Over the past month or so, I’ve had my browser glued to DramaFever, watching on the edge of my seat one of the most interesting, well acted, and riveting historical dramas about Korea’s incredible Queen Seon Duk. Anyone who has seen at least one episode of this masterpiece can attest to the amazing storytelling of Korea’s proud history. I’ve been so intrigued and enthralled in this drama that I became curious about the the woman who became the first sole female ruler of Silla in 632, so I did a little research. Keep in mind with the drama being so popular, it was hard for me to find any information on her (in English) without coming across spoilers about the episodes. I did however find some basic info that brings more clarity to certain events in the K-drama version. I must warn you however, this post might contain spoilers, so if you’re in the process of watching, I’d advise you to read on at your own risk.
Let’s start with some basics, huh? Well, for starters, although I haven’t come across any reliable sources (in English) that mention the extraordinary circumstances of her early life as depicted in the drama; I did find that Queen Seon Duk, just like in the drama, was first known as Princess Deokman before she gained the thrown. However, something the drama version didn’t discuss was the fact that she had two sisters, not just Cheonmyeong. Her other sister, named Seonhwa, is thought to have went on to marry Baekje’s King Mu. However, there’s a slight controversy over her actual existence due to recently discovered records contradicting this. When I found this out, I couldn’t help but to connect the character in the drama “Sohwa” to Seonhwa, and perhaps this was done to appease the confusions over this third daughter.
Also, another very cool thing I found to be true is Seon Duk’s amazing ability to reign during such a violent time. As in the drama, Silla was in turmoil. Wars were constantly being fought with the neighboring kingdoms and problems within the country itself, like rebellious uprisings and dirty politics, could not have been an easy task for any ruler, let alone a female ruler who also had to deal with protecting her crown from conniving men seeking to gain the throne through marriage or other means. As with any society in those times, life must have been extremely hard for Seon Duk. To be able to carry on a 15 year reign with as many accomplishments as she did during her time; accomplishments like the expansion of Silla, the building of the Korea’s first (and the world’s oldest) observatory and the unification of the Three Kingdoms, is noteworthy indeed.
Another aspect of the drama that I found to be true (or at least believed to be true) are the legends of Queen Seon Duk being wise beyond her years. One of the most well known legends about her intellect and observational skills deals with a gift of peony seeds and a painting of the flowers in bloom sent to her father from China. Princess Deokman was the one to astutely point out the flower’s lack of fragrance due to the absence of bees in the painting and she was proven correct when the flowers bloomed. Also, it should be noted that at the time, Shamanism was a major religion in the region and women held much power in their roles as Shamans.
Another legend about our Queen’s intuitiveness comes about in the form of white frogs. The legend goes that during the winter, Seon Duk heard white frogs croaking at the Jade Gate. She analyzed this to mean an attack on Silla by Baekje from the northwest at The Valley of Women. Her foresight was again proven to be correct when upon further investigation; her men, lead by the real life Alcheon, successfully captured Baekje troops stationed in The Valley of Women. This event of foresight may have strengthened her popularity as a ruler because it coincided with the people’s beliefs in the supernatural and divine lineage.
Adding to her already popular image, Queen Seon Duk is also credited with helping the spread of Buddhism throughout her nation. At the time of her reign she sent scholars and hwarang from Silla to study in China, a country which had already been exposed to and adopted Buddhism. Upon their return with this knowledge, the scholars urged her to establish the practices with their own peoples. She became drawn to the religion and its teaching, and took it upon herself to see to the completion of several Buddhist temples.
While this is seemingly a contradiction to the Shamanistic element that may have indeed boosted her popularity with the people of Silla, it can be speculated that this was probably another one of her moments of genius in that religion is often used by rulers to conquer rival people as well as quell any animosity from their subject. Whatever her reasoning behind it, she played a significant role in the conversion of the Silla people to Buddhism from Shamanism.
In the drama, Queen Seon Duk is proven time and time again to be a strong woman with a noble heart and mind, and often found myself feeling very proud of her. From what I know now, the real Queen Seon Duk has also earned much respect from me. The drama really does a great job keeping historical information true to life as much as possible while entertaining and educating. With the information I’ve gathered through my brief research, it’s no wonder why she is a much beloved figure in Korean history.
photo credits: mbc