The Korean woman who once ruled China
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.
“While Mongol society was patriarchal and patrilineal, women could and did exercise authority”
“For both countries, each of the official history compilations of a dynastic reign, based on notes taken by historians at the time, came at the beginning of the next dynasty,” says Kyung Moon Hwang, author of A History of Korea and a professor of history and East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Southern California. “Meaning that foremost among concerns was to legitimatize the new dynasty, which usually came to power by overthrowing the previous one. Hence the early-Ming official history of the Yuan in China and the early-Joseon official history of the Goryo in Korea were invariably going to portray Empress Gi (in China) and her family members (in Korea) in a very negative light.”
Although Empress Gi was called Öljei Khutuk by the Mongols, her first name was not recorded at birth. History suggests that she was born around 1315 to Gi Jao, a member of Korea’s yangban class, which was mainly composed of civil servants and military officers.
During the Yuan domination of Korea from 1270 to 1356, Korea was referred to as a “son-in-law state,” reflecting the practice of marrying Mongol princesses into the Korean royal family. In less than a century, seven princesses were sent to Korea, then called Goryeo, and three children born of such unions became kings.
Gi was one of many Korean women sent in tribute to the Yuan court to serve as maids and concubines. Some sources suggest Lady Gi met Emperor Toghon Temür while serving tea as a palace maid. Others describe her as a concubine, dispatched to further her family’s power in the Yuan court.
“These women maintained ties to family members in Korea, whose interests they were expected to protect,” says David M. Robinson, author of Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia Under the Mongols and professor in Asian Studies and History at Colgate University. “The advantages of service to the Yuan was usually the prime reason families decided to send daughters to the Yuan capital or form marriage alliances with Yuan elites.”
Lady Gi’s talents, intelligence and beauty soon attracted the attention of the teenage Toghon Temür, who had previously been exiled to a Korean island. Ki was accomplished in singing, dancing and calligraphy, and fluent in Chinese. The young emperor and Lady Gi may also have shared a sense of isolation. She was far from home and he trusted few people in his contentious court. The romantic bond they formed would last for the rest of the emperor’s life.
Toghon Temür, also known as Emperor Huizong, was already allied in a political marriage to Empress Tanashiri, the daughter of his prime minister El Temur. The marriage was arranged to consolidate power in an heir, but Tanashiri’s only son died in infancy. When news of the emperor’s fondness for Lady Gi reached Tanashiri, the empress reportedly had her rival beaten.
Fortunately for Gi, Tanashiri’s reign did not last. The empress was forced to drink poison in 1335 after a failed rebellion instigated by her family. Toghon Temür then tried to elevate Lady Gi to primary empress, but was once again pressured to make a political marriage, this time with Bayan Khutuk. In 1340, a year after Gi gave birth to a son, Ayushiridara, she was named a secondary empress.
Although Gi would have to wait until 1365, when Bayan Khutuk died, to officially become primary empress, her power continued to grow as her husband increasingly delegated his authority to her. While Mongol society was patriarchal and patrilineal, women could and did exercise authority.
“Observers from Western Europe, Persia, and China were all struck – often negatively – by the prominent place of women in Mongolian political culture,” says Robinson. “They sat with their men to receive foreign envoys. They held their own investment portfolios in land, rent and commercial ventures. A few exercised supreme political control in interregnum periods or when the heir to the throne was too young to rule.”
A Mongol woman could assume leadership of her family, and according to The Secret History of the Mongols, more than a few women ruled the Mongol Empire through such family connections. “Imperial women played greater roles in palace and state politics in the Yuan than in the Ming, which restricted the role of women in politics,” says Keith McMahon, author of Celestial Women: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Song to Qing and professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Kansas. “This is in part due to the fact that the Yuan was a Mongol regime and that Turco-Mongolian women played greater roles in political and military affairs than Han women. It was also due to the fact that the Yuan had a series of poorly performing male rulers, which allowed senior women to step in and assume important roles.”
According to Ming histories, Toghon Temür eventually traded his interests in astronomy, astrology and mechanical objects for wine, women and tantric rituals. Gi, on the other hand, took her role very seriously, learning from past empresses.
“She was a person of great strength and talent,” says McMahon. “The fact that the historians say that she liked to read history books, however condescending that may sound, seems to indicate her strengths, ambition and talents, [and] also her attempt to learn from history in order to be smarter in her moves in the present.”
She also read the Book of Filial Piety for Women, which advises wives to strengthen a husband’s reputation and improve his popularity. A man’s virtue is determined by his wife, the book warns. If a wife is ignorant and dissolute, she will bring her husband down with her.
“New perspectives may prompt historians to reevaluate historical descriptions of women in power”
Recognizing her administrative abilities, the emperor awarded Gi a governmental post with tax collecting authority, which she used to launch several infrastructure projects, including building bridges and renovating temples. When famine decimated the population in 1358, Gi ordered that porridge be given to the poor and paid for the burial and funeral services of 10,000 citizens. She financed religious ceremonies, the lighting of candles and reading of sutras, inviting Korean Buddhist monks to lecture in her new homeland. Surrounding herself with Korean court ladies and eunuchs, her popularity and power influenced Yuan fashions, hairstyles, and cuisine. For a while the vogue for elite Yuan men was to have at least one Korean concubine.
As was expected of her, Gi enhanced the power of her family in Korea. Her father and mother were given titles that made them the equivalent of king and queen. According to Joseon-era history, they abused the elevation of their status. Family members, particularly her brother Gi Cheol, reportedly acted as if they were above the law, showing no respect for the reigning king.
Although Korea’s King Gongmin had grown up in the Yuan court and married a Yuan princess, he wanted to reform the government and exorcise Yuan supporters. He saw the Gi family as a direct threat to his own power. Around 1358 Gongmin invited Gi Cheol and his supporters to a banquet and murdered them all. To avenge her family and place a pro-Yuan king on the throne, Gi dispatched her son Ayushiridara, now heir to the throne, and an army to Korea.
“It was ultimately an attempt, and a last-gasp one at that, to reassert the by-then traditional Yuan domination over the Korean court,” says Hwang. “But the Yuan was already weakening, another reason Gongmin thought he could get away with what he did.”
Ayushiridara and his army of 10,000 men were defeated. In Korea, Gi was branded a traitor, but acting out of loyalty to her family, she may have perceived Gongmin’s victory as an internal coup. According to Robinson, “Korean elites during Empress Gi’s lifetime had their own ideas of the acceptable balance of loyalty to dynasty and loyalty to family, but it is hard to recreate them through the multiple layers of historical overwriting.”
By that time famines, droughts and floods had weakened the Yuan empire and prompted widespread rebellion. Gi became convinced that the empire needed a strong ruler to survive, which to her meant deposing her husband and enthroning her son. She tried more than once to place her son on the throne, but those efforts were thwarted. The emperor was so upset by one of her campaigns to dethrone him that he did not talk to her for two months, but ultimately he missed her and forgave her.
When the Mongol empire finally crumbled in 1368, Toghon Temür fled with Gi and other family members to Yingcheng, in present-day Inner Mongolia. Toghon Temür died of dysentery in 1370, and Ayushiridara was enthroned as the Khan of the Mongols. Gi became Empress Dowager, then disappeared from history without a trace.
Her epitaphs were not flattering. Korea called her a traitor. Ming histories cast her as both a symptom of and the cause of dynastic dysfunction, partly because she was a woman in power. “It would have been axiomatic to them that a ruler who could not keep his wife in line was unfit to oversee the realm,” writes Robinson:
Her misdeeds proved Toghon Temür’s failure as husband and ruler. Further, given her position, Empress Gi exercised enormous influence – her jealousy, pettiness and improper ambitions disrupted the imperial family and worsened imperial governance. As result, her philanthropic activities such as her contribution to the construction of bridges, alms to the poor, and disaster relief, receive short shrift – they don’t fit well with the intended moral of the story.
Qing scholars criticized the inaccuracies in the official History of Yuan, hastily composed by Ming historians, but by then it was too late to redeem Gi’s reputation.
Or so it seemed. In late 2013-2014 Korea’s MBC station released the 51-episode television drama Empress Ki, a fictionalized version of her life. The script enabled viewers to see her as an oppressed woman who nonetheless mastered an impossible situation. It added several fictional elements, including a very unlikely love affair with Korea’s then King Chunghye, to the already complex story of her reign. The drama, starring Korean actress Ha Ji Won and actors Joo Jin Mo and Ji Chang Wook, was criticized for portraying Ki as a brave woman instead of as a traitor.
Professor Hwang defended Gi in an op-ed in The Korea Times, noting that motives are often obscured by time. While notions of filial duty and sovereignty fluctuate, Gi should be recognized for bringing Korean influence to China:
Just as the hit makers of TV dramas, movies and pop music in the ‘Korean wave,’ also known as hallyu, today spread Korean popular culture to other parts of the world, Empress Ki led the surge of interest in Korea as a source of exotic people and culture for China in the 14th century.
New perspectives may prompt historians to reevaluate historical descriptions of women in power. Regardless of whether Gi was merely a determined survivor or a ruthless traitor, compassionate or corrupt, for a few decades she was the most powerful woman in Asia. ∎
Featured image via leekihwan.khan.kr and covered under fair use.
This story was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel.