Sŏndŏk of Silla

Portrait of Sŏndŏk of Silla. Image Credit: https://womenslibrary.org.uk/2021/07/23/korean-women-in-history/.

By Johanna Strong

Sŏndŏk (or Seondeok) of Silla was born in c. 606 as Princess Deokman to King Jinpyeong and Lady Maya of the Kim clan. Silla was one of three kingdoms located on the modern-day Korean Peninsula. *** As a child, Sŏndŏk was described as generous, benevolent, wise, and smart, which led her father to choose her as his heir since he had no sons. She became queen in 632 at her father’s death and was Korea’s first female sovereign. Though high-status women were commonplace in Korean society, Sŏndŏk is one of only 3 queens of Silla.

During her reign, she oversaw the unification of three kingdoms to create Korea and she laid the foundation for future alliances with China. She oversaw final construction on the Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory, which was the first observatory in the Far East. Her reign is also known for the spread of Buddhism and the introduction of Zen Buddhism to Silla. As part of this spread, she oversaw the completion of several prominent Buddhist temples, some of which can still be seen today.

Sŏndŏk never married and died in early 647, leaving her realm to Jindeok, Silla’s second queen. Sŏndŏk is remembered fondly in Korea today, serving as the titular character in the popular South Korean TV drama “Queen Seondeok”.

Recommended Reading

Kyung Moon Hwang, A History of Korea: An Episodic Narrative (London: Macmillan Education, 2017)

Mark Cartwright, “Queen Seondeok,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/Queen_Seondeok/

For younger readers:

Sheri Holman, Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars (Toronto: Scholastic, 2002).

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