Korea’s ancient history, much like the history of many countries, was not very kind to women. Korean society was dominated by men, and once the practice of Confucianism was introduced in the Goryeo Dynasty, women steadily lost more and more of their rights in this ancient world.
Yet, despite this strictly patriarchal culture, a few powerful women battled their way into the Imperial Line – and the first woman to do this was Queen Seondeok of Silla (선덕여왕).
From Princess to King
Born as Princess Deokman (덕만공주님), in 595BC, Seondeok was the eldest daughter of King Jinpyeong (진평왕) and Queen Maya (마야 부인) – and out of all the king’s children, Deokman was thought to be the most generous and wise.
Since King Jinpyeong had no male heir, he considered one of his son-in-laws to be a worthy enough successor – but Princess Deokman begged her father for the chance to win the throne for herself, declaring she had equal rights to rule. Deokman eventually won the trust of the people, and thus proved herself to be the best candidate to sit the throne – making her King Jinpyeon’s successor.
Unlike the Goryeo Dynasty, the Silla Era treated it’s women rather well – their rights, roles and privileges were more respected, and they had many opportunities to govern courts and kingdoms.
In 632, despite fierce opposition from many male officials who rose against Deokman in order to prevent her from being crowned, going so far as to plan a rebellion, Princess Deokman became Queen Seondeok – the first female ruler to preside over the throne of Silla.
Seondeok’s Reign, Reforms and Opposition
Once crowned, Queen Seondeok began putting her new reforms, or laws, into practice, many of which were intended to lift the suffering of the people of Silla. Some of her policies included removing all of the peasants’ taxes for a year, reducing the taxes of the middle class and helping orphaned, widowed and elderly citizens who had no one to support them. This great act of kindness, the likes of which had never really been seen before, earned Queen Seondeok the peoples’ love and support.
Her achievements didn’t just involve lifting the peoples’ taxes – in her second year as King, Queen Seondeok also built a star-gazing tower, or Cheomseongdae (첨성대), to assist farmers. But her best architectural accomplishment was the construction of the Imperial Dragon Temple, or Hwangnyongsa (황룡사), a nine storey pagoda that she built to block invasions and to calm her people – even though the royal treasury was dangerously depleted, Queen Seondeok told her subjects to tear down her palace and use its bricks and timber.
Fun Fact: The Cheomseongdae is the oldest surviving observatory in Asia – and probably the world!
All throughout her reign, Queen Seondeok proved time and time again that she was a kind, wise and capable ruler – and yet many, mainly the members of the male aristocracy and other men of power, continued to oppose her.
During the first year of her reign, Queen Seondeok sent someone to pay tribute to Emperor Taizong (唐太宗), the second ruler of the Tang Dyansty in China, to inform him that she was Silla’s new ruler – but, because she was a woman, the Emperor refused to acknowledge her ascendance. In her second year, the Queen sent another diplomat to Emperor Taizong to pay tribute to him and offer friendship, yet he rejected her again.
Even when Queen Seondeok called on Emperor Taizong for help against the attacks of Baekje, he refused to come to her aid in a favourable way. Eventually, after Goguryeo became a bigger threat to the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong agreed to an alliance with Queen Seondeok – but the two never became friends.
Eventually, opposition even came from those whom she was close to. In 647, a rebellion was lead by Bidam – one of Queen Seondeok’s court officials, a trusted friend, who claimed that the female king had failed to rule the country, and that the throne should be taken over by a man. This rebellion lasted for less than ten days, but during this time Queen Seondeok became ill and died at the age of 52 before the rebels were defeated.
Queen Seondeok’s Legacy
Despite their best efforts to remove a woman from the throne, Princess Seungman, a cousin of Queen Seondeok, became Queen Jindeok (진덕여왕) following Queen Seondeok’s death, thus becoming the second Queen of Silla in a long line of kings. Queen Jindeok continued in Seondeok’s footsteps and was a benevolent ruler. Throughout her seven-year reign, she strengthened ties with the Tang Dynasty and built up Silla’s defences and foreign policies.
Some sources claimed that, according to rumour, Queen Seondeok had a number of husbands, yet it was widely believed that she never married so as to avoid political tension. This, in turn, influenced Queen Jindeok, and later Queen Jinseong, to similarly refrain from marriage – a statement that proved to their opposers that Queens could effortlessly be their own King.
Although she never lived to see the three kingdoms of Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo come together as one, Queen Seondeok still played a major role in the unification of Old Korea. Through her determination, patience and kindness, she won the hearts of her people, protected her kingdom and, most importantly, paved the way for future queens to step up and rule.
Feature Image Source: ©Queen Seondeok, Illustration by Ellena Quinn, inspiremekorea