Showing posts with label silla. Show all posts
Showing posts with label silla. Show all posts

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Damn, Girl--Queen Seondeok of Silla

Seondeok was the first of three queen regnants of the medieval kingdom of Silla. She was a skilled diplomatist, devout Buddhist, and prolific builder. During her reign, Seondeok managed to get Tang Dynasty China on her side, promote Buddhism as the national religion, and lead Silla into a golden age of art, science, and literature. She was a smart, strong woman, and is still celebrated in Korea today.

Image result for seondeok
Queen Seondeok. Probably. I've had trouble
finding pictures of her that aren't from the popular
K-Drama named after her.
Silla was located at the bottom of the Korean peninsula, in modern day South Korea. It was a very internally stable kingdom, ruled by one of the longest continuous royal houses in the world. Silla would later conquer the kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo to unite the peoples in the Korean peninsula. However, at Seondeok's time Silla was still viciously warring with their neighbors.

Seondeok was born somewhere in the 580 CEs. Her father, Chinpyong was a reasonable ruler, but couldn't seem to have a son. Like all men of the era, he blamed his wife, Ma-ya, and sent her away to a Buddhist nunnery. Though he remarried, he was unable to have another child, leaving him with the three daughters he had with Ma-ya.

Seondeok was probably the eldest daughter, but even if she wasn't she was hand picked by her father to succeed him. From an early age Seondeok showed great wisdom, and her father believed her the most fit of his children to rule. A traditional story says that when the Chinese emperor sent Chinpyong some peony seeds, along with a picture depicting them, the young Seondeok remarked that the flowers were pretty, but it was a shame they didn't smell¹. When asked what she meant, she told her father that if the flowers had a good scent, surely they would be surrounded by bees and butterflies. When the flowers were revealed to have no scent, her father declared that she was wise beyond her years, and that she would succeed him.

Image result for map of silla 632
Map of Silla during the 400s. By Seondeok's
time, Silla had swallowed Gaya.
Now, you may be wondering why Seondeok was able to succeed Chinpyong at all. In most Western societies had Chinpyong died without male issue the throne would have passed to his brother or nephew. This was the prevailing pattern in Europe, as well as in neighboring China. Silla, however, had different requirements for a ruler. To rule Silla, you had to come from the 'Sacred Bone' class--the class that encompassed the ruling family, and those who married the ruler. Seondeok and some of her (female) cousins fit into this class, but there were no males in the Sacred Bone class other than Seondeok's father.
In 632, Seondeok ascended to the throne. Though there were some members of the True Bone Class (the class right below Sacred Bone) who protested, many of the people of Silla were more than happy with Seondeok being in charge. Having a woman in charge of medieval Korea isn't as revolutionary as you might think. Though the people of Silla still operated inside of the traditional gender roles, women were respected and placed in positions of power. There had been Queen Regents before, and women were usually in charge of the family. Though these attitudes changed later when Confucianism seeped into the country, a female ruler wasn't too objectionable at Seondeok's time.

Like many rulers, Seondeok had a craze for building. She was famous for building Buddhist temples, including a nine level pagoda. Her temples are directly credited for making Buddhism so popular in Silla. Seondeok's most famous building, however, is the observatory. The Tower of Moons and Stars or Cheomseongdae is the oldest observatory in eastern Asia. The observatory is a little taller than 9 meters, and has 27 layers of brick to recognize Seondeok as the 27th ruler of Silla. It is the only remaining structure definitely built by her (the rest were made of wood, and have since vanished), and is a national Korean symbol.

Image result for seondeok observatory
Cheomseongdae
Though Silla was very peaceful internally, they were almost constantly at war with their neighbors--Baekje and Goguryeo. Goguryeo was the real problem. They were a large country, and they were just as determined as Silla to conquer the whole peninsula. Baekje, though smaller, was just as hostile. However, on the other side of Goguryeo was Tang China, and since Tang China was Goguryeo's enemy, they were one of Seondeok's best friends--diplomatically speaking.

Seondeok had to walk a fine line with Tang China. She needed their help, but they were a strictly Confucian nation, and Confucianism just wasn't down with a female ruler. The Chinese Emperor offered Seondeok generous aid, but it was  on the condition that Seondeok would step aside, and let a Chinese prince rule in her stead. Seondeok, of course, refused, though still managed to win the Tang's support.

Seondeok died of illness around 647, leaving the throne to her cousin Jindeok. Jindeok was the last Silla ruler of the Sacred Bone class, and the throne passed to her nephew. Though Seondeok died more than a thousand years ago, she's still a pretty big deal. Her observatory has been designated a national wonder, and rites are still performed at her tomb every year.



¹Not all peonies have a scent. Many of the single and red varieties of peonies do not have a scent. While I haven't done extensive research into the history of Chinese peonies, it is reasonable to assume that one of those varieties was the one sent to Chinpyong. (source)

Sources
Sondok, Queen of Silla
Queen Seondeok
Queen Seondeok of Silla
Chemseongdae
Royal Tomb of Queen Seondeok