A tribute to Korea's famed queen

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A tribute to Korea's famed queen

by: Kim Suchek | .
. | .
published: March 12, 2013

Hello military community,

In my research for great women to honor in Women’s History Month, this week I have the pleasure of writing about Queen Seondeok of Korea’s Silla Kingdom. Queen Seondeok ruled during Korea’s Three Kingdoms Period (A.D. 57 - 668) and was the first female monarch in Korean history to rule in her own name.

Princess Deokman (who became Queen Seondeok) was well-known for her intelligence, accomplishments and predictive abilities, according to the surviving historical records. As the oldest child of a queen, with no surviving brothers and a young woman of great intellectual power, Deokman was selected to be her father’s successor. In Silla culture, family descent was traced through both the matrilineal and patrilineal sides in the system of bone ranks, giving high-born women more authority than in other cultures of the time.

Queen Seondeok ruled for 15 years and used skillful diplomacy to form a stronger alliance with Tang China and as well as the leading families of Silla. One of the most well-known alliances was between Taejong the Great and General Kim Yu-sin, which would later lead Silla to unify the Korean Peninsula and end the Three Kingdoms Period.

Seondeok is renowned as a sponsor of the arts and education, but few details of her patronage survive, although some of the buildings she ordered constructed are still standing today. She was interested in Buddhism, which was fairly new to Korea at the time having only recently become the state religion of Silla.

She sponsored the Bunhwangsa Temple near Gyeongju in 634 and oversaw the completion of Yeongmyosa Temple in 644. She also constructed the wooden Hwangnyongsa pagoda, which was believed to magically help Silla gain victory over its enemies. Sadly this was burned down in 1238 by Mongol invaders.

The queen’s most famous and enduring monument is also the world’s oldest surviving astronomical observatory. Called the Cheomseongdae, or “Star-gazing Tower,” the bottle-shaped structure is formed of granite blocks and is a beautiful sight to behold.

Near the end of her reign, Seondeok faced a challenge from a Silla nobleman named Lord Bidam. He attempted to rally supporters under the motto, “Women rulers cannot rule the country.” The story goes that a bright falling star convinced Bidam’s followers that the queen too would fall soon. In response, Seondeok flew a flaming kite to show that her star was back in the sky. After ten days, according to the memoirs of a Sila general, Lord Bidam and 30 of his co-conspirators were captured and later executed by her successor nine days after the queen’s own death.

It is said that one day, sometime before her passing, Seondeok gathered her courtiers and predicted she would die on Jan. 17, 647; she asked to be buried in Tushita Heaven, which baffled her audience. On that day, she died and was entombed on Nangsan Mountain; the place she earlier had told them was this heaven that is written about in Buddhist scripture. A decade later, another Silla ruler built Sacheonwangsa Temple down the slope from her tomb; the name literally means “The Temple of Four Heavenly Kings.” In Buddhist scripture, the queen’s courtiers later noted, the Four Heavenly Kings live below a mountain where Tushita Heaven is located. Thus it is believed she foretold the location of her final resting place.

Queen Seondeok never married, never had children and led her kingdom in a war-torn and violent era. She was able to hold the country together and advance Silla culture. Her success paved the way for future ruling queens of Silla. The first was her successor and cousin Kim Seung-man, who became Queen Jindeok. In all there three Silla queens, disproving Lord Bidam’s erroneous assertions that the nation could not be ruled by a woman. The Korea’s third and final female ruler was Queen Jinseong, who ruled from A.D. 887 to 897.

It was an honor to read about this spiritual, brave and intelligent woman.

Blessings from my family to yours,

Kim Suchek

If you have any questions or concerns or would like to share a story or situation, contact me at Kim@MilitaryResourceBooks.com and visit my website for updated information and other resources not listed in my book.