April Magazine presents a bi-weekly series that highlights the badass Asian women of history. If you have a heroine in mind, tell us in the comments.
There’s a popular Western idea that Asian countries are particularly terrible places to be a woman. Tales of harems, widow-burnings and foot-bindings merge into a sexploitation orientalist fantasy of an entire continent. And maybe a message to Western women to stick to their corsets and cat-calls, and be happy that’s all they get.
Like a lot of fairy-tales of this sort, it’s not true.
The truth is, women everywhere have had it tough. But, like everywhere, some badass Asian ladies have reached the highest offices: empresses, queens, warladies.
One that really resonates in Korea is Queen Seondeok, the first reigning queen on the peninsula. You might have met her already in the hit 2009 TV series Queen Seondeok (and if you haven’t, you might want to).
Put on your time-travel hat and let’s journey back 1400 years. In Central America the Classical Maya are flowering after the collapse of Teotihuacan, in Western Europe the ruins of Rome are sinking into the Dark Ages, in Mesopotamia Persia is trouncing the Roman Empire, in Arabia Islam is taking shape, in India Harsha is reuniting the North after the fall of the Gupta, in China the Tang dynasty is taking off and in Korea the Three Kingdoms period of Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo is in full swing.
Seondeok was born as Princess Deokman around the year 600 and her father, King Jinpyeong, chose her as his heir. Because he had no sons, apparently, but still. He chose her and the court accepted. This was a pretty [big] shock, as she was only the second recorded female ruler in East Asia.
Now, if she had simply taken over her kingdom and reigned peacefully for 15 years, this would have been a big enough deal.
But remember the Three Kingdoms thing? Queen Seondeok became Queen on her father’s death in 632, in the middle of continuous battles for hegemony with Goguryeo and Baekje and a violent rebellion against her father’s reign. As a freshly minted and unprecedented Korean Queen she did not buckle, indeed she kept the government and the kingdom Silla intact. No mean feat.
With diplomats, scholars, and emissaries she navigated the shifting alliances of the peninsula and secured ties with the Tang emperor in China. Though she did not lead armies in battle, her stratagems and vision strengthened Silla during her reign (and Silla would later unify the majority of the Korean peninsula in 668).
But she was not just some Boudicca, overseeing a time of desperate military struggle.
She is renowned for relieving poverty while also stimulating the flowering of thought, literature, and the arts. Seondeok promoted Buddhism and ordered numerous temples built, notably the now lost nine-story pagoda of Hwangnyongsa, an 80-meter pagoda inscribed with the neighbors Silla intended to subjugate. Ok, so the military part was quite explicit – still, we all like a good warrior queen to look up to.
Another famous structure built on her orders is the Cheomseongdae, the Star-Gazing Tower. Built of 362 pieces of cut granite set in 27 layers (some lunar year and month and day symbolism going on there), it was the first dedicated astronomical observatory in East Asia. It’s still standing and is today possibly the oldest surviving observatory in the world. That’s a building that would net you extra victory points in a game of Civilization.
That’s a pretty good record. Survive a war and defeat a rebellion, run a kingdom, bring prosperity. If it had ended there, Seondeok would have been badass enough. But the end of her reign continues the drama.
In 647 a high official named Bidam led a violent uprising under the slogan “Women rulers cannot rule the country“. As if to provide inspiration to women evermore, Queen Seondeok’s general crushed the rebellion and took Bidam and his men into captivity. The queen died peacefully and was succeeded by Korea’s second Queen, Jindeok, who executed the rebel. Boom. The rebellion failed, and a second successful woman ruler. Way to have your slogan disproved, Bidam.
And there you have her. Queen Seondeok: one smart, tough, badass woman, who proved that women rulers can, indeed, rule the country.