The Korean woman who once ruled China – Joan MacDonald
In the year 1331, the 16-year-old girl who would one day become Empress Gi arrived in the Yuan capital of Khanbaliq (present-day Beijing) among hundreds of young men and women sent as human tributes from Korea. She was offered to the royal court along with flocks of hunting falcons, quantities of ginseng, hanji paper, and baskets of silver and gold ingots.
It’s hard to imagine that she was happy to leave her homeland for an uncertain future, but the well-educated, resilient Lady Gi was determined to survive. She eventually became the first Korean empress of the Yuan Dynasty and effectively came to rule the 60 million inhabitants of Mongol-controlled China in that dynasty’s waning years.
Yet many of Gi’s accomplishments were ignored because her history was written by those who defeated her. She was labelled a traitor in Korea and demeaned as a corrupting influence by Ming Dynasty historians. When her life was dramatized in the Korean television series Empress Ki, viewers criticized the portrayal as too sympathetic. Historians who came to her defense suggested that her alleged treason might more accurately be viewed as the fulfillment of filial duty. It’s time to rethink the role history assigned her.