It is no easy feat to claim the throne, even during times of peace. In the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla, it wasn’t unheard of for women to hold positions of power, but Seondeok became the first woman to rule over the kingdom as queen. Her fifteen-year reign saw a prolific, highly accomplished sovereign who paved the way for other women to rule the kingdom—including her cousin, Chindok.
Seondeok’s father, King Jinpyeong, had no male heirs. Of his daughters, Jinpyeong chose Seondeok as his successor due to her intuitive nature—one she demonstrated at an early age. As the apocryphal story goes, Jinpyeong received a gift of peony seeds from China. The box containing the seeds bore a painting of the flowers in bloom. A very young Seondeok noticed and commented that the flowers were pretty, but it was too bad they had no smell. When Jinpyeong asked why she thought that, Seondeok explained that if the flowers did smell sweet, the painting would have butterflies and bees, too. As it happened, the flowers in bloom lacked smell.
Jinpyeong's death led to Seondeok's coronation in 632. Although some of Silla’s nobility were dissatisfied following a queen rather than a king, her proven cleverness and clear choice as heir helped quell their grumbling. Beyond this, the bone rank system (analogous to the concept of “royal blood”) dictated that were they to deny her coronation, they would have to upend the entirety of Sillan aristocracy.
Seondeok’s immediate priority as queen was bettering the lives of the Sillan people by establishing effective welfare policies for her most impoverished citizens. Heavy investment in schools saw the kingdom’s knowledge of arts and sciences flourish. She established the Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory, in Silla’s capital. Buddhism was already Silla’s state religion, but Seondeok’s rule saw Buddhism further integrated into the government and society as a whole. Numerous Buddhist temples underwent restoration, and Silla broke ground on many new temples.
Despite the numerous internal advances, Queen Seondeok’s rule was not a peaceful one. Constant internal rebellions and contentious struggles with the neighboring kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje threatened her reign. By carefully playing politics, she was able to navigate the ever changing, aggressive, and often violent political landscape of the Korean kingdoms. Queen Seondeok made alliances where needed, altering them when the situation called for it. When Baekje became a problem in 641 CE, she sought the help of Goguryeo. When negotiations failed, Seondeok sent an army of 10,000 to recover her imprisoned diplomat.
Seondeok’s ability to balance negotiations with a threat of force helped her gain an alliance with the Chinese Tang Dynasty when Goguryeo and Baekje united to attack Silla. Her alliance with the Tang Dynasty was one of her greatest political feats. Seondeok not only managed to convince the Tang Dynasty to give Silla military assistance, but she rejected their demand that she stand down as queen and allow a Tang prince to rule in her stead.
Until her death in 647, Queen Seondeok served the Silla kingdom as an adaptable queen whose intellect protected her people during a difficult time of conquest. By playing her enemies against one another, she ensured her kingdom would survive and thrive. Though she would not live to see a united Korean peninsula, Seondeok’s skillful parley sowed the seeds for the defeat of the Baekje and Goguryeo forces by 668.