Empress Dowager Cheonchu – The regent who ruled Korea with an iron fist




cheonchu
Chae Si Ra as Empress Dowager Cheonchu in The Iron Empress (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Empress Dowager Cheonchu was the granddaughter, daughter, wife, sister, mother, and aunt of Goryeo (Korean) emperors. However, Empress Dowager Cheonchu has gone down in Korean history as a lecherous, villainous Empress. Over the centuries, historians have called her a “음녀 [prostitute]” [1] and a “악녀 [villain].” [2] This was because she took a lover after her widowhood.[3] Recently, modern historians have started to look at this Korean Empress in a different light.[4] Modern historians have realized that history has been rewritten by her enemies.[5] Empress Dowager Cheonchu had lost in a power struggle against her nephew, Emperor Hyeonjong. Since many historical records about Empress Dowager Cheonchu were lost during her nephew’s reign, Emperor Hyeonjong hired scholars to rewrite her story.[6] Therefore, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction when attempting to examine Empress Dowager Cheonchu’s story.[7] Despite the attempts to vilify her reputation, she manages to emerge as one of the best stateswomen in Goryeo history.[8]

Empress Dowager Cheonchu was born in 964 C.E. Her grandfather was Emperor Taejo Wang of Goryeo. Her father was Prince Wang Wook (the posthumous Emperor Daejong of Goryeo), and her mother was Lady Ryu (the posthumous Empress Seonui of Goryeo). Her parents were half-siblings because it was a common practice for the royals in the early Goryeo Dynasty to marry within the family to keep their bloodline pure.[9]  She had an older brother named Wang Chi (the future Emperor Seongjong of Goryeo) and a younger sister, who would later be known as Empress Heonjeong (also formally known as Empress Dowager Hyosuk). Empress Dowager Cheonchu’s parents died when she was young (her brother, Emperor Seongjong, would elevate his parents status to Emperor and Empress after he ascended the throne). She was raised by her paternal grandmother, Empress Dowager Sinjeong.[10] It was not long after that she and her younger sister (the future Empress Heonjeong) married their cousin, Emperor Gyeongjong of Goryeo. Emperor Gyeongjong already had two Empress consorts.[11] Therefore, Empress Dowager Cheonchu was the third Empress consort, and her sister was the fourth Empress consort.[12] During her marriage to Emperor Gyeongjong, she became known as Empress Heonae, and her sister was known as Empress Heonjeong.[13]

In 980 C.E., Empress Heonae gave birth to a son named Songji (the future Emperor Mokjong). In 981 C.E., Emperor Gyeongjong died. Empress Heonae was only eighteen.[14] Because her son was only an infant, he could not become Emperor.[15] Emperor Gyeongjong’s successor was Empress Heonae’s brother, Wang Chi. Wang Chi became Emperor Seongjong. Empress Heonae had an affair with Kim Chi-yang, a maternal relative.[16] Kim Chi-yang protected her, took care of her, and deeply loved her.[17] Because he cherished her and was devoted to her, it was natural for Empress Heonae to reciprocate his feelings.[18] When Emperor Seongjong found out, he was disgusted with Empress Heonae because he meant to use his sisters as examples of pure and virtuous widows.[19] Since Empress Heonae proved not to be a chaste widow, Emperor Seongjong expelled her from the palace. He also took her son from her and raised him. Emperor Seongjong also sent her lover Kim Chi-yang into exile. Thus, Empress Heonae endured many hardships under her brother’s reign.[20]

In 997 C.E., Empress Heonae’s son, Songji, ascended the throne as Emperor Mokjong at the age of eighteen. Emperor Mokjong made his mother the Empress Dowager and regent of Goryeo.[21] The Empress Dowager was no longer called Heonae but Cheonchu because she resided in Cheonchu Palace.[22] The appointment of Empress Dowager Cheonchu as regent was very unique in Goryeo history because it was unknown for an Emperor to need a regent once he reached maturity.[23]

As Empress regent, Empress Dowager Cheonchu made many reforms. She maintained peaceful relationships between Song China and Khitan.[24] She strengthened Goryeo’s military and built fortresses.[25] She also made policies that strengthened the monarchy by increasing government offices.[26] Empress Dowager Cheonchu promoted talented and efficient men to government posts.[27] Unlike her brother, who wanted to have Confucianism as the main religion in Goryeo, Empress Dowager Cheonchu promoted Buddhism.[28] 

Even though Empress Dowager Cheonchu had made many reforms, Emperor Mokjong still had no heir. Historical records claim that the reason Emperor Mokjong remained childless was because he had a strong preference for men.[29] Empress Dowager Cheonchu was desperate.[30] If Emperor Mokjong had no heirs, her position was very vulnerable. Empress Dowager Cheonchu could lose all her power to Prince Daeryangwon, the son of both her sister (the Empress Heonjeong) and her uncle.[31] She decided that since Emperor Mokjong would not produce an heir, then she would produce one herself.[32] Empress Dowager Cheonchu recalled her lover, Kim Chi-yang, from exile.[33]

In 1003 C.E., Empress Dowager Cheonchu gave birth to an illegitimate son.[34] Still, she could not make him heir apparent yet because her nephew, Prince Daeryangwon, was still an obstacle.[35] Empress Dowager Cheonchu tried to make him a monk and made many failed attempts to kill him.[36] However, the nobles started to turn away from Empress Dowager Cheonchu and began to support Prince Daeryangwon.[37]

In 1009 C.E., General Gang Jo led a coup d’etat against the palace. They killed Empress Dowager Cheonchu’s lover and her illegitimate son.[38] Emperor Mokjong was deposed and sent into exile, but he was assassinated along the road to his destination.[39] Gang Jo made Prince Daeryangwon the new Emperor. He became Emperor Hyeonjong of Goryeo. Empress Dowager Cheonchu left the palace and returned to her hometown of Hwangju, where she spent the rest of her life.[40] Twenty-one years after returning to Hwangju, Empress Dowager Cheonchu died on 20 January 1029 C.E. She was buried in Yureung Tomb.

Empress Dowager Cheonchu’s story shows a strong, powerful ruler. Her enemies tried to blacken her reputation because she took a lover after widowhood.[41] However, the evidence shows that she was faithful and devoted to her lover because he cherished her.[42] Empress Dowager Cheonchu had received respect from her son, who valued her intellect and let her make many reforms in government. Empress Dowager Cheonchu proved to be a ruler who cared for her country and its people. It is no wonder why modern historians admire her and believe that she was the best female stateswoman in the Goryeo era.[43] Popular media is trying to rehabilitate her reputation.[44] The Korean television show called The Iron Empress is based on her in which she is portrayed by veteran actress Chae Shi-ra. The show portrayed Empress Dowager Cheonchu as an Empress who made many sacrifices for her country.[45] Modern historians are currently re-examining Empress Dowager Cheonchu’s story. Therefore, new details about this competent Empress may soon be brought to light.

Sources:

Chase, T. (2011). Nationalism and the Net: Online discussion of Goguryeo history in China and South Korea. China Information25(1), 61–82.

“천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”. (12 April 2010). Naver. Retrieved on 28 January 2022 from https://m.terms.naver.com/entry.naver?docId=3569077&cid=59015&categoryId=59015.

Kwon, S. (12 January 2017). “[한국여성인물사전] 31. 헌애왕태후(獻哀王太后) [(Korean Female Dictionary) 31. Empress Heonae]”. EToday News. Retrieved on 28 January 2022 from https://m.etoday.co.kr/view.php?idxno=1440687.

Lee, H. J. I. (13 January 2009). “Warrior empress rules over TV ratings with an iron fist”. Korea JoongAng Daily. Retrieved on 28 January 22 from https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2009/01/13/artsDesign/Warrior-empress-rules-over-TV-ratings-with-an-iron-fist/2899784.html.

Nagak-soon & Kim, C. (1997, 2007). “헌애왕태후(獻哀王太后) [Empress Dowager Heonae]”. EncyKoreaRetrieved on 28 January 2022 from http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Index?contents_id=E0063224.


[1] Kwon, 2017, para. 7

[2] Kwon, 2017, para. 7

[3] Kwon, 2017

[4]“천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[5] “천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[6] “천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[7]“천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[8] Kwon, 2017

[9]“천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[10] Kwon, 2017

[11] Kwon, 2017

[12] Kwon, 2017

[13] Kwon, 2017

[14] Kwon, 2017

[15] Kwon, 2017

[16] Kwon, 2017

[17]“천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[18]“천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[19] Kwon, 2017

[20] Kwon, 2017

[21] Kwon, 2017

[22] Kwon, 2017

[23] Nagak-soon and Kim, 1997 and 2017

[24] Kwon, 2017

[25] Kwon, 2017

[26] Kwon, 2017

[27] Kwon, 2017

[28] Kwon, 2017

[29] Kwon, 2017

[30] Kwon, 2017

[31] Kwon, 2017

[32] Kwon, 2017

[33] Kwon, 2017

[34] Kwon, 2017

[35] Kwon, 2017

[36] Kwon, 2017

[37] Kwon, 2017

[38] Kwon, 2017

[39] Kwon, 2017

[40]“천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[41] Kwon, 2017

[42] “천추태후 [Empress Dowager Dowager Cheonchu]”, Naver, 2010

[43] Kwon, 2017

[44] Chase, 2011

[45] Lee, 2009






About Lauralee Jacks 98 Articles
I am a third grade elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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