efficient" than whatever already exists.

Hulbert's China quote did probably already sound 
weird in 1906. I think it can only be understood 
within the context of colonialism and Christian 
missionary work at the time. In Japan we saw some 
Bostonian like Ernest Fenollosa telling the 
Japanese how to do Japanese painting the Japanese 
way, and in Korea we meet Hulbert missionizing 
Koreans on how to better use a national Korean 
script system instead of Hanja.


Frank Hoffmann
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