Category: South Korea.

(Yonhap Feature) Joseon’s royal shrine where kings met their ancestors

By Robert Koehler
Contributing Writer

SEOUL, Nov. 15 (Yonhap) — One of the first things Korea’s deeply Confucian last kingdom, the Joseon Dynasty, did after it founded Seoul as its capital in 1392 was build a shrine for royal ancestors.

Located in the very center of Seoul, Jongmyo — its name literally means “shrine of ancestral rites” — was where the kings of the Joseon Dynasty carried out regular ancestral memorial ceremonies.

Today, the shrine is a major draw to tourists for its Confucian symbolism as well as its architectural value. Due to its historic and cultural importance, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

“If you look at the buildings, they are of a simple design. Just two colors, green and red. This is because this is a place for the spirits,” said Choi Joong-mae, who guided a group of English-speaking visitors around Jongmyo on a recent bright Sunday. “The buildings have simple, straight roofs, too.”

In deeply Confucian Joseon, ancestral rites were the most important of ceremonies, and the rites honoring the king’s royal ancestors, presided over by the king, were the most important of all. The venue for these ceremonies, Jongmyo, was one of the first structures built when the Joseon Dynasty was established.

The original structure, built in 1396, was burned down during the Japanese invasion of 1592-1598 and rebuilt in 1601. The reconstruction survives to this day.

For all its importance, though, it seems that some visitors are unclear as to its function.

Choi takes pains to explain.

“The palaces are where the king and the royal family used to live,” he said. “The tombs are where the kings were buried. Jongmyo, however, is where the ancestors’ spirit tablets are kept. It’s a very important place, where living people meet their ancestors.”

The Jeongjeon Hall of Jongmyo Shrine is one of the longest wooden buildings in Asia.

Jongmyo sits on several acres of wooded hills in Seoul’s downtown Jongno District, making it a popular urban park, especially in autumn, when the trees begin to turn color. It’s a few blocks from one of the major royal palaces in Seoul, Changdeok.

Broadly speaking, Jongmyo can be divided into two areas: one where the ancestral spirit tablets were enshrined and the other where participants prepared for the ancestral rites.

The spirit tablets for all of Joseon’s kings — minus those for two deposed monarchs — are enshrined in the complex, including those for nine kings crowned posthumously.

The symbolism starts almost immediately from the south gate, from which begins a three-row stone pathway connecting the complex. The king would walk along the right side and the crown prince along the left, while the elevated middle row was reserved for the spirits of the king’s ancestors.

Under a canopy of greenery, the path leads first past a number of halls where incense and ramie cloth — burned during the ancestral rites — were kept, sacrificial foods were inspected and prepared, and the king and crown prince would bathe and don the ceremonial clothing.

The path then reaches the heart of the complex, the Jeongjeon and Yeongnyeongjeon halls, where the ancestral spirit tablets are enshrined. The larger of the two, the Jeongjeon, is 101 meters long and is believed to have been one of the longest wooden buildings in Asia when first erected.

The Jeongjeon is composed of 19 so-called spirit chambers, or “Sinsil,” where the spirit tablets, or “Sinju,” of 19 kings and 30 queens are enshrined.

The massive structure originally had just seven spirit chambers for the ancestors of Joseon’s founder, King Taejo, but was expanded throughout the dynasty as the need arose.

The spirit tablets were moved from the palace to the shrine after a traditional three-year mourning period. The royal spirit tablets enshrined here are the originals. While the shrine itself was burned in the war with Japan, the tablets were removed prior to the conflagration and hidden safely at the home of a commoner.

While the hall itself is large in scale, it remains true to the Confucian aesthetic.

“The building may look huge, but it is very simple and relies on repetition,” Choi said.

In front of the hall is a grand stone courtyard where the ancestral rites were held. The terraced courtyard is also filled with Confucian significance.

“The king would preside over the ceremony at the highest point, while his officials would stand at the lower part,” Choi said. “The king would look down at his officials while the officials would look up at the king.”

In the middle of the courtyard runs a simple black line called the “Sinno” (“path of the spirit”) where the spirits of the deceased kings are said to roam.

Just to the west of the Jeongjeon is the Yeongnyeongjeon. Similar to the Jeongjeon but smaller in scale, the Yeongnyeongjeon was built to house the spirit tablets of King Taejo’s ancestors when room ran out in the Jeongjeon.

It also houses the spirit tablets of six Joseon kings. Also enshrined in the compound are the spirit tablets of notable royal retainers, such as Min Yeong-hwan, a minister under the dynasty’s penultimate monarch, King Gojong. Min killed himself in 1905 to protest Japanese imperial encroachment on his homeland.

A visit to the shrine can further understanding of Korea’s Confucian heritage.

One of the visitors, Barbara Kim of Chicago, said that while Korea’s historic sites may not be as awe-inspiring as those of Europe, Jongmyo “has a sense of age-old wisdom.”

“I think this has to do with the organic scenery,” Kim said. “Learning about the symbolism really brings out Confucian philosophy. It was a great experience.”

The royal ancestral rite, or Jongmyo Daeje, was discontinued when Japan colonized Korea in 1910, but it has since been revived. Originally held five times a year, it is now held just once, on the first Sunday of May.

Presided over by descendants of the Jeonju Lee family, the royal family of Joseon, the ceremony is accompanied by intricate traditional Korean music and dance in the courtyard of the Jeongjeon.

The ritual and accompanying music and dance were registered with UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.

Held every May, the Jongmyo Daeje features Korean traditional music and dance.

Except on Saturdays, when visitors are allowed to wander about the shrine unguided, you must join a guided tour to visit Jongmyo.

You can choose among English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese-language tours. English tours are given at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Admission is 1,000 won. Jongmyo is a short walk from Exit 11 of Jongno 3-ga Subway Station, Line 1.

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Category: South Korea
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