A precocious child, there is a story from her childhood in which Seondeok’s father, King Jinpyeong of Silla, received a box of peony seeds from China. This particular strain had not been seen before in Korea, and so the box of seeds was accompanied by a painting of the flower. The young princess observed that the flowers were very pretty, but did not have a scent. She’d come to this conclusion because the artist had not painted bees or butterflies around the illustration.
Whether or not this story is true, it was used in later years to demonstrate Seondeok’s clever mind and aptitude for logic and reason which made her fit to rule. Jinpyeong had no sons, and named Seondeok as his heir – a highly unusual move.
Seondeok ascended to the throne of Silla in 632 and ruled for fourteen years. Her reign was largely focused on power struggles with neighbouring kingdom Baekje and strengthening political ties with China. She sent selected Korean subjects to China – scholars on diplomatic missions and soldiers to learn Chinese martial arts.
These actions paved the way towards the unification of Korea, which happened only two decades after her death, thanks to the alliance with China.
The queen’s reign marked Korea’s movement towards Buddhism as a national religion, and several Buddhist temples were built in Seondeok’s name. She also oversaw the construction of one of the earliest known observatories in the Far East, called Cheomseongdae; the ‘Star-Gazing Tower’.
Though Seondeok’s reign is generally regarded as successful and beneficial for the kingdom of Silla, the queen was not without her critics. Early in 647 she was faced with an uprising and attempt to overthrow her. Aided by one of Korea’s finest military minds, Kim Yushin, the rebellion was defeated.
Unfortunately, Seondeok did not live to see her enemies quashed. She died in February 647 and left the throne to her cousin, Jindeok, who became Korea’s second reigning queen.
- Lee Yo-won and Nam Ji-hyun both portrayed the empress in the Korean TV series Queen Seondeok in 2009.
- Park Joo-mi and Hong Eun-hee played her in The King’s Dream (or Dream of the Emperor) which aired on KBS1 in 2012-2013.