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Korea's Queen Sindok,
A Pawn of Successive Power Struggles:
1356-2003


By Hildi Kang

  Incense smoke and candle smoke mingled with prayers as the old Korean woman introduced me to the spirit of Queen Sindok. The queen, wife of the founding king of the Choson dynasty (1392), died in 1396. One would expect her to have been buried and honored appropriately, yet the hostile third king approved several negative acts that attempted to completely obliterate the memory of this queen. The organized forgetting, however, failed to take place.

Little is written about Queen Sindok in either the Korean or English language: yet her significance reaches beyond her personal life and death. Since she made no direct contributions to history, the question arose as to why, between 1400 and 1900, ten subsequent monarchs reviewed the circumstances surrounding her death and intervened (or refused to intervene) in her behalf.

Using archival research to fill in details of Queen Sindok's life and death, and interviews to make her story more real, I searched for the social and political factors that brought her to the attention of these various monarchs. I suspected the link to be the increasingly strict adherence of Confucian ancestor rites, and at the simplest level this proved true.

However, looking at factors that affected her life as well as her memory after death, it seems that her treatment was the result of distinct power struggles that swirled around her. She rose to honor because of a dynastic struggle; she was dishonored because of a power struggle between royal families; and her name appeared and disappeared over the centuries coupled with the on-going power struggles between the Neo-Confucian beliefs of scholar-officials and the monarchy. Here I found not one, but three separate understandings of Confucian ritualism that fueled first the appeals in her behalf, second the various king's refusals of the appeals, and finally the complete about-face that caused her to become a model for proper protocol.

This queen is doubly unique. Although the second wife of the dynasty's founder, she was its first queen, and called by the statesman Song Siyol in 1669, the "mother of the country." The details set forth in this article will examine Queen Sindok's story from a new perspective, showing that she is also unique in that her honor in life, dishonor in death, and the ensuing Confucian controversy, trace some of the major power struggles that defined Korean political life.

In 2002 I visited her tomb in a park-like setting northeast of Seoul, next her most dishonored tombstone shoved into the retaining wall of a stream now buried beneath a major Seoul boulevard, and finally the reinstated death-day rituals (chehyang) at her tomb site. It was there on another occasion that I found myself formally introduced to the queen's spirit by the elderly woman who, for forty years, has unofficially attended Sindok's spirit with incense, candles and prayers.

[Note: The preliminary results of this research were presented in October of 20003 at the Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies in Phoenix. Arizona.]


The Queen's Ceremony

We joined the descendants of the queen for the annual Confucian ceremony at her tomb site. Her tomb in on the hill in the background.





And were invited to stay for lunch.