Seal of Min, National Museum of Korea. Image Credit: WikiCommons/National Museum of Korea.

By Johanna Strong

Empress Myeongseong, also known as Empress Min, was born in November 1851 in Korea. Myeongseong belonged to the Yeoheung Min clan. In 1866, at the age of 15, she was chosen to marry King Gojong. At the ceremony she was pronounced Queen Consort of Joseon.

In the early years, the Empress did not spend much time at the palace. She partook in politics, despite the King’s father, Heungseon Daewongun, disparaging her involvement. He also proclaimed that she could not have healthy children after the death of her newborn son.

Tensions amounted and the Empress began to organise a faction against the Daewongun, supported by powerful officials. The Daewongun was forced out of the court under King Gojong’s approval, and the couple had ultimate power.

The growth of Imperial Japan under the Meiji Restoration put a strain on Korea’s status as East Asia’s centre of military power. After initially refusing, the Korean government relented and opened ports to Japanese trade, which led to greater anxieties over Japan’s power.

To threaten its expansion, Myeongseong led the modernisation of the military and reorganised the government. This led to an insurrection in 1882. She also established English language schools and Korea’s first girls school, visiting North America in her Westernisation of Korea.

The Empress formally introduced Christianity, believing in religious pluralism. Her and Gojong became closer with age. They suffered multiple child losses with only one son surviving to adulthood. In an 1884 coup, many of Myeongseong’s family were horrifically murdered.

On 8 October 1895, Empress Myeongseong was assassinated. Japanese soldiers stormed the palace before she was tortured and murdered. Her body was dosed in oil and burned. Myeongseong’s mourning procession included 4,000 lanterns, hundreds of scrolls and giant wooden horses.

Photo of Myeongseong’s tomb (20th century). Image Credit: WikiCommons.

Empress Myeongseong’s fascinating life is encapsulated in multiple stories, films and theatrical works. As Frank Jacob notes, she epitomised ‘female strength in a time of change.’

Recommended Reading

Frank Jacob, “Queen Min, foreign policy and the role of female leadership in late nineteenth-century Korea,” in The Routledge History of Monarchy, edited by Elena Woodacre, Lucinda H. S. Dean, Chris Jones, Russell E. Martin, and Zita Eva Rohr, 700-717 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019)

Mark Felton, Japan’s Gestapo: Murder, Mayhem and Torture in Wartime Asia (Casemate Publishers, 2009)

Young-woo Han, Empress Myeongseong and Korean Empire (Hyohyeong Publishing, 2001).

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