Seondeok and Queenship in Korea

Firaxis has announced Korea will feature as a civilisation in the Civ VI expansion: Rise and Fall (due early 2018). Leading them towards potential victory is Queen Seondeok of Silla, one of Korea’s Three Kingdoms during their Three Kingdom period of history. In their official announcement Firaxis present Seondeok as a trailblazer, the first female ruler in Korea who contended with the prevailing attitude that a woman was not fit to rule. This conflicts with popular ideas that Korea was openly accepting of female rulers, flying in the face of established patriarchal convention. The truth is far less exciting though, with Seondeok’s reign being largely greeted with a shrug.

Seondeok as Princess

Silla, along with Baekje and Goguryeo made up the Three Kingdoms of Korea. At the time Seondeok became Queen (632) Silla was already flourishing in comparison to its neighbours who were heading for their decline. Indeed, both kingdoms would be conquered by Silla within twenty years of Seondeok’s death. Within Silla, a woman could be the head of a family, hold positions of power and exert political influence. It was through the machinations of a woman, Lady Mishil, that saw Seondeok’s father, Jinpyeong, become king. Mishil was a concubine to three successive kings of Silla, including the man she deposed and her chosen replacement; Seondeok’s father. King Jinpyeong had no sons, and so chose his successor from his two (possibly three daughters). There is some debate over whether his daughter Deokman was his eldest or not, but regardless of her age, she was supposedly extremely quick-witted and intelligent which led him to name her as Queen after him. While Silla had seen Queen regents and Queen dowagers, they had never before had a sole female ruler in her own right. As King, Jinpyeong had been relatively successful; he had defended Silla from the other two kingdoms (although the land would suffer from the constant conflict), he had made cultural contributions through the spread of Buddhism and he had made solid diplomatic relations with China’s Tang Dynasty. However, the nobles of Silla were still divided politically and his decision to name his daughter as his successor was not welcomed by all factions. The disagreement was short-lived, however. The main opposition, made up of two nobles and their followers, determined to revolt in protest. The rebellion was swiftly discovered and the instigators executed, along with their families. Without these dissenting voices, Princess Deokman smootly became Queen Seondeok. She was the first Queen of Silla and in fact the first Queen of any of the Three Kingdoms.

Seondeok as Queen

Firaxis have got that hat down.
Seondeok’s father and his predecessor had left her a strong foundation from which to build on and build she did (quite literally as well as figuratively). She continued to encourage Buddhism throughout Silla, and to this end, completed a number of Buddhist temples. She was also known for her patronage of the sciences (as much as one could in the 6th century), the advancement of education in Silla, but also for losing significant territory to the kingdom of Baekje. Although Seondeok inherited strong diplomatic relations with the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taixong refused to acknowledge her as ruler, because she was a woman, for the first few years of her reign. Despite this initial antagonism, she managed to maintain their relationship and secured military aid from them to assist in the constant border skirmishes. Taixong’s condition for his assistance was that Seondeok step down as Queen and install a Chinese prince in her place. Although she refused, she must have done so with great diplomacy for she received the aid and retained her crown. While Taixong claimed that it was because of her sex that her enemies were spurred to attack so continuously, the attacks on Silla were not considerably more frequent than they had been in previous years. In the final year of her reign, one of Seondeok’s highest ranking officials and longtime-supporter led a rebellion against her. The rebellion was put down and the leader executed, but not by Seondeok. By this time the Queen was probably in her forties and had already predicted her death that very week. Seondeok died during the rebellion but not because of it. Because she had not married and therefore had no children, she chose her successor in her cousin who would become Queen Jindeok. She ascended, again, without opposition and passed sentence on those who had rebelled.

Seondeok’s Legacy

How then did Korea view their unexpected Queen? There was obviously a notion that women were not fit to lead from such a position, hence the rebellion when Seondeok’s father announced his intention to create her his heir. That said, it was a limited rebellion and was easily curtailed. We could speculate that the remaining nobles did not approve of a Queen, they were simply following their loyalties to the King, but even if this was the case, the result was that they supported Seondeok for her lifetime. Among her contemporaries, we know that the Emperor of Tang did not approve of her ruling, but was still prepared to deal with her as she was Queen, whether he approved or not. Closer to home Seondeok was the first female ruler in all of Korea’s three kingdoms and her neighbours never had a Queen in her own right. Again though, this doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted their relations, as they just carried on fighting each other as they always had. The remaining two kingdoms did not ally themselves together to remove the perceived weaker threat of a kingdom ruled by a Queen but instead carried on fighting on two fronts as they would have if she had been a king. There was, of course, the rebellion in the last week of her reign, where one of her closest officials, Lord Bidam, led a revolt against her apparently under the motto, ‘women cannot rule the country.’ But one has to wonder, if he felt so strongly against the Queen, how he was able to serve her so successfully to rise to such a prominent position, before he realised, the week of her death no less, that actually he wasn’t fussed on women after all. Neither was there a particular uproar when Seondeok was succeeded by her cousin Jindeok, another woman. And with the exception of dealing with Lord Bidam’s revolt against her successor upon her accession, her reign saw no further outbursts from within or abroad decrying her because she was a woman. Queen Jindeok continued to work on foreign policy with the Tang Dynasty, the result of which allowed her successor to unify the three kingdoms. Although Seondeok and Jindeok were the last queens for a while they were obviously well thought of, as two hundred years later the dying king named his sister as heir and used the reigns of the two queens to quiet her critics.
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