|Queen Seondeok of Silla, linocut with chine collé, 9.25" x 12.5", 2019 by Ele Willoughby|
Known for her intelligence, wisdom and benevolence, stories survive of her curiosity and cleverness even as a child. When her father the King was gifted peony seeds and a painting of peonies from China she remarked that it was a pity the lovely flowers had no scent. The astonished adults asked her how she knew; she had noted that the painting of the flower did not show bees or butterflies and had corrected deduced that they were unscented. One story recounts how she predicted an attack from the neighbouring Baekche kingdom by noting the sounds of frogs at the gate.
She was introduced to astronomy by her tutor and tried to discuss it with the Chinese ambassador but was rebuffed as Confucianism discouraged educating women. Then she predicted the occurrence and duration of a solar eclipse which angered him and he persuaded her father to stop her studies. Seondeok wrote the following on a votive jar dedicated to her grandmother:
Will I ever know the truth about the stars?
I’m too young to engage in theories about our Universe.
I just know that I want to understand more. I want to know all
I can. Why should it be forbidden?*
But when her father died without a male heir she became Queen as the first female sovereign in ancient Korea. During this turbulent time, the southern Korean peninsula was divided into three competing kingdoms of Silla, Goguryeo and Baekche and Seondeok was able to combine diplomacy, forging alliances with Tang China, with military might to weather rebellion and threats from other her neighbours during her reign. After lifting peasants’ taxes for a year and helping orphans and elderly, she set to work building a 9m tall moon and star-gazing tower Cheomseogdae. The bottle-shaped stone observatory still survives today, and is the oldest standing observatory in East Asia, and perhaps the world. The capital became a centre of culture and science; mathematics, astronomy and astrology flourished. The observatory is believed to have been the centre of an entire scientific district.
The building itself represented knowledge; the number of stones represents days of the year (scholars differ on whether it contains 362 or 365 large stones representing days in the solar or lunar year). The stones appear in 27 courses (for Seondeok, the 27th ruler) with 12 courses above and below the window entrance for the months of the year and these sum to 24, the number of solar terms in a year (24 points in traditional East Asian lunisolar calendars that matches a particular astronomical event or signifies some natural phenomenon). Including the stylobate, or platform on which it was built, gives 28 courses and 28 symbolizes the 28 constellations of East Asia. The addition of the two-tier top brings us to 30, the number of days in a month. The tower itself is a gnomon of a sundial and the window captures the sun’s rays on the interior floor at spring and autumn equinoxes. Astronomy was of vital importance as it governed agriculture and contemporary scientists produced detailed star charts. Astrology influenced political decisions of the day. Thus observations at Cheomseongdae were of utmost importance to Silla.
*Gabriella Bernardi, 'The unforgotten sisters: Sonduk, the astronomer queen.' Cosmos magazine, 28 March 2018
Hong-Jin Yang, 'Historical Astronomy of Korea', Korean Astronomy Olympiad, Korean Astronomical Society, 2012
K.P.Kulski, 'The Tower of the Moon and Stars: Queen Seondeok of Silla,' Unbound, 2017
Mark Cartwright, Cheomsongdae, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2016
Mark Cartwright, Queen Seondeok, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2016
Queen Seondeok of Silla, wikipedia, accessed August, 2019
Cheomseongdae, wikipedia, accessed August, 2019
Category of Astronomical Heritage: tangible immovableCheomseongdae observatory, Republic of Korea, UNESCO Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy, accessed August, 2019