The most famous of Korea's queens, Sondok (c. 581-647) played a pivotal role in the Silla kingdom, a dynasty that emerged in what is now southern Korea somewhere around 250 to 350 A.D. By the seventh century the Silla dynasty had unified the entire peninsula, something that became possible only because of Sondok's intelligent political connections made during her reign. As queen, she managed to defeat her enemies, build the first observatory in the Far East, introduce a standard religion, and make important political contacts during her reign. She is still revered as the greatest queen to ever rule Korea.
During the Silla age Korea was an enterprising country and very open to new ideas and ways of doing things. They even developed their own religious and educational foundations. Sondok's father had no sons, so he chose his daughter as his heir. This choice was not met with surprise or objections; at this time Korean women were allowed a far greater role in politics and society than they would be granted only a few centuries later. It was common for women to serve as advisers, regents, shamans, and queen dowagers, and in fact during this era ties with the mother's family were just as important as ties with the father's.
Born to Queen Ma-ya and King Chinpyong, Sondok's birthdate is debated. Some put her birth as early as 581 A.D., while others cite it as late as 610 A.D. Whatever the date of her birth, Sondok was born in Kumsang, the Silla capital, and spent most of her childhood inside the palace there. She had two younger sisters, Princess Sonwha and Princess Chon-myong. Some have said that Sondok's father intended her to rule after his death until a visitor from China, a land that was far more male-centered at the time than Korea was, scoffed at the idea. After that, it is said, he tried for a son. When Queen Ma-ya neglected to bear King Chinpyong any sons, he sent her away to a Buddhist convent in the mountains to become a nun. Sondok and her sisters stayed behind, but were very desolate after the departure of their mother. After Queen Ma-ya left, the king remarried a village woman named Seungman in the hopes of fathering a male heir, but Seungman too was unable to bear the king any sons. Since Sondok was the oldest of his daughters she eventually became queen after his death.
Early Interest in Buddhism and Astronomy
Sondok was known for her intelligence, and for her foresight. There is a story about Sondok showing her eye for detail and her logical mind. Her father received a box of peony seeds from China upon which there was a picture showing what the flower would look like when grown. Upon studying the picture, Sondok, who was seven years old at the time, bemoaned the flower's lack of scent. When she was asked why she thought the peony would not have a scent, she stated that if it indeed had a scent the flower would have been painted with butterflies and bees surrounding it. When the seeds were planted and the flower grown, it turned out that she was right. The peonies had no smell.
Sondok was very interested in astronomy from a young age. Every night the skies were clear she could be found outside examining the heavens. She did this mostly on her own, but she eventually employed the court's royal astronomers to teach her even more about the skies. When she was 15 Sondok also developed a great interest in Buddha and Confucianism. She studied under Lord Lin Fang, an ambassador from China who also happened to be an astronomer, as many high officials were in those days. Lin Fang presented Korea with a whole new calendar, the Chinese calendar, convincing Sondok's father that the Chinese one was superior to the Korean one. Sondok asked Lin Fang to teach her all he knew about astronomy, but he refused to do so because he believed that women were meant only for the home and for children. Undeterred in her interest, Sondok studied without him and at one point made calculations for the time a solar eclipse would take place. While her calculations were different than the ones proposed by Lin Fang and his Chinese calendar, hers ended up being the correct calculations. This made Lin Fang angry, since his predictions had been wrong, and he convinced Sondok's father that she should not be allowed to study astronomy anymore. Apparently Sondok took no heed of her father's orders. According to Jennie Ngoc Vu on the Pacific University Website, Sondok wrote a message and put it in her grandmother's ancestral jar that said, "Will we ever know the truth about the stars? I am too young to venture a theory about our universe. I only know that I want to understand more deeply. I want to know all I can know. Why should it be forbidden?"
Became Queen in Midst of Turmoil
Sondok became ruler of Silla in 634. At the time she took over as queen, Korea was split into three kingdoms, the northern Konguryo, who were the most violent, the central Paekche, and the Silla in the south. While Chinese influence permeated the entire region, the Silla dynasty, furthest away from China, was the least influenced. In addition, Silla was considered the most sophisticated of the three kingdoms, and was the most peaceful. Despite Silla's relative peace, Sondok still found herself ruling over a violent kingdom; there were rebellions and fighting in the neighboring kingdoms of Paekche and Koguryo, and troubles with them occupied much of her time. King Mu of the Paekche kingdom was particularly interested in destroying the Silla kingdom, and joined with the brutal Koguryo to attack Silla, and for a time Sondok was not even safe inside her own kingdom. At another point she was nearly removed from power by rebels called the "True Bone" Silla, who refused to except any but male rulers. Luckily, the queen's loyal general, Kim Yu-shin, heard of the plot and managed to defeat the rebels before any harm could be done. To prevent such a thing from happening again, Sondok is said to have thoroughly embraced the principle that "an enemy of an enemy is a friend." Through strategic governance, she managed to not only keep her kingdom together, but also to initiate ties with China that brought that country to her aid in pushing back Paekche and Koguryo incursions. She kept up her ties with China and later sent several scholars there to learn from the wise Chinese, who were known for their scholarship and learning. She charged one man in particular, the monk Chajang, with gathering as much learning as he could on Buddhist scriptures so he could, in turn, teach it to the Korean people.
Sondok also set up a military-religious school called Hwarang-do for boys. This martial arts school taught a strict code of ethics that included the O-gae, or Five Rules: "Il sa kun e choong," or loyalty to one's country; "E sa chin e hyo," loyalty to one's parents and teachers; "Sam kyo woo e shin," trust and brotherhood among friends; "Sa im jun moo tae," never retreat in the face of the enemy; and "Oh sal saeng you taek," never take a life without a cause. It also included the Kyo-Hoon, or Nine Virtues: In, humanity; Oui, justice; Yea, courtesy; Ji, wisdom; Shin, trust; Sun, goodness; Duk, virtue; Choong, loyalty; and Young, courage. Instilling these strict moral codes helped Korea in many of its battles.
Built Chomsongdae Observatory Tower
In her effort to instill Buddhism, Sondok oversaw the completion of many temples in her kingdom during her reign. She also had built the Chomsongdae Observatory, the Tower of the Moon and Stars, which is thought to be the very first space observatory constructed in the far east. According to Vu on the Pacific University Website, the construction of Chonsongdae is unusual in that Sondok "used 365 stones, one for each day of the year. It is 27 levels high because Sonduk was the 27th ruler of Silla. The tower was built on a platform of 12 tiles for the 12 months." Approximately 29 feet high, the Chomsongdae Observatory was still in existence in 2000, and stands in the old Silla capital city of Kyongju, South Korea. Sondok, during her reign also ordered the building of the famous nine-tiered pagoda of Hwangyongsa which was 224 feet tall, a remarkable feat for those days. Unfortunately, the beautiful pagoda was destroyed when the Mongols attacked Korea in the thirteenth th century, although the ruins still remain.
In addition to being a Buddhist, Sondok was considered a shaman, a word that referred solely to women until around the time of Sondok's reign. Shamans, a holdover from an earlier religion, were viewed as human ties between mankind and the spirit world. They were mainly considered spiritual leaders inside families, but some were more public and even presided over large public ceremonies. Shaman performed such tasks as healings, exorcisms, solving family problems, conducting rituals, and predicting outcomes. It is said that Sondok was revered for her ability to anticipate future happenings, which is thought to have added to her popularity as a leader. According to the Women in World History Website, Sondok's shamanism "is a prime example of a way time honored female tasks have helped women assume leadership roles."
Had Another Vision
As an example of Sondak's second sight is a story in which Sondok had a vision that saved her kingdom from attack. She dreamt that there was a mass of thousands of irate frogs and toads approaching the city in a threatening manner. As soon as she woke up she sent out men to guard the borders of her kingdom. When they got to the boundary they discovered an army from Paekche, coming to attack. Because of the advanced notice provided by Sondok's dream, the army was routed. Tradition holds that Sondok was also able to foresee the date upon which she was going to die.
Sondok eventually took a king consort, but the pair produced no heirs, and she ruled until her death in 647. At her death the throne of Silla passed to her cousin Chindok, the daughter of Sondok's uncle Kuk-pan. It would be Sondok's nephew who would conquer the Paekche and Koguryo kingdoms to unite the Korean peninsula for the first time.
The era in which the Silla dynasty ruled over Korea is considered the Golden Age of Korea, and Sondok did much to contribute to the culture of that time. In Hamhunb, North Korea, the Sondok airport was named after the ancient queen, and her life story continues to be the subject of books and a significant part of the history of ancient Korea.
Korea Society Website, http://www.koreasociety.org/KS–curriculum/HS/2/2-text/2–123.htm (December 25, 2004).
"Queen Sondok," Women in World History Curriculum,http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine7.html (December 25, 2004).
"Queen Sondok," Women Online,http://womenmagazine.com/managearticle.asp (December 25, 2004).
"Sondok, Queen of Silla," Women of Royalty,http://royalwomen.tripod.com/id17.html (December 25, 2004).
Vu, Jennie Ngoc, "Queen Sondok," Pacific University Website,http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/korea/gender-sondok.html (December 25, 2004).