Establishing a Nationalistic Identity in Tree with Deep Roots: The Korean Alphabet

The 28 letters of the Korean alphabet, as developed by King Sejong, in the television series Tree with Deep Roots.

The 28 letters of the Korean alphabet (Hangul), as developed by King Sejong, in the television series Tree with Deep Roots. Photo taken from Episode 15.

The creation and development of the Korean alphabet by King Sejong in the Korean television drama Tree with Deep Roots does more than promise the equal opportunity of literacy for all Korean citizens; it establishes a source of nationalistic pride and unity for the country through its accessibility and sound.

In the television drama Tree with Deep Roots, the ruler of Korea, King Sejong, wants to construct a language that will be easy for his people to learn—even those who labor all days on fields and farms. In Episode 13 of the series, King Sejong explains, “I plan to make letters, easy letters…for anyone to learn” (29:14). This alphabet has become his life’s mission and language accessibility is at the heart of his motivations. He wants to “put the principles of nature in it [the alphabet],” which is why conducts a throat dissection in Episode 11; by learning the anatomy of the throat and how sounds are produced, King Sejong can more accurately construct letters that actually look the way that they sound. This simple yet brilliant connection between the form of the written letter and its actual sound is what makes the language so easy to learn.

This element of accessibility in Sejong’s language described above is what makes the alphabet into a nationalistic symbol. Although almost anyone can simply make up a language, serious time and research are necessary to develop an easy-to-learn language rooted in phonetics that can be painlessly taught to the thousands of people. Throughout many episodes of Tree with Deep Roots, the Korean alphabet is described as “easy enough for a fool to learn in a day and a wise man to learn in half of a day.” It is this accessible feature of the language that is ultimately what wins over Kang Chae Yun when he discovers Hangul; he is incredibly intrigued by the alphabet’s 28 letters (as opposed to thousands of symbols like the Chinese language) and, although he was a staunch opponent of King Sejong’s actions and methodologies, he comes to see the value and power in creating a literate society. He eventually respects King Sejong’s efforts and understands that the king truly does care for the well-being of his people.

Not only is King Sejong’s alphabet easily accessible to anyone who wishes to learn it, but also it is described as a unique replication of Korean sounds—not Chinese, not Japanese, but a distinct Korean voice. In Episode 15 of Tree with Deep Roots Hangul is described as a distinctly nationalistic language when So Yi, a former slave who helped developed the alphabet with King Sejong, explains to Kang Chae Yun, “As long as you know these 28 letters, our name that cannot be written with Chinese characters… All the swearing words that you’re good at… Local dialects… Our heart, sound of wind, sound of birds… It [Hangul] can contain all the sounds in the world” (30:29).

In Tree with Deep Roots, King Sejong’s alphabet will (eventually) teach Koreans of all social statuses how to read and write, however Hangul ultimately has a more symbolic, nationalistic meaning. The language serves as a way to empower the common people and establish a distinct language and voice for Korea.

Works Cited:

Tree with Deep Roots. Writ. Kim Young-hyun and Park Sang-yeon. Dir. Jang Tae-yoo. Seoul Broadcasting System, 2011.

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