by K.P. Kulski
I am writing this not as an academic but because I was once a little girl, one who learned about a magnificent queen of history and was inspired. There isn’t a lot available in English about Queen Seondeok (also written as Sondok, Sonduk) who ruled the ancient Korean Silla Dynasty from 632-647 CE, particularly when it comes to primary source material. This renders Seondeok as a quasi-mythological figure, and while we know she was real and existed. It seems the fate of English speakers to know her mostly through stories. While problematic for the historian, the solid edges of her personage and reign can be less important than what she represents for women.
How can a little girl hear the dramatic story of a princess who was chosen to inherit the throne because of her exceeding intelligence and not feel that there is something more important than their physical appearance? For those of us who love to read, are enraptured with knowledge and the quest to obtain it, Queen Seondeok and the respect she garners is a rare example of a woman who was most well renown for her substance. It is no surprise that the K-Drama of Queen Seondeok is wildly popular among both Korean and American fans. Further, stories of Seondeok also relay her compassion and concern for those she ruled, all characteristics that are not traditionally celebrated in monarchs who are more often known for their military conquests than civil-mindedness. It was Seondeok’s intelligence, diligence and compassion that cemented the Silla Kingdom but further developed Korean culture. This was a turbulent part of Korean history and the peninsula was split between competing kingdoms, Silla, Goguryeo and Baekche. Diplomacy was valued as well as military strength. Understandably, Seondeok’s abilities greatly contributed to maintaining Silla despite rebellions and upheavals during her fourteen-year reign. In fact, it was through both soft and hard power—an alliance with Tang China, that the Silla dynasty would be able to militarily unify Korea.
Seondeok’s intelligence is depicted in three main ways: curiosity, observation and prophetic. Most stories originate from Seondeok’s childhood and focus on her extraordinary abilities that led to her designation as heir.
Curiosity is the first step in the path of knowledge, without it there is no will to seek or obtain knowledge. During the time of Seondeok, Buddhism flourished in the Silla Kingdom. It is from Seondeok desire to expand on both personal knowledge as well as her kingdom’s, she sent students to China. These students returned with Buddhist manuscripts that greatly influenced the Queen and led to the construction of several Buddhist temples and shrines.
Probably the most famous story of Queen Seondeok emerges from her childhood. It is possible that the story is meant to cement her creditability as a ruler when she was chosen from other contenders for the position. It is said that her father received a gift of peony seeds along with a painting of the plant. She remarked that it was a shame that the flowers had no scent. Surprised at how she would know such a thing without having ever smelled a peony, she responded that the painting did not depict insects, which would be drawn normally to a flower by scent.
According to legend, she was so observant, knowledgeable and thoughtful that she was able to read signs from the natural world that indicated the future. In one instance, she predicted an attack from the rival Baekche kingdom by observing the sound of frogs at a gate.
Intelligence and the gathering of knowledge is rarely comparable to the stories of military and physical might. Usually those stories, which are equally exciting, depict a hero whose physical prowess and training has led them to great victories. Often these victories have a supernatural element, where the hero taps into powers greater than humanity. Sometimes this is from deities, or magic. Stories of Seondeok are much the same, except her special power lies within the realm of knowledge and the power of the mind. Even more, there is no external gift from higher powers, instead it is the power she has created within herself from the gathering of knowledge and use of her honed mental capacity.
It is believed that Seondeok constructed the Cheomseongdae Obeservatory, the first known of its kind dedicated to the study of astronomy in East Asia. Not only does the study of the heavens indicate a sense possibility and intellectual advancement, but greatly increases the accuracy of agricultural practices for the society who has access to the information.
Being presented with heroes that deviate from the model we are used to – male, physical, warlike, allows us to celebrate the value of multiple strengths. It acknowledges the many skills, abilities and pursuits in the world that enrich it and are required to overcome challenges. Further, untraditional heroines like Seondeok are such important vessels of inspiration for our daughters, sisters and mothers.
 “Queen Seondeok,” New World Encyclopedia, Accessed 02 JUL 2017. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Queen_Seondeok_of_Silla
 “ Cheomseongdae Observatory,” UNESCO World Heritage, Accessed 08 JUL 2017. http://www2.astronomicalheritage.net/index.php/show-entity?identity=19&idsubentity=1
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