Queen Seondeok of Silla

A while back, I had an amazing trip to South Korea. Whilst there, I became interested in Korean history and culture, and learnt about the amazing Queen Seondeok of the Silla Empire.

The Silla Empire was one of three kingdoms that ruled in the South Korean peninsula for around 900 years. It was established in 57CE and covered most of the eastern and southern areas of the peninsula until it was taken over in 936CE.

Queen Seondeok ruled from the year 632 until her death in the year 647. She was the first of three female rulers of the Silla Empire, and only the second female ruler of any culture in East Asia.

Although unprecedented that a woman would be selected as inheritor of the throne, it was not unusual, as Silla culture had both matrilineal and patrilineal forms of inheritance. Legends say that Queen Seondeok was a perceptive and intelligent child, which may have assured her father that she would be fit to rule as an adult.

Queen Seondeok had to contend with violence from the neighbouring kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo from the beginning of her rule, but strengthened diplomatic ties with the Tang Dynasty in China to help her cause. She sent scholars to China to learn, and young Koreans to China for martial arts training.

Buddhism had been introduced to Silla culture in 528. Queen Seondeok was drawn to Buddhism and presided over the construction of a number of Buddhist temples, including one 80 meters high, with each story inscribed with the names of the one of the neighbouring areas she intended to subjugate.

I was fortunate enough to go to the Silla Empire’s ancient capital, modern-day Gyeongju, and see the ‘Star-Gazing Tower’, Cheomseongdae, that she had built to observe the lunar movements. It is the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia.

Queen Seondeok encouraged a renaissance in thought, literature and the arts in the Silla Empire, all while keeping it united and unified against enemies on the Korean Peninsula. Her reign is the subject of a popular 2009 Korean historical drama television series!

-Jocelyn Anderson-Wood
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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