Why hello there! And Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes. I’m your aggrieved author and committed content creator, Jon O’Guin. Today’s post has a jagged history. It’s taken me quite a while to figure out what exactly I was going to write about. See, on Monday I said we’d talk about King Sejong of Korea and his creation of Hangul. I figured I could talk about that, and revisit gochujang, an ingredient in Monday’s dish, and cultural ignorance would cover for the fact that those two are so unconnected it would be like saying “Today we’re going to talk about Abraham Lincoln, and the history of Ham in America”, because they both have “ham” in them.
"To be fair, I do like a good Ham."
Great, now we're hearing Lincoln's voice again.
Then I thought “Well, screw it, I think the whole Sejong thing is a cool story, and I’m the only one who decides my content. Why not just write something that has nothing to do with food?” At which point my brain pointed out I had JUST done that with the chicken introduction post last week. Sure, the chickens are tangentially related to food, in that they will lay us eggs and maybe be eaten, but probably not, but it was clear that post wasn’t about the miraculous amount of eggs we’ll be getting (If they’re on the higher end of their breed yields, we’re looking at potentially 3 eggs A DAY.) but on how adorable the chicks themselves are.
“Shit, yeah. That’s kind of a rip-off. Hmm…I got it! We’ll tell the story of King Sejong, and then we’ll dive into other popular foods named after kings!” An hour of research followed. You wanna know a fun fact? America doesn’t HAVE popular foods named after kings. And no, “Chicken A la King” is named after a guy with the NAME “King”. William King, is his name, and he’s the chef who supposedly created it. Other countries have a couple foods named after royals, but America has apparently held pretty strongly to its anti-Monarchy roots in the world of Food names. Dukes, sure. Earls, fine. Barons, Counts, Diplomats, CHEFS to royalty, Painters, Poets, Composers, Women who happened to be dining with Princes, we’ll name things after all of them, but we do not really have foods named after kings.
It’s like a centuries-old version of the “freedom fry”, where we thumbed our nose at kings, and said “No thanks, assholes, we’ll handle running the show from here.”
A system with no issues, historically speaking!
The absolute closest I could find were a couple French and English foods named for queens, and Soubise sauce, which is named after a Prince of Soubise.
In the end, flustered and irritated, time ticking ever closer, I realized there was a kind of beauty to my issue: see, one of the things I really liked about the Sejong story is it has an easy “equality vs elitism” theme, and it’s that same idea that made my search so frustrating. And that was sufficient food justification for me to give the basic story of King Sejong, and to talk about some of the cool facets of Hangul, the language he created.
A Cat Can Look At A King, but is more likely to see a Rat
Firstly, let’s talk about Hangul. When Sejong became king, the preferred writing style of Korean intellectuals was hanja, a Sino-Korean form using logographic text. In short: Korea was using China’s method of writing. And here’s the thing about logographic texts: they’re pretty damn hard to learn. They foster a divide between intellectuals and the common people (or did, before modern schooling practices.)
Why? Well, while Logographic texts are great at specificity, since each symbol is an idea, they’re really bad at SIMPLICITY. Like, every word in English uses just 26 letters. If you really want to stretch it, there’re roughly 57 symbols you need to know to grasp most of English writing: All the letters, their capital forms, apostrophes, and other basic punctuation.) By contrast, if you want to read a Chinese newspaper, you’ll want to be familiar with between two and three THOUSAND symbols. (Interestingly, the gap narrows later on: there are a little under 250,000 English words in total, while Chinese symbols cap at around 85,000, forming 370,000 potential words. )
Chinese dictionary. Or maybe a cookbook. It's not like you're going to learn Chinese to find out.
Sejong thought that this wasn’t great for his people, and so he built a new alphabet for them. And it was a featural alphabet. That’s a term you’re probably not used to, so let me explain: in a featural alphabet, the shapes or lines of the letters tells you how to say them. The easiest way I can think to explain this is by showing the opposite: Take the letters A, F, E, and H. They all have a line about halfway up the letter. In Hangul, such a line would mean they’re all aspirated sounds, meaning you breathe out as you say them. Like “P-uh” “H-uh” or “CH-uh”. What this system does is create symmetry between letters: things that sounds alike look alike. The closest English comes to that is how b, d, g and p are all plosive sounds. But that’s more by accident than intent, as so much of English is.
This creates a system that’s remarkably easy to learn. The learned elite of Sejong’s time mocked the alphabet by calling it “Writing you can learn in a morning”, after an early text claimed “A wise man can learn the whole alphabet in a morning, while a slow man will have it within ten days.” Think about that: one of the INSULTS for the alphabet he created was “It’s too easy to learn!”
Sejong, A Man of Letters
So, all this talk of Kings and Languages is nice, but I promised you a story. Well, let’s go into full Hollywood pitch mode for Sejong, master of Letters.
First, we start in the man’s youth. The third son of King Taejong, Sejong was a studious boy, his oldest brother Yangnyeong was a wild child, who loved hunting and *ahem* “leisure activities”. In his mid twenties, Yangnyeong…ceased being Heir Apparent. Sources differ, but here’s the one we’re gonna go with: He and his brother Hyoryeong both realized that Sejong was far more fit to be king than they were. Yangnyeong intentionally marries beneath his station, and pisses off everyone he can, forcing his own banishment. Hyoryeong meanwhile joins a Buddhist monastery, removing himself from the line of succession as well. Shortly afterward, King Taejong stepped down, though he continued advising Sejong for several years. Especially during his first military campaign against an ARMY OF JAPANESE PIRATES
I know exactly who to cast for the PIrate general!
Sejong’s story then reads like a textbook example of one of the Philosopher Kings of Plato: He creates a college of scholars to advance Korean civilization, he promotes lower-born inventors to high position despite the complaints of his court. His relationship with religions is somewhat rocky, being hugely focused on Confucianism, and thus giving some short shrift to Muslim and Buddhists in his reign, but eventually lightens toward Buddhists. We can have this be a heartfelt scene from Hyoryeong, since it’s known Sejong remained friends with his other older brother.
However, one force really did keep opposing him: the nobility. His government appointments ignored social class, instead relying on testing, which pissed them off. The start of his role as Heir Apparent was marked by a purge of people who had been trying to put Yangnyeong on the throne to have a weak King they could manipulate. I’m not saying the mastermind behind these people should be played by Donnie Yen, I’m just saying if we don’t cast Donnie Yen somewhere, I’m gonna lose my shit.
I love Donnie Yen. He's the only good part of the newest XXX movie.
Vin Diesel "XXX", not like, Porn.
Though I bet Donnie Yen could do really cool porn.
Throughout his life, Sejong’s actions speak to a unified theme: through scientific study, expanded learning, and reliance on the skill of the people, our nation can be great. Eventually, he, with the help of scholars from his Hall of Worthies, created the Hangul alphabet, spreading literacy among the lower class, giving the people of Korea a unified voice.
OF course, the man he chose to be heir would be usurped and executed by his power-hungry and paranoid second son, leading to the dissolution of the Hall of Worthies, but hey, maybe we end the story a little early, spare everyone a bummer ending, yeah?
NEXT TIME: JON TRIES TO BULLY HIS BROTHER INTO WRITING THINGS, SO HE CAN GO WATCH MORE CHINESE ACTION MOVIES.