Queen Sondok of Silla
Her father was the king of the Silla kingdom, which had emerged in the south about 250 and 350 AD, and by the end of the 7th century would manage to unify the whole peninsula. Having no sons, he chose as his heir his daughter Sondok, which was no great surprise for a number of reasons. One was that women in this period had a certain degree of influence already as advisers, queen dowagers, and regents. Throughout the kingdom, women were heads of families since matrilineal lines of descent existed alongside patrilineal lines. The Confucian model, which placed women in a subordinate position within the family, was not to have a major impact in Korea until the fifteenth century. During the Silla kingdom, women’s status remained relatively high.
There were other reasons, too, that led the king to favor Sondok. Early in her life she had displayed an unusually quick mind. One anecdote tells of the time the king received a box of peony seeds from China accompanied by a painting of what the flowers looked like. Looking at the picture, seven year old Sondok remarked that while the flower was pretty it was too bad that it did not smell. “If it did, there would be butterflies and bees around the flower in the painting.” Her observation about the peonies lack of smell proved correct, one illustration among many of her intelligence, and thus ability to rule.
In 634, Sondok became the sole ruler of Silla, and ruled until 647. She was the first of three females rulers of the kingdom, and was immediately secceeded by her cousin Chindok, who ruled until 654.
Sondok’s reign was a violent one; rebellions and fighting in the neighboring kingdom of Paekche filled her days. Yet, in her fourteen years as queen of Korea, her wit was to her advantage. She kept the kingdom together and extended its ties to China, sending scholars to learn from that august kingdom. Like China’s Empress Wu Zetian, she was drawn to Buddhism and presided over the completion of Buddhist temples. She built the “Tower of the Moon and Stars,” considered the first observatory in the Far East. The tower still stands in the old Silla capital city of Kyongju, South Korea.
Sondok’s respect as a ruler may have been reinforced by the ancient tradition of female shamanism, which was prominent in Korea, and among some peoples still is. Up until Sondok’s time, the word shaman was assumed to apply to women. Shamans had great power as recognized intermediaries between gods and humans. Some presided over national ceremonies, but most were a kind of family priestess, whose role usually was inherited. Through spirit possession, shamans performed healings and exorcisms, revealed causes of family strife and advised on their resolution, picked auspicious days for weddings or burials, conducted rituals to guarantee continual prosperity, and healed those who were broken in body or soul. As foretellers of the future, shamans had enormous power. Histories tell us that Sondok was revered for her ability to anticipate advents. Might it have been this more than any other attribute that led to her popularity as a ruler? If so, it is a prime example of a way time honored female tasks have helped women assume leadership roles.
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