The memorial day service for all the Joseon kings
We visited Jongmyo recently which is the Royal Ancestral Shrine for the Joseon dynasty. Visitors usually have to pay an entry fee and visit the shrine in an organised tour. But on Sunday it was open to the public for the yearly memorial ceremony. I usually avoid any event in Seoul where there will be loads of people because I can’t handle large crowds. But the Jongmyo Daejo was the biggest and most important memorial rite held for royalty during the Joseon dynasty. And the ceremony is still held every year on the first Sunday in May (and once again in November), so although I wasn’t sure how much of the ceremony we would be able to see, we headed downtown where the procession began at 11:30 am from Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Royal Procession 거가출궁 geogachulgung
The first part of the ceremony is the procession to escort the king from the palace to the shrine. During the Joseon period the members of the procession would have included the king’s retinue, government ministers and royal guards and musicians. And for several days before the ceremony participants were supposed to keep their minds and bodies clean which included avoiding visiting sick people and listening to music (!)
Today the event is organised by the Jongmyo Daejo Committee (whose members also include ancestors of the Yi family – the ruling Joseon dynasty). The procession is made up of Yi family members, possibly some men from the army (the guards who stand outside the palace these days are young men doing their national service) and volunteers organised from local schools and colleges.
Most of the participants have to walk, high officials are on horseback and the palanquins are for the king and other members of the royal family. During the procession the palanquin for the king was empty but later the king’s role in the ceremony was carried out by an ancestor of the Yi family.
The streets were lined with onlookers and the crowds grew as we got nearer the shrine.
For most of the participants in the procession though, arriving at the shrine is the end of the road. Their job is done and they can go home and put their feet up.
Not everyone is interested in watching the procession: The park outside the shrine is a meeting area for local pensioners, mostly men, who come to play board games and chat. It’s peaceful here compared to the chaos at the entrance to the shrine where the king has arrived..
The king arrives at Jongmyo Shrine
It took an hour to get from the palace to the shrine. And then there was a break while preparations began for the ceremony. So we went to Burger King…
Yeongnyeongjeon The Hall of Eternal Peace
The next part of the ceremony takes place at Yeongnyeongjeon, a smaller shrine within the main grounds. This was built when the main shrine couldn’t handle any more chambers. But even on a tour of Jongmyo Shrine this building is not open to the public so this must be the only day we can take a look inside. Visitors have to cram into the doorways of the shrine so it feels a bit like we are spying in on a private event. The ceremony is quite long – 2 hours – so people don’t stay to watch the whole thing and while others shuffle outside other vistitors are quick to jump in and get their place! We eventually got a better view too.
The memorial tablets of the kings and their queen(s) are in each spirit chamber (below). The doors to each chamber are opened and an alter placed outside each one. The Joseon dynasty kept very detailed records and the ceremony follows the strict rules set out in the Joseon Uigwe (The Protocols for the Royal Ancestral Shrine) The ceremony includes music and dancing (see the musicians sitting below) and various rituals including burning incense to call the spirits and offering wine and food on the alter.
Some of the paths around the grounds of the shrine are raised up and only meant for the king to walk on. Here a ‘Joseon guard’ (below left) is in charge of keeping the commoners (that’s us) from walking on the path – but it’s not easy! In fairness it’s not easy to keep of the path when there are so many commoners everywhere…
Jeongjeon The Main Hall
A free pamphlet available at the shrine gives more details on this ceremony:
So this is what we have all been waiting for: the main event. It starts at 4:30pm (we went off again for something to eat again while we were waiting.) A large screen was set up outside the Main Hall with chairs, and people gathered early to get good seats because only VIPs can get inside the shrine to watch the ceremony – all I can say is it’s no fun being a commoner:
The whole event does take all day long, so before we came I was wondering if it was worth staying for the whole day or whether we should just see this main event. BUT if we had done that we wouldn’t have seen much at all! We did get to see some of the ‘officials’ bringing gifts for the alter (left) on their way into the shrine though ..
If you want to see the whole experience and catch a glimpse of a solemn traditional event, it’s a good day out as long as you don’t mind chilling during the breaks or mingling in crowds. In the end we ended up joining the other commoners to watch the ceremony on the big screen!