Braille, the Light in the Dark World
Blind people use six raised dots, known as Braille, to read and write. They see the world through these invisible letters, sometimes touching the raised dots with their fingers over and over again until they become shiny. This important means of communication for the visually impaired was invented in 1824 based on the ideas of how military messages were delivered at night.
Louis Braille, the teacher of the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, noted that military messages at nighttime consisted of a code of dots that could be read by touching them with one’s fingers. He reduced the 12 dots to six so blind people could recognize them all at once.
Braille’s system won high praise, as seen in the comment, “A stair has been built to lead to a world where blind people can enjoy spiritual wealth, freeing themselves from despair they suffered for all those years.” It was widely spread among the blind and gained official recognition in 1854.
But there were many difficulties in applying this Western-style Braille system to the Korean alphabet of Hangeul directly. Fortunately, a man overcame the obstacle and created the Korean Braille system for the first time in 1926.
Korean Braille (Hunmaeng Jeongeum)
Korean Braille, known as Hunmaeng Jeongeum(훈맹정음), was invented by Park Du-seong. It was named after Hunmin Jeongeum, the original name of the Korean alphabet of Hangeul that was created by King Sejong the Great.
Park was born in Ganghwa County, Incheon, on April 26th, 1888. For four years from 1895, he attended Bochang School in Ganghwa Island. He later studied at Hanseong Normal School before starting his teaching career at Eoeuidong(어의동) Elementary School.
His penname, ‘Songam(송암),’ was given by Lee Dong-hui(이동휘), independence activist and founder of Bochang School. The respected teacher made this penname for Park in 1911 in the hope that Park would become a man of unwavering integrity, like a pine tree at a secluded temple as the word ‘songam’ means. With this meaningful penname, Park made up his mind to devote his life to helping needy people.
In 1913, Park was appointed as the teacher of the inaugural department for the blind of Jesaengwo(제생원), the predecessor of Seoul National School for the Blind. In the same year, he brought in a printing machine from Japan to publish Japanese Braille textbooks.
When Imperial Japan sought to abolish Korean language classes following the nationwide March 1st Independence Movement in 1919, Park protested strongly against the move, saying “The sighted can always read and write as long as they make efforts, but the blind, now in danger of being deprived of their own language, may end up being blind and mute as well. Is that what you want?”
A year later, Park secretly organized a research committee for Korean Braille with his students. After six years of research and experiments, Park invented the Korean Braille system named Hunmaeng Jeongeum. He published it on November 4th, 1926, the anniversary of the proclamation of the Korean alphabet of Hunmin Jeongeum or Hangeul.
Giving up his own Happiness for Other Unhappy People
In Korean Braille, six different Braille letters are combined in various ways to express all Korean consonants and vowels. To distribute it more widely, Park sent relevant materials to visually-impaired people who couldn’t afford it and offered them correspondence education. He also stressed that the blind should stand up for their rights by learning, as ignorance would plunge their minds into a sightless world as well.
The dedicated leader in educating blind people became the principal of Yonghwa School in Incheon in 1936. He translated 76 books, including the Bible and Aesop’s Fables, into Braille before he died on August 25th, 1963 when he was 76. Reflecting his great devotion to blind people, Park said, before taking his final breath, “Set Braille books on edge so the Braille dots will not be damaged.” After his death, Park’s Braille system was studied by his students continuously. It had been revised and supplemented several times since Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, and it was finally completed as the ‘Unified Korean Braille’ in 1994, which serves as the standard of Korean Braille today.
These days, talking books are becoming increasingly popular. Logical learning is impossible solely through the fleeting sound, though, and visually-impaired students and intellectuals still need Braille books. Park Du-seong was always there for what the blind really needed. His sacrifice and efforts are giving hope to many people today.