Ancestor Worship at the Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul

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10 am on a blistering hot summer day in Seoul. Our Korean tourist guide arrives with a battery-powered handheld fan tucked into her belt. She is very professional about her sightseeing tour to Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul and admonishes the travellers in her group:

“Jongmyo is the memorial shrine for the Royal Ancestors of the Yi Dynasty of Korea. It is still a place of worship: no loud noise or undue behaviour! Please stay on the marked paths!”

More than 100 years after the fall of the dynasty, the descendants of those Korean kings still regularly hold Confucian memorial services for their ancestors. This longstanding tradition of complicated rites has been named a UNESCO intangible heritage in 2008 and also made Jongmyo Shrine a UNESCO world heritage site. It is also the reason why Jongmyo is probably the most solemn and tranquil place in the 20-million megalopolis of Seoul. Visitors can only enter on a guided tours.

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Our sightseeing tour starts at Hyangdaecheong, a small building complex exclusively used for the preparation of the rituals: The ancestors’ souls would get offerings consisting of a whole banquet of dishes. In the kitchen and pantry block curious tourist can marvel at a recreated model of such a memorial buffet.

A changing room for the royals

There was also a separate courtyard (Jaegung) for the king and crown prince to change into special ritual robes for the event. For ritual (and perhaps also literal) cleansing they would also take a bath in this place, only a few steps from the main shrine.  Complicated geomantic rules (feng shui) dictated the layout of al these buildings: East of the palace, but before the mountains, and so on. “They even had to add a small man-made hill in the Southern part of the precincts to get it right”, our guide claims.

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Finally, we reach Jeongjeon itself, the large shrine for the royal ancestors. Only the immortal souls dwell here – the ashes are buried in a different location. The centre of Jongmyo Shrine is a very long building with wings extending to the sides, consisting of 19 chambers all opening to the front yard. Each chamber is for a different royal ancestor –the first shrine established in 1395 for the first king’s immediate forebears was later extended to both sides as the dynasty continued. The Yi Dynasty turned out rather long-lived – it ruled Korea until 1910 (then as “emperors”) and when space got scarce at the Jeongjeon main building, the kings even built a smaller shrine (Yeongnyeongjeon) somewhat to the side.

How to get a first row place

Everyone still wanted to be honoured in the main shrine, however, so the new appendix became a kind of second-rate shrine. Kings who had ruled only briefly, and those very first ancestors who had not yet been kings were moved to the less important Yeongnyeongjeon. The last to be enshrined with the second league was Yi Un, Crown Prince without a kingdom, who only died in 1970. Confucianism, we learn, is very competitive even in death. The kings were probably used to constant rankings, as our resolute guide explains: They were supposed to continue studying the old scriptures for all their life. During their reign as well as posthumously they were awarded scholarly titles for their achievements (complete with certificates and seals).

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The main shrine’s courtyard is rather similar to other Confucian palaces and buildings we have seen, from the Imperial Palace in Beijing to the restored Shuri-jo Royal Palace in Naha/Okinawa. The stone platform in front of the ancestral chambers used to have fittings to add sun shades, and markers for the different ranks of officials who had to line up for the rites. Shortly after a king’s death, such rituals had to be conducted quite often. But other ceremonies are held only every few years.

Yeongnyeongjeon side shrine

Obviously, guided tours do not take place when rituals are under way. So all the royal cubicles in the ancestral shrine were closed to ensure the royal ancestors’ privacy and solitude.

But as soon as we leave the Jongmyo Shrine compound, we are propelled back into the noise and tourist activity of central Seoul. Jongmyo Shrine is within walking distance from Seoul tourist attractions such as Insadong pedestrian street and Gyeongbokgung Palace with their international travellers.

***All expenses for our trip to Seoul were paid and organised by ourselves and we did not receive any funding.***

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