During Korea's Three Kingdoms period (57 - 668 CE), Queen Seondeok ruled the Kingdom of Silla. Her rise to power in 632 marked the first time ever that a female monarch ruled in her own name in Korean history - but she would not be the last.
Although Queen Seondeok 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.
Not much is known about Queen Seondeok's early life. We know that she was born Princess Deokman in 606 CE to King Jinpyeong, who was the 26th king of Silla, and his first queen Maya. Although some of Jinpyeong's royal concubines had sons, neither of his official queens produced a surviving boy.
Princess Deokman was well-known for her intelligence and accomplishments, according to the surviving historical records. When she was a young woman, the Emperor Taizong of Tang China sent a sample of poppy seeds and a painting of the flowers to the Silla court. After studying the picture, Deokman predicted that the flowers would have no scent. When they bloomed, the poppies were indeed odorless. The princess explained that there were no bees or butterflies in the painting - hence her prediction that the blossoms were not fragrant.
Accession to the Throne:
As the oldest child of a queen, and a young woman of great intellectual power, Princess 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.
As such, it was not unknown for women to rule over the Silla Kingdom. Previously, however, queens had ruled only as regents for their sons or as queens dowager - never in their own names. When King Jinpyeong died in 632, the 26-year-old Princess Deokman became the first ever outright female monarch, Queen Seondeok.
Queen Seondeok's Reign:
During her fifteen years on the throne, Queen Seondeok used skillful diplomacy to form a stronger alliance with Tang China. The implicit threat of Chinese intervention helped to ward off attacks from Silla's rivals, Baekje and Goguryeo, although the queen was not afraid to send out her army as well.
In addition to external affairs, Seondeok also encouraged alliances among the leading families of Silla. She arranged marriages between the families of Taejong the Great and General Kim Yu-sin; this power bloc would later lead Silla to unify the Korean Peninsula and end the Three Kingdoms period.
In addition to the story of the poppy seeds, further legends about Queen Seondeok's predictive abilities have come down to us. In one, a chorus of white frogs appeared in the dead of winter and croaked ceaselessly in the Jade Gate Pond at Yeongmyosa Temple. When Queen Seondeok heard about their untimely emergence from hibernation, she immediately sent 2,000 soldiers to the "Woman's Root Valley" or Yeogeunguk, west of the capital at Gyeonju. There, the Silla troops found and wiped out a force of 500 invaders from neighboring Baekje.
Her courtiers asked Queen Seondeok how she knew that the Baekje soldiers were there. She replied that the frogs represented soldiers, white meant they came from the west, and their appearance at the Jade Gate (a euphemism for female genitalia) told her that the soldiers would be in the Woman's Root Valley.
Another legend preserves the Silla people's love for Queen Seondeok. According to this story, a man named Jigwi traveled to the Yeongmyosa Temple to see the queen, who was making a visit there. Unfortunately, he was tired out by his journey and fell asleep while waiting for her. Queen Seondeok was touched by his devotion, so she gently placed her bracelet on his chest as a sign of her presence.
When Jigwi woke up and found the queen's bracelet, his heart was so filled with love that it burst into flame. The blaze burned down the entire pagoda at Yeongmyosa.
Queen Seondeok is renowned as a sponsor of the arts and education, but few specific details of her patronage survive. Luckily, some of the buildings she ordered constructed are still standing today.
The queen was interested in Buddhism, which was fairly new to Korea at the time but had already become the state religion of Silla. She sponsored the Bunhwangsa Temple construction near Gyeongju in 634 and oversaw the completion of Yeongmyosa in 644.
The 80 meter tall Hwangnyongsa pagoda included nine stories, each of which represented one of Silla's enemies. From the bottom up, they were Japan, China, Wuyue (around present-day Shanghai), Tangna, Eungnyu, Mohe (Manchuria), Danguk, Yeojeok and Yemaek (another Manchurian people associated with the Buyeo Kingdom).
The wooden Hwangnyongsa pagoda was built as a magical appeal for Silla victories over all of these enemies. Mongol invaders burned it down in 1238.
Queen Seondeok's most famous and enduring monument is also world's oldest surviving astronomical observatory. Called the Cheomseongdae or "Star-gazing Tower," the bottle-shaped structure is formed of granite blocks. There are 12 blocks in the lowest level, signifying the months of the year. 30 levels stand for the days of the month, and there are a total of 366 blocks for the days of the year (including a Leap Day). Although these statistics support the idea that the tower is associated with astronomy, it is not entirely clear how it would function as an observatory.
Lord Bidam's Revolt:
Near the end of her reign, Queen Seondeok faced a challenge from a Silla nobleman called Lord Bidam. Sources are sketchy, but he likely rallied 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, Queen Seondeok flew a flaming kite to show that her star was back in the sky.
After just ten days, according to the memoirs of a Silla general, Lord Bidam and 30 of his co-conspirators were captured. The rebels were executed by her successor nine days after Queen Seondeok's own death.
Death of Queen Seondeok:
One day some time before her passing, Queen Seondeok gathered her courtiers and announced that she would die on January 17, 647. She asked to be buried in the Tushita Heaven. Her courtiers replied that they did not know that location, so she pointed out a place on the side of Nangsan ("Wolf Mountain").
On exactly the day that she had predicted, Queen Seondeok died and was interred in a tomb on Nangsan. Ten years later, another Silla ruler built Sacheonwangsa ("The Temple of Four Heavenly Kings") down the slope from her tomb. The court later realized that they were fulfilling a final prophecy from Seondeok; in Buddhist scripture, the Four Heavenly Kings live below the Tushita Heaven on Mount Meru.
Queen Seondeok never married or had children. In fact, some versions of the poppy legend suggest that the Tang Emperor was teasing Seondeok about her lack of offspring when he sent the painting of the flowers with no attendant bees or butterflies. As her successor, Seondeok chose her cousin Kim Seung-man, who became Queen Jindeok.
The fact that another ruling queen followed immediately after Seondeok's reign proves that she was an able and astute ruler, Lord Bidam's protestations notwithstanding. The Silla Kingdom would also boast Korea's third and final female ruler, Queen Jinseong (r. 887 - 897).
Seth, Michael J. A Concise History of Korea from the Neolithic Period through the Nineteenth Century, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Yi Pae-yong & Ted Chan. Women in Korean History, Seoul: Ewha Women's University Press, 2008.