By Robert Neff
In the early hours of Oct. 8, 1895, members of the Japanese legation, accompanied by discontented Koreans, stole into the Korean palace and savagely murdered Queen Min. They then, possibly while she was still alive, doused her with a flammable liquid and set her on fire reducing her corpse to a few bones and a pile of ashes. It was a heinous act that still haunts Korean-Japanese relations and is remembered annually in the media.
An examination of Queen Min’s past reveals that her character was also subject to assassination. Her legacy as a beautiful and strong woman was sullied by allegations that she took the advice of court ladies and shamans and wore a necklace of cats’ vaginas in a desperate attempt to gain her young husband’s ― King Gojong ―
attention. Her fury at being ignored by Gojong was said to have manifested itself in her attempted murder of one of her husband’s pregnant concubines. She has also been blamed for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Koreans through court intrigue.
There is no question that Queen Min was a powerful personality of the late Joseon era and used whatever means she could in order to maintain her power. But she was also a warm person with a sense of humor and motherly love.
Queen Min loved children and often invited the Western ladies of Seoul to bring their children to the palace so that she could observe them. Her own son, Sunjeong, was the center of her life and it has been claimed that he slept in the same room as the queen up until her death. Even as she was being murdered by her assassins her last thoughts seem to have been on the well-being of her son.
She was also extremely curious and often satisfied her curiosity in amusing ways. Perhaps one of the most humorous incidents involved Annie Ellers, her American physician. Ellers had just married a Dalzell Bunker, an American English teacher in Seoul, and Queen Min was extremely curious about the wedding dress so she commanded Ellers to don the dress and appear at a private audience with the queen. In her private chambers, the queen examined the dress ever so minutely “even to the innermost.”
Realizing that the young American woman was probably just as curious, Queen Min reciprocated. According to Annie:
“A week later I was again bidden to the palace, again conducted to one of the Queen’s private rooms. There was her Majesty, with the Crown Princess in her wedding dress. The Princess had been married a short time before I had. There she stood all dressed as on her wedding day with eyes sealed, red spots on cheeks and forehead and the hair on her brows plucked just right. I was told to examine the Korean style of dress and I did so, ― even to the innermost ― and how the Queen laughed! She so enjoyed my doing as I did!”
Even though she has been demonized by some ― perhaps rightly so ― as a hard woman who utilized whatever means she could to maintain power during the turbulent late Joseon period, she was also a mother who doted on her son and a friend to those around her.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.