Jongmyo Shrine

jongmyo shrine

Since reading up about the Joseon kings, I realised that I hadn’t even been to Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul,  the National Shrine (UNESCO World Heritage list 1995) where the tablets of Joseon kings and queens are enshrined and memorial services held for them.  Apparently, out of all the Confucian states in Asia, Korea is the only one that has preserved its royal shrine and continues to conduct royal ancestral rites. And these ceremonies are carried out here at Jongmyo Shrine.

Jongmyo Jerye, the Royal Ancestral Rite, was the most important state ritual. It was conducted by the King 5 times a year at Jeongjeon (the main hall) and twice a year at Yeongnyeongjeon (a smaller hall built later when Jeongjeon couldn’t accommodate any more tablets). The crown prince and high ranking civilians and officials attended the ceremony which also involved instrumental music, singing, and dancing. These days Jongmyo Jerye is performed once a year on the first Sunday in May. (I bet it gets pretty crowded but I might try going this year.) King Taejo (the first king of Joseon) made Hanyang (Seoul) the capital of Joseon and then started the construction of the shrine which was completed in 1395.

detail of the roof of the entrance to Jongmyo Shrine

We can’t visit the shrine anytime we like because it’s only open for tours at certain times throughout the day: the tours are in English, Korean, or Japanese. The park area around the Shrine has become a meeting place for the older generation so there are crowds of men of retirement age standing around chatting in padded winter jackets (it’s still chilly) or sitting on benches playing board games. They slap the pieces down on the boards when they make a move and the sound echoes around the park. It felt like an organised even with so many people there, but apparently this area has just naturally become a meeting place and it’s busy like this every day.

Men playing board games outside Jongmyo Shrine

Jaegung area: Here the king prepares to carry out ancestral rites

Jaegung Area 재궁 일원 

We bought tickets at the entrance to the Shrine and joined the tour group. The tour follows the path of the king and crown prince when they came to the Shrine for the memorial ceremony, so we started at the Jaegung area: where the king and crown prince made their preparations for the ancestral rites. Eojaesil (to the north, see above) is where the king stayed. The path leading up to the building is raised in the middle and lower on the two sides. This was so that the king could walk on the raised area and be (literally) higher than anyone else! Then to the east is Sejajaesil, a room for the crown prince (see below).  And to the west is Eomokyokcheong a bath facility.

The shrine was built taking Confucian philosophy and geomancy into consideration so the direction that the buildings faced (north, east, south, or west) was all very important. And the design of the buildings and subdued colours of red and green are meant to emphasise solemnity, piety, and sublimity. (Bright colours wouldn’t allow the spirits of the kings and queens to rest in peace.) 

To the east is Sejajaesil – a room for the crown prince to prepare for the rituals

The king and crown prince entered through the main gate and stayed in the Jaegung area to purify their minds and bodies. We were told during the tour that for three days before the rituals, there should be no drinking alcohol or doing ‘bad deeds’. The mind and body should be preparing for the ceremony. We exited through the west gate just like the king and crown prince and entered the main hall through the east gate.

The west gate leading to Jeongjoen, the main hall (above) 

Jeongjeon – the Main Hall

There are 19 spirit chambers and 49 tablets altogether: only the kings credited with outstanding deeds (and their queens) are enshrined here. See the list below to see which kings and queens are in the spirit chambers starting from the chamber at the far left .

The Shrine was completed in 1395 but as more kings and queens were enshrined, the shrine had to be expanded. After the death of a king or queen, mourning at the palace continued for 3 years. Then the memorial tablets were moved to Jongmyo and enshrined. (The tablets of two deposed kings – Yeongsangun and Gwanghaegun are not kept at Jongmyo.)

  1. Taejo 태조 고황재 (two queens – Shin-ui, Shindeok)
  2. Taejong 태종 대왕 (one queen – Wongyeong)
  3. Sejong 새종대왕 (one queen – Soheon)
  4. Sejo 새조대왕 (one queen – Jeonghui)
  5. Seongjong 성종대왕 (two queens – Gonghye, Jeonghyeon)
  6. Jungjong 중종대왕 (three queens – Dangyeong, Janggyeong, Munjeong)
  7. Seonjo 선조대왕 (two queens – Uiin, Inmok)
  8. Injo 인조대왕 (two queens – Inryeol, Jangryeol)
  9. Hyojong 효종대왕 (one queen – Inseon)
  10. Hyeonjong 현종대왕 (one queen – Myeongseong)
  11. Sukjong 숙종대왕 (three queens – Ingyeong, Inhyeon, Inwon)
  12. Yeongjo 영조대왕 (two queens – Jeongseong, Jeongsun)
  13. Jeongjo 정조선황제 (one queen Hyoui)
  14. Sunjo  순조숙황제 (one queen – Sunwon)
  15. Munjo 문조익황제 (one queen – Shinjeong) (not on wiki list)
  16. Heonjong 현종성황제 (two queens – Hyohyeon, Hyeojeong (different in wiki)
  17. Cheoljong 철종장황제 (one queen – Cheonin)
  18. Gojong 고종대황제 (one empress – Myeongseong)
  19. Sunjong 순종효황제 (two empresses – Sunmyeong, Sunjeong)

chart in Korean showing which king is enshrined in which spirit chamber 

Yeongnyeongjeon (the Hall of Eternal Peace) 

And finally we went to Yeongnyeongjeon which was built when Jongmyo Shine couldn’t accommodate any more tablets. The layout is similar to Jeongjeon, but smaller: it has 16 spirit chambers and 34 tablets and includes the tablets of King Taejo’s ancestors. There’s also a storage room for ritual equipment here and Akgongcheong (musician’s dressing room) was built outside the south west wall.

The grounds of Jongmyo Shrine and spacious and it’s a cam haven in the centre of bustling Seoul. I would have preferred it if we could stroll around by ourselves but this is not an option. Still, on the tour we can get a glimpse into an important ceremony in Confucianism and the Shrine is definitely worth visiting.

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