Women of History: Kim Seondeok

Author’s Note:  This post is posted late due to some editing process issues.  The next post will be posted tomorrow on schedule.

This week we travel to Korea, during the 7th Century. Our featured Women of History is Queen Seondeok of Silla, a kingdom of Korea.

Seondeok was born Princess Deokmen, the daughter of King Jinpyeong and Queen Maya. Her birthdate is not a sure fact, but it is suspected to be at the very end of the 6th century to early end of the 7th century. She had two sisters, Princess Cheonmyeong and Seonhwa. At this point in their kingdom’s history, there had not been a female ruler of the kingdom. Women were involved in governing and held roles of power but it was limited. Her grandmother, Queen Sado, had once ruled as regent for her grandfather for example. Yet no women had been Queen Regnant (Queen in her own right, rather than representing someone else).

When the time came for Jinpyeong to choose a successor, he leaned towards his son-in-law Kim Yongsu. Yongsu was married to Cheonmyeong. He was the second cousin of the King, and thus a member of the bone rank of Seonggol (Sacred Bone).

The bone rank system was based on lineage, and was very rigid in nature. A person’s status or rank would determine everyday life. This included a person’s occupation and sometimes even clothing choices. There were three main ranks. Seonggol was the highest and included the royal family. Lesser royals and ministers were part of the Jingol (true bone) rank. The lowest rank was the head rank (Tupum) and included most of the rest of the population. Tupum divided into 6 subclasses. The lower 3 classes were that of the lower class. The Aristocracy were the higher 3 classes. One’s rank determined your place in society. It determined who you could socialize with, who you could marry and what type of housing you got. Higher ranks had clothing restrictions as well. Seondeok herself was a member of the Seonggol rank as had all the royals at this point.

Yongsu seemed an acceptable heir to a man with no sons. Seondeok had taken an interest in governing and had asked her father to prove herself. Jinpyeong decided to give her the opportunity. Seondeok proved herself, but she was still not without detractors. Despite Yongsu conceding and even taking the lower rank of jingol, it was not an easy transition. A rebellion against her was thorted before it beg

In 632, Seondeok was given the crown and the name change, becoming the first female ruler of Silla on her own right. She immediately got to work, with grand plans for her people and her country. She sent out inspectors to oversee the people’s welfare and gave tax breaks for the peasant class. She built Cheomseongdae, one of the oldest astronomy towers. She also sent yearly emissaries to Tang China to improve foreign relations. Emperor Taizang Tang would not recognise her, believeing women were ineffective rulers. It would be three years before he would change his mind.

Seondeok’s interest in foreign affairs was an important part of her legacy. Through alliances and strategy, she expanded the borders of her Kingdom. Her kingdom would one day cover a good deal of the Korean Peninsula.

At the start of her reign, Silla was located in the southeast corner of South Korea. The capital of Silla was Gyeongju, which is located not too far inland from the coast.. Over the course of her reign, as well as that of her successors, the boundaries of Silla morphed and changed. It would go from a small confederation at the southern half of Korea to ruling most of it.

The kingdom of Baekje invaded the country in 642, ten years into Seondeok’s reign. At first they were successful, capturing cities and castles on the western border. Seondeok sought the advice of a buddhist monk named Jajang about what to do to protect her people. She took his advice and created a pagoda called Hwangnyongsa along the border. She even offered to use the materials of her own palace if it would help calm the fears of her countrymen. It was to be both a religious center as well as a military post to watch for invaders. The pagoda was nine stories, meant to represent her ‘enemies’ with various depictions. Unfortunately the pagoda was burned down by invaders in 1238.

It was only the growing power of Goguryeo, the third Kingdom of Korea, that caused Emperor Tiazong to change his mind. This alliance was enough to help her forces drive back the forces of Baekje (which became a part of Silla) and Goguryeo(who lost territory to Silla). Silla held a good deal of the territory of Korea and eventually even separated their alliance with Tiazong. This would be an ongoing problem during her reign as the borders shifted back and forth between the warring kingdoms.

Yet, it was not to be easy for Queen Seondeok even domestically. In 647, she fell ill. Her official Bidam used this as an opportunity to raise a rebellion. He was popular with his countrymen, and many rallied to be behind him. He used their belief in signs to promote the idea that Queen Seondeok was a failure as a Queen. After all, her illness, and a failing star aimed in the direction of her home were signs of failure.

The rebellion lasted ten days, but Seondeok did not live to see the end of the rebellion. She died on February 17th, 647. She had no heirs, so her cousin Kim Seungman became Queen. She renamed herself Jindeok and completed the final suppression of the rebellion. Jindeok continued to improve the country and work towards unification.

King Muyeol, who was born Kim Chunchu, suceeded Jindeok who had died without an heir as well. He was the son of Seondeok’s sister Cheonmyeong and Kim Yongsu. Jindeok was the last of the Seonggol rulers, ending the rank. It would be Muyeol’s son King Munmu who would complete the unification of Korea.

Queen Seondeck’s legacy is not only the expansion of the borders of Silla and the military protection of her country. She started the alliance with Tang China, which would be strengthened during the reigns of her successors. She also strengthened the country’s connection to Buddhism, which had already been the national religion. She built many temples, statues and pagodas to that effect, some of which still stand. She also built Cheomseongdae, which remains one of the oldest observatories in the world. This inspired her neighbors to build their own observatories. She promoted interest in the sciences and education. She created public works and aid for those who needed it.

Some of her life has become legend – or legends have replaced some of her life. She was thought to have some sense of clairvoyance. One story tells of Seondeok receiving some Poppy seeds from the Emperor of China. It was accompanied by a picture showing what the flower would look like upon blooming. She stated that the flowers would have no fragrance. When the blooms finally came, no one could detect a fragrance. In some versions of the story, it is passed off as Seondeok’s clairvoyance. In others, she later explains she saw no bees or butterflies near it, so she had made a deductive conclusion.

The amount of legends involved in her life make it hard to do generic research on her. Since I only have a week to work on these, I tend to focus on internet sources. I always try to find multiple sources for anything I write. I was also limited because I only speak English fluently. However, I believe a lot of the scholarship on Queen Seondeok is still in paper form. I recommend researching more into her if you are interested.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia: The Kingdom of Silla

Wikipedia: Cheomseongdae

Traditional East Asia: Queen Seondeok of Silla

The Ancient Encyclopedia: Seondeok

The Ancient Encyclopedia: The Bone Rank System

Thought Co: Queen Seondeok of the Silla Kingdom

History of Royal Women: The Three Queens of Silla

 

Masterlist

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