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Nov 02
Arts and Poetry
Queen Seon Duk of Silla

a review by Jay Lippman


Korean royal crown

In our search for worthwhile television viewing, my wife and I have wandered in many directions and genres from Hollywood to Bollywood, rarely finding anything truly memorable. But now I have discovered a television show so enjoyable that I am happy to share it with everyone.   Are you are tired of cable shows with shallow plots and one dimensional characters? Are you turned off by shows that are just excuses for excessive displays of sex and violence, and do you long for shows that are fit for an enlightened society? Then this show is for you. An uplifted, complex, sophisticated, (and wonderfully long) story based on some genuine human understanding of enlightened culture.

The show is called Queen Seon Duk and the genre is made-for-television Korean Historical dramas. These shows are available for streaming online. Seon Duk was a real person who ruled as the Queen of Silla from 632 to 647 during the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history. Silla made up one of Korea’s Three Kingdoms. She was Silla’s 27th ruler, its first reigning Queen, and the second female sovereign in East Asian history. Queen Seon Duk was greatly attracted to Buddhism, and fostered its growth in Silla. She established the first astrological observatory in the Far East, which still stands today. She was renowned for her wit and intuition and she encouraged a rebirth of thought, literature and the arts in Silla.

The Queen's tomb

The Queen’s Tomb

In this made-for-television historical drama, besides Queen Seon Duk, the main characters Mishil, Bidam, and Yushin, as well as others, are all actual historical figures. The story begins with Seon Duk’s mother, the Queen, giving birth to royal twins. This being an ominous omen, Doekman (her name before ascending the throne) is separated from her family at birth and secretly sent away to live outside Silla with a court maid. Doekman grows up not knowing her true identity. In the story, which encompasses 62 hour-long episodes, Doekman finds her way back to Silla, discovers her true identity, battles for the throne with her archrival Mishil, who has become the most powerful woman in the Court and was consort to Doekman’s grandfather.

I found the story riveting. The plot twists and turns, hour after hour, yet every episode is fresh and surprising. The characters and plot take many episodes to fully develop, during which there are incredible battles, sophisticated strategies, complex interactions and relationships, frank dialogues, demonstrations of loyalty, deception, and intrigue.

I’ll mention two underlying themes in the story that we as Shambhalians can especially appreciate. First is the notion of acting in accordance with principle. In the Silla Royal Court of that time, everyone’s conduct was governed by principle. Principle included the rules governing the actions of all members of the court and to a lesser extent, the rest of society. At one level, acting according to principle meant acting properly, doing the right thing.  More subtly, being in accord with principle was to be in harmony with the larger principles of Heaven, Earth and Humanity. Ambitiously advancing one’s own position was accepted as long as one’s actions were in accord with those larger principles. The second theme is sincerity. This referred to one’s inner attitude and experience. Sincerity is the complete, inner commitment to live in genuineness according to principle, no matter what the cost. In the drama, the character Yushin most exemplifies this quality.

Observatory from the time of Queen Seondeok

Observatory from the time of Queen Seon Duk

Queen Seon Duk is a long and rich historical drama, exciting and enjoyable to watch, and full of lessons for would-be warriors of an enlightened society. But now for the fine print. It is not easy to watch this show. Queen Seon Duk is entirely in Korean, with English subtitles that seem to have been written by non-English speaking Koreans using only a Shakespearean English dictionary. In other words, the subtitles are crazy. The language is so convoluted and obscure that it’s laughable.   On top of that, sometimes the lines go by so fast they’re simply impossible to read. After the first 10 episodes or so, the language settles down a bit, or perhaps you just get used to it. But the show is worth it. And it takes at least 10 episodes for the plot to fully emerge, so just settle in and let it unfold.

If you’re not convinced, and you think 62 episodes might be too daunting, and you already subscribe to Netflix, then try this first to whet your appetite: “The Moon Embracing The Sun”. This is another Korean historical drama, but it has only 20 episodes and is not based on historical fact. It is a romantic melodrama, set during the later Joseon period of Korean history, and is also wonderful, with many Shambhalian themes. I loved it, but be prepared – you will need a whole box of tissues!  Enjoy.


Jay Lippman


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2 responses to “ Queen Seon Duk of Silla ”
  1. Thank you for the great and interesting review, Jay. I especially appreciate that you mentioned some of the underlying themes that we as Shambhalians can appreciate.

  2. Meg Vigerstad
    Nov 26, 2015

    We just watched most of episode one on Youtube, and it was really engaging. We want to see more. The subtitles were not a problem. Thanks for your review.

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