Seondeok (c. 595-c. 647) was the first queen on the Korean Peninsula and second recorded female ruler in East Asian history.
Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.
Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this Encyclopedia Womannica.
In case you’re just tuning in, here’s the deal. Every weekday we’re telling the stories of women from throughout history and around the world who you may not know about but definitely should. Each month is themed and in honor of the new year and new decade, this month is all about leaders.
Today we’re heading back to early 7th century Korea to talk about the first queen of the penisula and second recorded female ruler in East Asian history. Meet Queen Seondeok of Silla.
Seondeok was born around the year 595 to Queen Maya and King Jinpyeong of Silla. Silla was one of three kingdoms that made up what became known as Korea. It was located on the southern and central Korean Peninsula.
Seondeok’s father ruled the kingdom for 58 years. Seondeok had at least one sister but no brothers, so when it was time for him to pick an heir, he eventually chose Seondeok. It wasn’t unheard of for a woman to control power in Silla as a regent, but in the year 632, Seondeok became the first woman to sit on the top seat of power. She was the kingdom’s 27th ruler.
When she ascended to the throne, Silla was in a good spot. The kingdom was flourishing.
From the beginning of her reign, Queen Seondeok proved to be a caring and concerned leader of her people. In a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, she was described as, “generous, benevolent, wise, and smart.”After rising to power, she took inventory of what was happening in her kingdom by sending inspectors throughout her dominion to take stock of and care for the vulnerable including the poor, the elderly and orphans.
In her first year of rule, she also sent a diplomatic mission to Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty of China. Despite her friendly overtures, the Emperor refused to recognize the new sovereign of Silla because of her gender.
Still, Queen Seondeok pressed on with continual efforts to try to improve the lots of her people. In the second year of her rule, a “Star-Gazing Tower” was built. The observatory is actually still standing and is considered the oldest such building in East Asia.
Queen Seondeok also pulled a move that has made politicians popular with their people throughout time -- she slashed taxes entirely for peasants and reduced taxes for the middle class. Unsurprisingly, these efforts were very popular among the people of Silla.
Queen Seondeok tried again that second year to send tribute to the Chinese Emperor. He still wasn’t into it and refused to acknowledge her position. Eventually, he gave in and Queen Seondeok and the Tang Dynasty even formed an alliance against the neighboring kingdoms trying to encroach on Silla.
Under Queen Seondeok’s rule, the arts and sciences prospered. She was a Buddhist and also oversaw the rebuilding of many temples. One particularly notable building project completed during Seondeok’s reign was the Temple of the Illustrious Dragon. The finished pagoda on the site was 9-stories tall, making it one of the tallest structures in East Asia. The Temple also had a very large statue of the Buddha.
Despite the fact that Seondeok had managed to ally with the Tang Dynasty at one point, the Emperor was part of her eventual demise. Around the year 647, a group of Silla’s aristocrats led a rebellion against Queen Seondeok because they didn’t approve of having a queen on the throne. The group was backed by the Tang Dynasty.
Queen Seondeok died during the rebellion. She was succeeded by her cousin, another queen, which likely annoyed those who had fought to try to get a woman off of the throne.
Queen Seondeok wielded power in a way that lifted up many in her kingdom. Despite facing diplomatic challenges inside and outside of her borders, she is remembered as an excellent leader who has spawned many legends to this day.
As always, we’ll be taking a break for the weekend. Tune in on Monday for the story of another leader.
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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.
Talk to you on Monday!