The Korean Wave, or hallyu , has hardly made a splash on me. I am left high and dry when people enthuse about the latest K-drama or K-pop stars . I find Korean culture fascinating and I particularly enjoy Korean food, but I am indifferent to the country’s pop culture. There was a time in China, during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), when Korean women were popular not as entertainers but as wives in the households of the ruling Mongol grandees. One even became the empress of China. Empress Gi (or Qi in Mandarin) was born in 1315 near modern-day Seoul to a family of low-ranking officials. Aged 18, she was part of an entourage of young women presented by the Goryeo kingdom, in the Korean peninsula, as tribute to their Mongol overlords of Yuan-dynasty China. Gi was assigned as a maid in charge of tea in the palace of the Mongol emperor Toghon Temür. However, her beauty and wit soon won the emperor’s favour, who made her one of his consorts. She bore his son in 1339 and he named her as one of his two empresses the year after. Five famous concubines who shaped Chinese history Empress Gi monopolised the emperor’s affections and took advantage of his indolence to exercise political power in his name. Her brother Gi Cheol (Qi Zhe in Chinese) was appointed by the Mongol court as overseer of the east, making him the de facto ruler of the Korean peninsula. Gi Cheol and his brothers, emboldened by their sister’s position and power in China, plotted to overthrow King Gongmin of Goryeo, but their plot failed and the whole Gi clan was exterminated in 1356 by the Korean king. Incensed, Empress Gi launched a military campaign against her homeland, but the Mongol troops she dispatched were defeated by the Goryeo army. For her role in this attack, generations of Koreans have castigated her as a traitor, though others have explained that her vengeful response was motivated by her sense of duty towards her massacred family. Back in the Chinese capital, Empress Gi plotted with her now adult son, who had been made heir apparent in 1353, to force the emperor to vacate the throne. They did not succeed and Mongol forces opposed to the empress and her son occupied the capital in 1364. The prince escaped but Empress Gi was imprisoned. The following year, the prince returned with an army and freed the capital and his mother. Meanwhile, the nominal emperor, Toghon Temür, could not hold his crumbling empire together and the Yuan dynasty fell in 1368 to Han Chinese rebels led by Zhu Yuanzhang, who founded the Ming dynasty. The Mongol imperial family, including the emperor, Empress Gi and the crown prince, fled north to the Mongol heartlands, where they established the Northern Yuan, which lasted a mere 20 years. Toghon Temür and Empress Gi died soon afterwards, within a short time of each other. Their son, who succeeded as the emperor of the Northern Yuan, also had two empresses, both of them Korean.