Though her name was not recorded during the time of birth, Empress Myeonseong, also known as Queen Min, remains one important and truly great historical figure that most people should know but have actually never even heard about. Born on October 19, 1851 to government official Min Chi’rok and his wife, the girl was orphaned at age nine. As the royal family needed a future heir to the throne, a search for a suitable wife for the very young ruler Gojong began. Taewongun, the father and regent of Korea’s young royal ruler, chose the young orphan girl as his son’s future wife. After searching and considering many other girls, Taewongun chose orphan Min due to her weak family ties and the presumably low threat she posed to Korean politics. (However, as realized much later, Taewongun greatly underestimated this girl and would eventually regret this decision as he learned that Min would not easily assume a submissive role as queen). At just age 16, Min married 15 year-old King Gojong. At such a young age, these two teenagers became the official rulers of Korea.
As a queen, Min was expected to host dinner parties, gossip with other women, and set fashion standards for the rest of the kingdom. However, this new queen expressed no interest toward these activities and, instead, began reading books about “history, science, politics, philosophy, and religion, giving herself the kind of education ordinarily reserved for men” (about). Her interests in these studies soon upset Taewongun and established the beginning of the Queen and father-in-law’s heated rivalry. This rivalry became so intense that Taewongun even tried lowering Queen Min’s status and power by hiring a royal concubine to bear Gojong’s first child and future heir to the throne. Unable to have a child until age 20, Queen Min eventually gave birth to her first son who died only three days after birth, and although unable to prove it, the queen believed Taewongun poisoned her baby to death. The rivalry continued; Queen Min urged her husband to take control of the kingdom and disallow Taewongun from ruling, and Taewongun killed many of Queen Min’s relatives.
Upon Queen Min’s urging, King Gojong eventually listened to his wife and took control of the throne, taking the power away from his father, Taewongun. During this time, Queen Min assumed an even greater role in Korean politics. She strengthened her own power by electing relatives to government positions, helped introduce Korea to modernization, and even reversed some policies enacted under Taewongun’s rule. Along with that, she also helped reorganize and strengthen Korea’s military and formed alliances with foreign powers, such as China, Russia, and other western countries. Also supporting education, modern medicine, the press, and freedom of religion, Queen Min helped further modernize Korea. Compared to his wife, Gojong was a submissive and weak ruler; although Queen Min advised him against it, Gojon folded under pressure multiple times and signed many treaties with Japan–many of which only benefited Japan. Despite her strong efforts, Korea eventually fell to Japanese domination.
Because of her prominent role in politics–a role usually not assumed by women–Queen Min accumulated many opposers. Some Korean government officials, especially followers of Taewongun, and Japanese leaders viewed Queen Min as a threat. There were many attempts to attack her, but Miura Goro, the Japanese ambassador to Korea, formed an assassination plan labeled “Operation Fox Hunt.” In this scheme, the royal palace was attacked. King Gojong was unharmed, but his wife was killed and stabbed multiple times, and her body was burned in the forest.
With the death of his wife, the Korean throne became weaker under the sole rule of King Gojong. Taewongun tried stripping Queen Min of her royal titles, but Gojong (thankfully) stood up for his deceased wife and refused to let his father do so. Gojong was overthrown in a coop, and Taewongun even took over the royal throne. However, Gojong rightfully reclaimed his seat on the throne and declared himself the official emperor of Korea once again. Upon his return Gojong ordered the search for his wife’s ashes and hosted an extensive funeral for Queen Min.
Obviously, Queen Min was a strong woman who was unafraid to defy societal expectations and help open Korea to modernization. Her ambition, intelligence, wit, and strength is admirable, especially for a woman of her time. These qualities reveal and help me clearly see why she deserves a place on the list “10 Great People You Should Know But Don’t.”
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