Empress Myeogseong (October 19, 1851 – October 8, 1895), also known as Queen Min, married to King Gojong, the 26th King of the Joseon Dynasty. In 1902, she received the posthumous name, 孝慈元聖正化合天明成太皇后; 효자원성정화합천명성태황후; Hyoja Wonseong Jeonghwa Hapcheon Myeongseong Taehwanghu, often abbreviated as 明成皇后; 명성황후; Myeongseong Hwanghu, meaning Empress Myeongseong.
Queen Min, an unlikely person to take the reins of Korea during the last days of the Joseon dynasty, rose to the occasion. Born and raised in obscurity, Queen Min became a beacon for progress and independence in Korea, a beacon that too many wanted to turn off. In the end, her enemies succeeding in killing her, but they failed to dim her example.
Born on October 19, 1851, in Yeoju-gun (여주군 驪州郡), in the province of Kyeonggi (경기도 京畿道) (where the clan originated)., to the yangban clan Yeohung Mins, the young Min grew up out of the lime light. Although the clan had boasted of many highly positioned bureaucrats in its illustrious past, even bearing two queens: first, the wife of the third king of the Joseon Dynasty, Taejong, and second, the wife of the 19th king, Sukjong, by Myeongseong's birth, the clan battled poverty, sitting on the sidelines of royal power. During more uneventful eras, such an impotent clan would never have bred a queen. The political situation Korea provided a catalyst for the Min clan’s return and their rise to royalty once more.
The future queen received the name Min Ja-young (민자영) at birth. In every day life before marriage, she answered to the "daughter of Min Chi-rok (閔致祿 민치록)." At the age of eight she had lost both of her parents. Scant information about her mother, or how she spent her childhood, or the cause of her parents’ early deaths, exists.
|Empress of Korea
|October 19, 1851
|Yeoju County, Gyeonggi Province, Joseon
|October 8, 1895, aged 43
|Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Korean Empire
|1867 - 1895
|Gojong of Korea
|Sunjong of Korea
In 1864, King Cheoljong lay dying without a male heir, the result of suspected foul play by a rival branch of the royal family, the Andong Kim clan, which had risen to power by intermarriage with the royal Yi family. Queen Cheonin, the queen consort of Cheoljong and a member of the Kim clan, claimed the right to choose the next king. Traditionally, the eldest Dowager Queen selected the new king when no legitimate male heir to the throne lived. Cheoljong’s cousin, Great Dowager Queen Jo (King Ikjong's widow) of the Jo house, which too had risen to further prominence by intermarriage with the crown, held this title. Jo saw an opportunity to advance the influence of the Jo clan, the sole family that truly rivaled the Kim clan in Korean politics. As King Cheoljong fell deeper into his illness, Yi Ha-eung approached the Grand Dowager Queen. An obscure descendant of King Yeongjo, Yi had a son named Yi Myeong-bok who possibly had right to succeed to the throne.
Yi Ha-eung and Yi Myong-bok belonged to an obscure line of descent of the Yi royalty that managed to survive the often deadly political intrigue that frequently embroiled the Joseon court by having no affiliation with any factions. Only 12 years old, Yi Myeong-bok would not be able to fully rule until he came of age. The Jo clan also believed that they could easily influence Yi Ha-eung, who would act as regent for the to-be boy king. As soon as news of Cheoljong's death reached Yi Ha-eung through his intricate network of spies in the palace, he had the hereditary royal seal withdrawn in cooperation with Jo. That, in effect giving her absolute power to select the successor of the dynasty.
By the time Cheoljong's death became public, the Grand Dowager Queen kept the seal out of the hands of the Andong Kim clan. In the autumn of 1864, Great Dowager Queen Jo crowned Yi Myeong-bok King of the Kingdom of Joseon, with his father styled as Daewongun (大院君; 대원군; Daewongun; Grand Internal Prince). The strongly Confucian Daewongun proved a wise and calculating leader in the early years of Gojong's reign. He abolished corrupt government institutions, revised the law codes along with the household laws of the royal court and the rules of court ritual, and reformed the royal armies. Within a few short years, he secured complete control of the court and eventually receive the submission of the Jos while successfully disposing the last of the Kims, whose corruption, he believed, responsible for ruining the country.
A new queen
At the age of 15, his father decided Gojong should marry. He diligently looked for a queen without close relatives who would harbor political ambitions, yet with the noble lineage needed to justify his choice to the court and the people. One by one, he rejected candidates until the wife of Daewongun proposed a bride from her own clan. His wife described Min persuasively: orphaned, beautiful of face, healthy in body, level of education on the level of the highest nobles in the country.
Daewongun easily arranged the first meeting with his son and the proposed bride as she lived in the neighborhood in Anguk-dong. Their meeting proved a success, and on March 20, 1866, the future Queen (and later Empress Myeongseong) married the boy king; their wedding took place at the Injeongjeon Hall at Changdeok Palace. The wig (which was usually worn by royal brides at weddings) proved so heavy that a tall court lady supported her hair from the back. The wedding ceremony had hardly finished, when another three-day ceremony for the reverencing of the ancestors started. One can only imagine how difficult it would have been for a 15-year-old girl who had no father nor brothers for support to endure such ceremonies.
Invested as the Queen of Joseon, at the age of barely 16, Min ascended the throne with her husband during the coronation ceremony. She received the title Her Royal Highness, Queen Min (閔大妃 민대비 Min Daebi Queen Min), and "Her Palace Majesty" (중정마마) She possessed an assertive and ambitious nature, unlike other queens that came before her. She disdained lavish parties, rarely commissioned extravagant fashions from the royal ateliers, and almost never hosted afternoon tea parties with the powerful aristocratic ladies and princesses of the royal family, unless politics beckoned her to.
As Queen, court officials expected her to act as an icon to the high society of Korea, but Min rejected that belief. She, instead, read books reserved for men (examples of which were Springs and Autumns (春秋) and Notes of a Jwa on Springs and Autumns (춘추좌씨전), and taught herself philosophy, history, science, politics and religion. This tradition of scholarship is a characteristic of the Min women to this day. While delving in knowledge and personal matters, Queen Min rarely accompanied her husband Gojong, who found entertainment with appointed concubines and kisaengs at his private quarters, and at the tea houses of Hanseong.
Even without parents, Min secretly formed a powerful faction against Daewongun as soon as she reached adulthood. At the age of 20, she began to wander outside her apartments at Changgyeonggung and play an active part in politics. At the same time, the to-be (although not yet titled that) Queen defended her views against high officials who viewed her as becoming meddlesome. The Queen's aggressiveness upset the deeply-rooted-in-Confucian-values Daewongun. The political struggle between Min and Daewon-gun became public when the son she bore for Gojong died prematurely.
Daewon-gun publicly declared Min unable bear a healthy male child and directed Gojong to have intercourse with a royal concubine, Yeongbodang Yi. In 1880, the concubine gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Prince Wanhwagun, whom Daewongun titled Prince Successor. Min responded with a powerful faction of high officials, scholars, and members of her clan to bring down Daewongun from power. Min Sung-ho, Min’s relative, and Choi Ik-hyun, court scholar, wrote a formal impeachment of Daewongun to the Royal Council of Administration.
The document argued that Gojong, now 22, should rule in his own right, without the regency of the Daewongun. The Royal Council directed the Daewongun, with Gojong's approval, to retire to his estate at Yangju in 1882, the smaller Unhyeongung. Min then banished the royal concubine and her child to a village outside the capital, stripped of royal titles. The child soon died afterwards, with some accusing Min of involvement.
With the retirement of Daewongun and the expelled concubine and her son, the to-be Queen gained complete control over her court, placing her family in high court positions. By that action, Min proved herself worthy of the title Queen of Korea. Although her husband, King Gojong, officially ruled Korea, Queen Min showed greater political skill and intelligence than her husband. She had the real power in the Royal Court, a fact that captured the Daewongun's attention. He had thought that Queen Min would prove pliable to his will. That hope had quickly dispelled. Instead of a lamb, he had invited a lion into the Royal Court.
The Progressive Agenda
As Britain, France, Germany, moved upon East Asia in the nineteenth century, China, Japan, and Korea felt threatened. Each nation handled the challenge in their unique way. After Admiral Perry opened Japan to commerce after 1853, Japan responded by committing to a reform program, the Meiji Restoration, that would modernize Japanese institutions and open the island nation to trade and improved foreign relations. China, on the other hand, attempted to keep the Western powers and westernization at arms length. Korea, found itself conflicted. Two power factions, the Progressives and Conservatives, battled each other for policy control in Korean. That left Korea vulnerable to China, Japan, Russia, and the European powers.
Queen Min and King Gojong sided more with the Progressive movement than the Conservatives, yet Conservatives held powerful sway in Korea. Japan employed the tactics Admiral Perry used on them to open the Hermit Kingdom. Faced with Japan's naval and land forces, Korea signed the Ganghwa Treaty on February 15, 1876, agreeing to open treaty ports with Japan. Just as Perry's naval guns provoked a radical reform movement in Japan, the Meiji Restoration, Japan's naval guns provoked a reform movement in Korea, the Progressive movement.
Gojong and Min initiated investigative and study trips abroad to Japan, China, and the United States. The Conservative party opposed those trips, continually working to undermine the Progressive agenda to adopt Western technology. Queen Min promoted a plan received from a Chinese diplomat in Japan, the Korea Strategy. Min and Gojong supported new learning and adopting advances in making of ammunition, electricity, chemistry, smelting, mechanical engineering, cartography, and other basic subjects related to military affairs.
Insurrection of 1882
The modernization of the military met with opposition that led to the Insurrection of 1882. Members of the old military sought the support of Daewon-gun to overthrow Min and Gojong. Although bloody, Queen Min and King Gojong escaped to the safety of a hiding place. Appealing to the Qing Dynasty in China for help, Chinese troops put down the rebellion and restore Min and Gojong to the palace. Japan took advantage of the turmoil to force Gojong, without Min's knowledge, to sign a treaty August 10, 1882, paying indemnity and allowing the stationing of Japanese troops in Seoul.
Coup of December 4, 1884
The next bloody coup took place on December 4, 1884. This time the Progressives initiated the attempted overthrow of Min and King Gojong, this time out of frustration at the slow pace of reform. They targeted Conservative Party leaders for death. Aided by Japanese legation guards, the Korean Progressives seized control of the palace, issuing decrees in the name of the Queen and King. Chinese troops again came to the rescue of Min and Gojong, routing the Progressives and killing several of their key leaders. Japan, once again, forced Gojong, without Min's knowledge, to sign a treaty, the Hanseong Treaty indemnifying Japan for losses during the coup.
Li-Ito Agreement of 1885
As Queen Min and King Gojong struggled to bring progressive reforms in the face of Conservative resistance and Progressive impatience, tensions between China and Japan escalated. On April 18, 1885, China and Japan signed the Li-Ito Agreement in Tianjin, basically agreeing to keep each other informed about planned moves on Korea. Mistrust continued to heighten in spite of the treaty.
In the face of the turbulent times, Queen Min, with Gojong's support, supported a full agenda of progressive reforms. Queen Min supported reform in the economy, communications, transportation, agriculture, military science, education, the press, and medicine. She supported the founding of schools, newspapers, hospitals, and welcomed Christian missionaries from the United States and Europe. Christianity made remarkable strides under Queen Min's protection, the Christian work coming fully into the open for the first time since the horrific martyrdoms of 1866 and 1871.
The Eulmi Incident
Main Article: Eulmi Incident
Queen Min's life ended brutally and tragically in what has been named the Eulmi Incident. Evidence accepted by all parties indicates that Japanese soldiers, with the full compliance of the Japanese government in Tokyo and consul in Korea, butchered her on the royal palace grounds in the early morning hours of October 8, 1895. Japanese assassins attacked her in her private quarters, killed her with samuri swords, dragged her body outside and burned her remains.
Empress Myeongseong's role has been widely debated by historians. Some older Koreans who survived the Japanese occupation criticize her for failing to resist the Japanese militarily. The Japanese portrayal of Empress Myeongseong forms part of the recent controversy over allegations of revisionist history in Japanese school textbooks.
Many in South Korea, influenced by a recent novel, TV drama and musical, view her as a national heroine, for striving diplomatically and politically to keep Korea independent of foreign influence. Skilled in foreign affairs and diplomacy, she set in motion an ambitious plan to modernize Korea. The Japanese viewed her as an obstacle against its expansion overseas. Efforts to remove her from politics failed, orchestrated through rebellions prompted by her father-in-law, the influential regent, compelling the Empress to take a harsher stance against Japanese influence.
A fair and impartial view of Empress Myeongseong will conclude that she rose far above her station of birth to accomplish enormously important reforms. The Daewongun had selected her to marry his son because he thought she would be easy to control. That proved an erroneous judgment. Min stood her ground in the turmoil of tremendous conflict between powerful Conservative and Progressive parties. She navigated Korea through the perilous straits of encroachment by Western nations and by Eastern nations, attempting to maintain Korea's independence through modernization. That is an awesome task and responsibility for a woman selected for her meekness.
Korea has suffered from internal conflict between factions, the Conservatives and the Progressives, and from external threat from China, Japan, and Russia. The time she ruled with her husband, Gojong, marked a pivotal time in Korean history. Although she died in an assassination, her life cut short during the most important time for Progressive reform in Korea, still the work for reform and development that she put into motion has born fruit in our time. Queen Min; a lady of strength, intelligence, vision, and virtue in a chaotic time of conflict. That is her lasting legacy.
- The history of the Kyujanggak Royal Library, Seoul National Univ. Ref. code GK17289_00I0079. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
- Some sources say that Min was born in September 25, 1851. This is due to the difference in the calendar system.
- Queen Min ("Myongsong hwanghu").Global Korean Network of Los Angeles. Retrieved July 1, 2008.
- March 20, 1866 was based on the existing (lunar) calendar of the time.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bird, Isabella. Korea and her Neighbours. Charles E. Tuttle Publishing, 1986. ISBN 0804814899
- Dechler, Martina (ed.). Culture and the State in Late Choson Korea. Harvard University Asia Center, 2002. ISBN 0674007743
- Han, Woo-Keun. The History of Korea. University of Hawaii Press, 1970. ISBN 0824803345
- Lewis, James B. Frontier Contact between Choson Korea and Tokugawa Japan. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0700713018
- Mackenzie, Frederick A. The Tragedy of Korea. Global Oriental, 2010. ISBN 1901903095
- Mackenzie, Frederick A. Korea's Fight for Freedom. IndyPublish.com, 2006. ISBN 1428012079 (See also Project Gutenberg. Retrieved February 4, 2022.)
- Nahm, Andrew C. A History of the Korean People: Tradition & Transformation. Hollym International Corporation, 1988. ISBN 0930878566
- Nahm, Andrew C. Introduction to Korean History and Culture. Hollym International Corporation, 2010 (original 1993). ISBN 0930878086
All links retrieved September 7, 2017.
- The Sobering Truth of Empress Myeongseong's Killing. Chosun Ilbo.
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