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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Silla Superiority Complex, Part V: Royal Tomb of Queen Seondeok, First Queen of Silla


Queen Seondeok of Gyeongju Kim Clan (Hanja: 善德女王; Died: 17 February 647) reigned as Queen of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, from 632 to 647. She was Silla's twenty-seventh ruler, and its first reigning queen. She was the second female sovereign in East Asian history and encouraged a renaissance in thought, literature, and the arts in Silla. She is not to be confused with her male counterpart, King Seondeok - 37th Monarch of Silla (Reigned: 780~785).

Before she became queen, Seondeok was known as Princess Deongman (덕만/德曼). According to the Samguk Sagi, she was the first of King Jinpyeong's daughters. But according to other historical records, she was the second of King Jinpyeong's daughters and much younger than her elder sister, Princess Cheonmyeong. Her nephew, Princess Cheonmyeong's son, eventually became King Taejong-Muyeol the Great of Silla while Seondeok's other sister, Princess Seonhwa, eventually married King Mu of Baekje and became the mother of King Uija of Baekje. Seonhwa's existence is controversial due to the discovery of evidence in 2009 that points to King Uija's mother as being Queen Sataek, and not Seonhwa as indicated by historical records.

Because he had no sons, Jinpyeong selected Seondeok as his heir. Though unprecedented, this action was would probably not have been all that shocking within Silla, as women of the period had already had a certain degree of influence as advisors, dowager queens, and regents (Jinpyeong himself gained the throne as a result of a coup d'etats organized by Lady Mishil). Throughout the kingdom, women were heads of families since matrilineal lines of inheritance existed alongside patrilineal ones. During the Silla kingdom, the status of women was relatively high, but there were still restrictions on female behavior and conduct; they were discouraged from activities considered unwomanly. Ultimately, Seondeok's successful reign in turn facilitated the acceptance of two more Queens regnant of Silla.

In 632, Seondeok became the sole ruler of Silla, and reigned until 647. She was the first of three female rulers of the kingdom (the other two being Jindeok of Silla and Jinseong of Silla), and was immediately succeeded by her cousin Jindeok, who ruled until 654.

Seondeok's reign began in the midst of a violent rebellion and fighting in the neighboring kingdom of Baekje were often what preoccupied her. Yet, in her fourteen years as queen of Silla, she used her wit to her advantage. When Baekje invaded, she sought an alliance with Goguryeo. When Goguryeo also turned on Silla, she strengthened ties with Tang China. She kept the kingdom together and sent royal emissaries and scholars to China. She is also credited with the initial formulation of a Korean chivalric code and sent young Koreans to China for martial arts training.

Like Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang and her own father, she was drawn to Buddhism and presided over the completion of Buddhist temples. Notable amongst Buddhist structures she had built is the nine-story wooden pagoda in Hwangnyongsa. On each story of the 80 meters high structure was the name inscribed of one of the neighbors Silla intended to subjugate. Bunhwangsa and Yeongmyosa were also built under her auspices.

She built the "Star-Gazing Tower," or Cheomseongdae, considered the first dedicated observatory in the Far East. The tower still stands in the old Silla capital of Gyeongju, South Korea. She also worked towards relief of poverty.

In the first lunar month of 647, Lord Bidam of Silla led a revolt with the slogan that "female rulers cannot rule the country” (女主不能善理). Legend says that during the uprising, a star fell and was interpreted by Bidam's followers as a sign of the end of the queen's reign. Kim Yushin (commander-in-chief of the royal army from 629) advised the queen to fly a burning kite as a sign that the star was back in its place.

Yeomjong stated that about ten days after Bidam's uprising, he and thirty of his men were executed. By then Queen Seondeok had died and her cousin had ascended the throne as Queen Jindeok. Neither the date of her birth nor the cause of her death are known.

It is believed that Seondeok's selection as her father's successor was justified by her displays of precocious intelligence when she was a princess. One such story (both in Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa) recounts that her father received a box of peony seeds from the Emperor Taizong of Tang accompanied by a painting of what the flowers looked like. Looking at the picture, the young Seondeok remarked that while the flower was pretty it was a shame that it did not smell. "If it did, there would be butterflies and bees around the flower in the painting." Her observation about the peonies' lack of scent proved correct — just one of many illustrations of her intellect and hence of her ability to rule.

There are two other accounts of Seondeok's unusual ability to perceive events before their occurrence. In the first it is said that Seondeok once heard a horde of white frogs croaking by the Jade Gate pond in the winter. She interpreted this as an impending attack from the Kingdom of Baekje (the croaking frogs were seen as angry soldiers) in the northwest of Silla (white symbolized the west in astronomy) at the Women's Valley (the Jade Gate was associated with women). When she sent her generals to the Women's Valley, they were able to capture two thousand Baekje soldiers.

The second is an account of her death. Some days before she died, Seondeok gathered her officials and gave the order "When I die, bury me near the Dori-cheon (忉利天, "Heaven of Grieved Merits")." Decades after her death, the thirtieth king Munmu of Silla constructed Sacheonwang-sa (四天王寺 "Temple of the Four Heavenly Kings") in her tomb. Then the nobles realized that one of the Buddha's sayings, "Dori-cheon is above the Sacheonwang-cheon", was accomplished by the Queen.

Queen Seondeok died in February 17th 647 and buried at Baeban-dong san 79-2 beonji, Gyeongju City, Northern Gyeongsang Province. Queen Jindeok succeeded to the Silla's throne after the demise of her cousin.