Queen Seondeok of Silla (Korean Civilization)
was the first queen in Korean history and the first queen of the Silla kingdom, which was then arguably the weakest of Korea's warring Three Kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla). She leads a very scientific-focused Korea with some cultural bonuses, and attracted much controversy when announced as the leader for Korea, largely because several (most likely) male Korean gamers criticized her as having been chosen only for being female. Other criticisms were levelled at her historical performance as leader, with critics
(see comments) decrying the loss of 40 Silla forts and defenders
pointing out how she was an accomplished diplomat who laid the foundation for Silla's eventual conquest of all Korea (also, Seondeok presided over a Korean Golden Age for Silla).
This dispute will be discussed further, below, with citations to historical scholars and primary Korean sources showing why the defenders are more correct and less prone to warping history than the critics, may of whom seem to share an anti-female bias.
Seondeok has also attracted controversy for not looking Korean enough, which is also (somewhat) historically relevant vis-a-vis the only known vaguely-historical seeming portrait of her, albeit from far later than the Three Kingdoms period, and also discussed below.
: Cities with an established Governor receive +3% Culture and +3% Science for each promotion that Governor has.
: The hwarang
were an elite group of young males, sometimes called "Flower Knights" who were expected to be chivalrous, loyal, culturally cultivated and well educated, and were groomed to become politicans and officials later in life. One of the most famous hwarang was the renowned General Kim Yushin, who served Seondeok quite well (putting down the rebellion against her late in her life for example). This is a suitable bonus because it refers to the scientific and cultural upbringing of the hwarang, though the ahistoricity of this ability mostly derives from the hwarang essentially playing the role of educators (they were not, generally, themselves educators of others).
Another ahistorical element (though small in the long term) is that the Civ VI governors (including two females and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds) serve as "hwarang" by implication via their bonuses from Seondeok. Historically, all hwarang were male, and Korean.
It could be argued that Seondeok's leader ability ought to have alluded to her Tang Dynasty military alliance (which gave the Silla kingdom some hope for relief from the combined Goguryeo-Baekje attacks on Silla), or to her religious focus--Seondeok was known for having constructed many Buddhist temples in her time
, and completing construction of perhaps ancient Korea's tallest structure, a nine-storey wooden pagoda for the Hwangnyongsa temple, which became a focal point of Korean state-sponsored Buddhism. Each of the nine storeys in this massive 68 or 80 meter tall wooden structure represented one of Silla's enemies which Silla was supposed to defeat (including China, and the two other Korean kingdoms).
However, the Hwarang leader ability does, gameplay wise, synergize with Korea's seowon (which was actually an educational institution from much later in Korean history than the Three Kingdoms period).
Appearance/Animation/Bidam's Rebellion (Rise and Fall Trailer)
(video of her intro in Civ VI); In-game
(Civ wiki showing her in-game portrait) vs. historical
image likely from far later than the Three Kingdoms period (image in the South Korean public domain, available via Wikipedia)
Initial First Look videos (like this International one
) featured a Seondeok who had somewhat plump cheeks, somewhat un-Asian looking eyes, and darker skin complexion. Comments from YouTubers included "She doesn’t even look Korean" (Atlas Fell), and "모델링 너무 빻았는데 (She's too ugly)" (81forzazlatan), and it was discussed on Reddit
I would agree Seondeok did seem somewhat more swarthy in appearance, with non-Asian eyes, in these initial videos. It may merit mention that the plump cheeks match her appearance in a picture of unknown origin in Wikipedia
(likely made many years after her death, as records from the Three Kingdoms time do not portray the rulers in such pictorial form). The picture in question is now in the South Korean public domain.
Seondeok's appearance was later changed
, and this was seen in later previews (including live streams from the developers, notably in one live stream her appearance change was indicated as an example of the developers reading feedback from fans). Seondeok's current in-game appearance shows a drastically thinner (compared to the original version) woman with slightly more alert-looking eyes and an overall more Asian appearance which may even (perhaps?) be based on the appearance of the voice actress
(link to Korean voice actress interview). [Notably, this interview video had many more positive comments than the International First Look video for Korea.]
Seondeok's Silla crown
, however, has never been criticized to my knowledge. It is a fairly distinctive sight to us Koreans, as we have seen it in history books and so on (it is also one of the most grand ancient treasures uncovered in Korea, and made of actual gold).
Seondeok's (purple) dress
appears to be somewhat based on this photo
from a museum (showing Silla crown jewels), and not, by comparison, based on this photo
from the Queen Seondeok
South Korean TV drama series (this dress is notably heavier-looking, with tassels and spiral designs). (In my opinion, the in-game dress uses imagery that is arguably too Chinese--are those dragons I see on the dress?) The in-game dress lacks the spiral designs shown on the parts of the dress outside of the lining, however, perhaps for simplicity (and to give the animators ease given that they reconstructed her face).
It is also worth mentioning that Seondeok is the only in-game leader from Rise and Fall
who makes a physical appearance in the Rise and Fall trailer
(59 seconds in). She is portrayed wearing a purple dress quite similar to her in-game dress, and the distinctive golden Silla crown and watches as her forces fall under siege by mounted cavalrymen. She also looks somewhat disheartened and/or ill, which matches her historical involvement at this time in Bidam's rebellion against her
in January, 647 AD.
(Historically, Bidam was previously a high official appointed by Seondeok, and was in that position for about 1 and a half years
(links to podcast series "Almost Forgotten" episode about Seondeok, created by one Charlie Fliegel). According to the Hwarang Chronicles
or Hwarang segi
(in Korean, 화랑세기), Bidam's rebellion took place when Queen Seondeok was quite ill, and indeed, the Ancient History Encyclopedia article on Seondeok cites illness as the probable cause of Queen Seondeok's death
, though Wikipedia also correctly notes some theorize Seondeok died partly out of shock at the rebellion. On January 8, Queen Seondeok passed away.
The next section in the Samguk-sagi
, for Queen Jindeok (Seondeok's immediate, notably also female, Silla successor) records that Bidam and 30 people who rebelled with him were executed on January 17 during the first year of Queen Jindeok’s reign (i.e., the same year 647 A.D.). The Samguk-sagi
notes that General Kim Yushin (fighting on behalf of Seondeok) and Bidam were at war for about 10 days (the rebellion began January 8, ended January 17).
There is no direct mention of how Queen Seondeok died in either the Samguk-sagi
or the Hwarang Chronicles
. So, there are two hypotheses as to how Seondeok dies: (1) death from illness (more likely, given the Hwarang Chronicles
mentioning that Seondeok was very ill at the time), or (2) being killed by rebel soldiers. A popular Korean novelist, Choi In-ho (최인호), wrote in his novel Lost Kingdom
(잃어버린 왕국) that Queen Seondeok was killed during the rebellion--but this was from the novelist's imagination. There are no ancient sources stating Seondeok was killed (and indeed, if she had
been, one might reasonably expect such a big moment to be mentioned in the historical record.))
Controversy (Seondeok vs. Korean Anti-Feminists)
Which takes me to my section on why Seondeok is a controversial leader (aside from her appearance issues addressed above). Interestingly, if you look at the Wikipedia entry for Seondeok's editing history
, a great many changes by one "Zcheckz" were made to describe Seondeok as "vicious", and also to claim that she was "assassinated" and that "Bidam was a person with a strong political influence over the court who had a good reputation among the people so that many of them joined his cause" (in fact the rebellion seems to have been rather small-scale). So Bidam was elevated and Seondeok stated as having been assassinated. Why? Because it presents Bidam as being (to whatever extent) "right" in rebelling against Seondeok, and also portrays Seondeok as having been assassinated--which is then cited as evidence her people hated her for being a "tyrant". (In this regard, one YouTube comment by "립허크" on the International First Look video
(currently the third from the top) states, in part, "People uprise against her tyranny and she trembled without anything idea / Dying in the hands of rebel...") Actual history, by contrast, and as mentioned above, does not elevate Bidam nearly as much, nor portray Seondeok as having been killed either (and in fact, the ancient records tend to suggest Seondeok died of illness).
A similar, although perhaps more well-intentioned, historical erasure can be found in the Civilopedia entry for Seondeok
(scroll down to Civilopedia entry). The Civilopedia entry does not mention Bidam's rebellion at all (!), though the hints for Korea's announcement (via Firaxis Twitter feed in early December 2017) did include a kite (among other allusions to legends about Seondeok), and this kite alludes to Bidam's rebellion.
What is this kite and how does it relate to Bidam's rebellion? The story goes that Bidam saw a star fall near Seondeok's abode, and stated that it was a sign Seondeok was due to fall. In response, General Kim Yushin flew a burning kite back in the sky to show the star was back in its place, signifying Seondeok was not to fall to the rebels--and indeed, she did not. Firaxis put up an explanation of the Korea First Look hints on Facebook
, and mentioned Bidam's rebellion, albeit without Bidam's name: "During Queen Seondeok’s reign, an uprising claimed that "female rulers cannot rule the country” pointing to a falling star as their sign. In response, she flew a burning kite to show that the star is back in place."
Though Firaxis clearly knew about Bidam's rebellion and showed it in the Rise and Fall
trailer, and perhaps in part due to YouTube controversy over Seondeok among a vocal minority of (likely male) Korean gamers, the Civilopedia entry for Seondeok does not mention Bidam's rebellion at all, blandly skipping over that and saying, "Until her death in 647, Queen Seondeok served the Silla kingdom as an adaptable queen whose intellect protected her people during a difficult time of conquest." Nevertheless, this summation in the Civilopedia is a fairly accurate characterization of Seondeok's success at diplomatic maneuvers, which allowed Silla to survive, and later, thrive, dominating all Korea later on (see Kyung Moon Hwang's 2016, 2nd edition of A History of Korea
, page 21 which argues Seondeok saved Silla from destruction and laid the groundwork for Silla's unification of Korea--a version of pages near there can be found on Google Books here
The Civilopedia entry on Seondeok
is also accurate in talking about Seondeok's focus on science and religion, and in mentioning that the arts flourished under her reign (all these are discussed elsewhere in this post).
However, Seondeok is criticized for her rulership by the same (likely male) Korean gamers who so hated on her on YouTube. These persons point to the loss of 40 forts to the Baekje ("Only lose land with never getting, she lose 40 castles. F.O.R.T.H.Y. " whines the spelling-challenged user "립허크" (see third comment on the International First Look video
). It is true Silla lost 40 forts during Seondeok's reign, but the loss in terms of actual proportions is overstated (in this
Reddit thread, "rathell100" states Seondeok "loses 80% of the country" which is flagrantly false). But it should be noted that Baekje and Goguryeo had allied at this time, and the Silla kingdom could not realistically expect to defeat them (see Kyung Moon Hwang's A History of Korea
, page 14). It took Tang military assistance over many years before Silla was eventually able to beat the other two kingdoms and create a unified Korea
In the Unified Silla period, the Silla capital of Gyeongju was prosperous, and unified Silla itself enjoying a "golden age" of architecture and literature, astronomy and mathematics
according to Neil MacGregor (former head of the British Museum). It is also worth mentioning that in Seondeok's time, Silla was itself already in a golden age of arts and science
(look to the subsection titled "A Thriving Kingdom").
One of Seondeok's achievements is considered a grounds for criticism by those Korean gamers, who also criticize Seondeok for the construction of temples and in particular the Hwangnyongsa pagoda (given the expense of such construction, which indeed, was likely to have been expensive given it required the labors of a Baekje architect and 200 artisans
). That being said, Hwangnyongsa was almost certainly ancient Korea's most impressive structure given its height of 68 or 80 meters and impressive use of woodwork without nails
It should also be noted that there is bias in some of the historical sources with information on Seondeok. The pro-Confucian Samguk-sagi
criticized Wu Zetian and Seondeok alike, and its bias against female rulers is quite clear. Its Confucian author, Kim Bushik, did however state of Seondeok that while she was "generous, benevolent, wise and smart" (see Kyung Moon Hwang's A History of Korea
, p. 20) for a relief campaign for commoners Seondeok completed before ascending the throne.
But Kim Bushik has dimmer views of Seondeok's leadership abilities largely (only) because she was female, saying of Seondeok "According to heavenly principles, the yang [male] is hard while the yin [female] is soft; and people kow that men are to be revered and women are subordinate. So how could Silla have allowed an old maid to leave her inner sanctum in order to govern the country's affairs? Silla allowed her to ascend to become the king, and sure enough chaos ensued. How fortunate that the country did not get destroyed!
" (see Kyung Moon Hwang's A History of Korea
, p. 20). (If this sounds like the Koreans who disliked Seondeok on YouTube, you are hearing correctly--many Koreans are raised in the Confucian tradition even today in school, and Kim Bushik was as Confucian and anti-female as one might expect of an ancient Confucian scholar).
Nevertheless, Kim Bushik's story about Seondeok successfully subverting the Tang emperor's demand to step down in order to get Tang military aid (Seondeok refused, and got the aid anyway), ironically make Seondeok's leadership abilities quite clear, and in this regard Seondeok is cited by Firaxis and scholars (revisiting Seondeok in modern times) alike for laying the groundwork for Silla's eventual domination of the Korean peninsula.
The pro-Buddhist Samguk-yusa (삼국유사) is much more positive about Seondeok as a leader than Kim Bushik is and mentioned Seondeok's unusually perceptive abilities with regards to three prophecies she made, according to Kyung Moon Hwang's A History of Korea
In-game Spoken Language
Seondeok oddly speaks modern Korean (ahistorical), and refers to Korea as "Hanguk" in her lines, which is a modern term to refer to Korea typically common among south Koreans. This is also ahistorical, and Seondeok should refer to herself as a Silla monarch, even though she did lay the groundwork for Silla to defeat the other two kingdoms and Tang China itself to create a newly (and for the first time) unified Korea.
The "Hanguk" reference is rather telling though, as Silla has more significance and respect among south Koreans than say, the north Koreans, as north Koreans note Silla only unified two-thirds of what is now the modern Korean peninsula. And even with this noted, it's also true that some Koreans view Silla as "traitorous" because it involved China in (internal) Korean conflict (see Kyung Moon Hwang's A History of Korea, page 18).
Many of Seondeok's lines in-game allude to stars and prophecy (Seondeok's intro says the stars foretold of the meeting, she alludes to the heavens predicting the player's defeat, and also alludes to her (actual) historical prophecy as to her own death, mentioned as one of the three key prophecies Seondeok made in the Samguk-yusa). This is in line with Seondeok's astronomical focus in Gyeongju (further analysis forthcoming in the below Cheomseongdae section). Astronomy was a focal point of the Silla state for agricultural purposes (setting the agricultural calendar), though it often intersected with Silla interest in astrology-- forecasting the weather, sure, but also politically auspicious or unfortunate events to come, often tied to the legitimacy of the current ruler.
There is one ahistorical unvoiced line, where Seondeok says in response to the player saying "It is an honor to meet you" that she invites the player to visit her capital, and "Our seowon are the finest examples of scientific and political thought." Seowons did not exist in Seondeok's time and came from the late-14th century AD (through 20th century) Choson dynasty.
: Tries to build up Science, and likes civilizations that do the same
. Dislikes civilizations with a weak Science output
Cheomseongdae is a astronomical observatory (its name literally means "stargazing tower
" or, "reverently regarding the stars platform
") constructed during Queen Seondeok's reign in Gyeongju, a center of arts and science in Seondeok's time
, and reflects Silla and Queen Seondeok's focus on astronomy, which was useful for agriculture and was a key way in which the Three Kingdoms determined what was auspicious and what not
, as discussed earlier in the In-game Lines/Quotes section (you'll also recall Bidam cited a star falling as evidence Queen Seondeok would too, for example). Considered the oldest surviving observatory in East Asia, Cheomseongdae still stands in Gyeongju.
Numeric significance is built into Cheomseongdae's brickwork
, as it has somewhere between 362 - 365 bricks to symbolize the days of the year, and these were set in 27 courses, to represent Seondeok being the 27th monarch of the Silla kingdom. Its square body and round top are thought to represent the belief that the sky was round and the Earth square
(scroll to page 63). It is also 29 layers from bottom to top, corresponding to 29.5 days in a lunar month.
Cheomseongdae is a fitting name for Seondeok's science focus, and actually ties to her reign in a way that makes sense (compare this to Tamar's agenda, "Narikala Fortress"
also named after a structure
, albeit one not tied to her reign, let alone her reputation (Tamar was not famous for building walls).
Whether Seondeok would have disliked those weak in science/astronomy
is unknown, but she certainly would have seen astronomy as important, so at least the first half of the agenda (liking civs who do well in science) is true. It is historically attested to by Seondeok's interest in education as well (though it's debatable whether literary knowledge is as such "science", it's certainly education, which in Civ is almost always tied to scientific knowledge).
: Farms receive +1 Food and Mines receive +1 Science if adjacent to a Seowon.
: This merits mention only because it directly alludes to Seondeok's role as a queen in the Three Kingdoms period. (Generally, civilization abilities don't tie with the leader, except for leaders like Trajan, Tamar, and some others, arguably). It is unclear whether this is meant to allude to the Three Kingdoms period itself, which was a period of frequent war (but also admittedly scientific and cultural advancement in all three kingdoms despite that).
I think that there's nothing about the Three Kingdoms period that specifically recalls prospering farms, but if I wanted to be charitable, I would consider it a reference to the fertile agricultural lands of Silla's rival, the Baekje kingdom
The mine science bonus (arguably) reflects the warlike nature of the Three Kingdoms period. I think overall the bonus is ill-named, however, and could have been better if it referred to Korea after the Three Kingdoms period (i.e. the Unified Silla period), perhaps during the Choson Dynasty period (under King Sejong the Great
, Korean farms did indeed prosper, new weapons of war and daily-life tools were created, and various texts on all manners of daily living were created).
- Seondeok's Hwarang leader bonus alludes to the famous Silla elite males, and ties to the gameplay relatively well, though ahistoricity arises from the fact that female, non-Korea Civ VI governors (hey Reyna!) can become "hwarang" by extension in having Seondeok's bonuses. It is also arguably that Seondeok should have had a more religious or diplomatic bonus to reflect other areas of her reign that was more her focus than the hwarang (though one of them, General Kim Yushin, served Seondeok ably and well, defeating Bidam's rebellion for example).
- Seondeok's crown is a relatively accurate visual summation of a Silla crown but other aspects of her appearance (like her dress) are arguably not all that historical (albeit, we have relatively scarce reliable sources on what Seondeok actually looked like anyway).
- Seondeok is the only Civ VI leader to appear in the Rise and Fall trailer, and has summoned controversy to herself for being female (strong anti-female Confucian bias in ancient sources and modern-day Korean gamers), for losing 40 forts, and for constructing Hwangnyongsa's massive pagoda at what was presumably a large expense. However, historians, ancient sources (and Firaxis) point to her laying the groundwork for Silla to dominate the Korean peninsula, which Silla did in the Unified Silla period. Skilful diplomacy allowed Seondeok to get Tang aid without bowing to the demand to have a Chinese prince lead Silla, and also helped Silla withstand the mighty military alliance of Baekje and Goguryeo, which were considerably more powerful militarily at the time.
- The Civilopedia is accurate in summing up Seondeok as being Buddhism-focused, with investment in arts and science, and also accurate in noting that her use of a Tang Dynasty alliance with Silla ensured Silla would survive and thrive. However, it oddly skips out on mentioning Bidam's rebellion entirely even though Firaxis alluded to the rebellion in the Rise and Fall trailer and also in the hints on Twitter preceding the Korea First Look video.
- Anti-Seondeok Korean gamers have gone to considerable lengths to make Seondeok appear worse as a ruler than she was, editing Wikipedia to add in uncited references to her being "vicious" and assassinated (no evidence of that, anywhere). Similar sentiments elevate Bidam, the Silla nobleman who rebelled against Seondeok, saying she was unfit to rule as a female, and portray Seondeok as some sort of tyrant. Historical evidence bears no support for either the concept that Seondeok was incompetent, let alone a tyrant. In fact, even the anti-female, pro-Confucian Samguk-sagi (whose comments on females being weak and unfit to rule echo certain YouTube user Koreans) noted that Seondeok created a relief program for commoners prior to ascending the throne. The pro-Buddhist Samguk-yusa is positive about Seondeok and mentions Seondeok's three prophecies, including one where she prophesized her own death, which is arguably alluded to in the in-game lines when Seondeok is defeated.
- Seondeok's in-game language is inaccurate--not only does she speak in modern Korean, but she mentions South Korea's common name for Korea ("Hanguk"), with no reference to Silla.
- Seondeok's in-game lines are based on Seondeok's interest in astronomy and the Silla preoccupation with astronomy and prophecy as a whole (as well as Seondeok's prediction of her own death). One unvoiced line refers to seowons, which is ahistorical, as seowons were a Choson Dynasty structure from much later in Korean history.
- Seondeok's Cheomseongdae agenda is fitting, as it was an ancient observatory built during her reign and which reflected her interest in astronomy and science (Gyeongju prospered in both during her reign).
- The civilization bonus is arguably ahistorical, though the farm bonus may refer to the Baekje kingdom's prosperous farm land and the mine-science bonus may refer to the constant warring in the Three Kingdoms period. A more historically apt name could have referenced the Unified Silla period or the Choson Dynasty period, which saw prosperity in agriculture and science, among other aspects.
To be sure, arguments may be inevitable. But I think there's a right way to discuss it and a wrong way to discuss it. I'm discussing some of the historical arguments/controversies around Seondeok below (arguably the most interesting of the Civ VI leader controversies, with Poundmaker a close rival in that regard). Hopefully, this will not unleash the (likely male) Korean trolls who whined about Seondeok's being chosen for being female, etc.
How are you planning to account for historical bias in both coverage and surviving media? You're saying "let's not argue over history", when the whole field of history is dedicated to, well, arguing with each other over history
I don't want to make light of this. I just feel that's possibly one of the most important parts of history. As it stands, this could get bogged down with people just throwing citations at each other.
As far as citations go, feel free to point out places in my posts where I could use some more citation. The post is atypically long because I'm tracking the controversy and citing some of the Koreans who had issues with Seondeok being chosen, so as to better authenticate my support for Queen Seondeok as a good choice for a Korean leader--I did suggest her as a leader for Korea way before the expansion was announced, after all.