Queen Seondeok of Silla
Born under King Jinpyeong, Queen Seondeok was originally known as Princess Deokmen. Her family makeup is ambiguous, as there are conflicting records that indicate her to be either the first or second daughter of Jinpyeong, and her youngest sister’s existence is questioned. Princess Deokmen had two sisters; the possibly older Princess Cheonmyeong, and her younger sister Princess Seonhwa. Cheonmyeong’s son eventually became King Muyeol of Silla. Meanwhile, Seonhwa was originally believed to have been married off to Mu of Baekje, eventually becoming the mother of Uija of Baekje. There is, however, contradictory evidence suggesting that another woman mothered Uija, which raises questions about Seonhwa and her entire existence. King Jinpyeong eventually selected Princess Deokmen as his heir, and once she ascended to the throne she was known as Queen Seondeok. Although female rulers were very rare in east Asia, Seondeok’s power was probably not much of a shock to the people of Silla, as women enjoyed relatively high status in Silla. While there were still restrictions on how they were expected to act, women had influence in politics as advisors and regents, and since families were matrilineal, women ran the household as well.
Queen Seondeok’s reign lasted from 632 to 647, coming to power in a time of political turmoil within the Korean peninsula. There is a belief that Queen Seondeok was chosen to be King Jinpyeong’s successor because of her intelligence; she displayed remarkable resourcefulness throughout her reign, leading Silla to prosperity and eventually as the sole ruler of the Korean peninsula. She manipulated political alliances in order to establish Silla dominance; she originally allied with the kingdom of Goguryeo and destroyed Baekje. Seondeok then enlisted the help of the Tang Chinese to destroy the Goguryeo. After this, Seondeok used geography to her advantage and eliminated the Tang from the peninsula. They were never able to reclaim their stake in the land, and Silla had won the war for control of the peninsula. Seondeok also focused on internal improvements during her reign. She was drawn to Buddhist practices, as she presided over the completion of several prominent Buddhist temples. She presided over completion of the “Star-Gazing Tower” which was the first observatory in the Far East. It still stands to this day.
Queek Seondeok was a beloved ruler whose tenure paved the path for two more female rulers of Silla, Jindeok and Jinseong. Jindeok was her cousin, who succeeded her immediately after her death in 647. Some remnants of her rule still exist today, most notably some Buddhist structures and the aforementioned Star-Gazing Tower. Queen Seondeok’s military exploits facilitated the establishment of Unified Silla shortly after her reign. Late Silla was a successful empire, and a prosperous and important part of Korea’s history with a golden age in art and culture, along with the establishment of university. She remains a popular figure in Korean popular culture, and even had a Korean drama about her life and reign air in 2009.