The Ancestral Rite of the Joseon

Written by on May 10, 2012 in Travel

The first Sunday in May happens to be one of the most honored days in Korea. It isn’t marked on any calendars in red, but on that day, the most scared of rites are performed. The event takes place at the Jongmyo Royal Shrine in Seoul and is called the Jongmyo Daeje, or the Great Jongmyo Rite. It is performed to honor the kings of the Joseon Dynasty and their families. Traditionally, the service was held five times a year, but now the rite takes place only in May and November. Of such great importance is the Rite, that it was been designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Photo Credit: Joao Trindade

The Jongmyo Royal Shrine was constructed under the supervision of King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty. Construction began in 1394 and was completed a year later. During the Imjin war (1592) the hall was destroyed by Japanese forces; however King Gwanghaegun ordered its reconstruction in 1608. Today, the hall stands perfectly preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage and National Historic Site. Here, mortuary tablets of the former Joseon leaders are interred.

The ceremony itself is quite complex and consists of the Jongmyo Jeryeak. This ritualistic performance combines music, dance, and hymns to honor the former monarchs. The performance dates back to the reign of King Sejong and is today considered Korean Important Intangible Heritage Number One. The Jeryeak consists of two musical works originally commissioned under King Sejong: Botaepyeong (Preservation of Great Peace) and Jongdaeeop (Determination of Great Undertaking). The number of musical pieces was later expanded to eleven in each style during King Gwanghaegun’s reign. Botaepyong pieces are hymns honoring the collective philosophical and virtuous deeds by the deceased monarchs. The Jongdaeeop collection recounts the Dynasty’s various military achievements.

Photo Credit: UNESCO

Procedures of the Jongmyo Jerye (Daeje)

Prior to the Rite being performed, all participants must cleanse their minds and body through the Jaegye ritual. This procedure forbids participants from ordering death sentences, visiting someone ill, or even listening to music. When all is prepared, the King (in ancient times) proceeded from Gyeongbokgung with his entourage. This royal procession (Geogachulgung) traveled from Gwanghwamun, down what is currently Sejongro, past Jongno 2 & 3, to the Jongmyo Shrine.

Once at Jongmyo, participants take their positions (Chiwi) in anticipation of the ceremony. During the Jincheonghaengsa, or opening ceremony, the Ujeongwan (Wine Officer of the Rite) and Daechukgwan (Chief Prayer Reciter) enter each of the shrine’s spirit rooms to retrieve memorial tablets. When all the tablets have been placed on the altars prepared, the Challye (Assistant Officer) requests that the Yeongsinnye (Greeting the Great Spirits) commence.

Photo Credit: Korea Tourism Organization

The balance of the Rite consists of three wine offerings. Choheonye is the first offering and is made with yeje orgamju, or sweet wine. Prayers are recited while the Botaepyeong is performed. During the prayer recitation, officiates prostrate to the altars. The second wine offering (Aheonye), is made with angje or takju. It is a turbid wine. No prayers are recited during this phase of the Rite, but the Jeongdaeeop is performed. Jongheonye is the final wine offering. Cheongju, a clear wine, is offered. Aside from the wine offered, there is little difference between this stage and the previous one.

The Rite begins the concluding portions with the Eumbongnye, or the partaking of sacrificial foods. Partaking in these foods and drinks serves as an act of receiving blessings from the spirits. Upon the completion of this phase of the Rite, all participants prostrate to the memorial tablets, showing respect to the royal ancestors. The sacrificial vessels placed on the altars are then moved slightly during the Cheolbyeondu while the Heunganjiak (a musical piece) is played. This musical number is played once more during the next phase. The Songsinye (bidding farewell to the spirits) requires officiates to perform four deep bows as the memorial tablets are returned to their original locations. The final stage of the Ancestral Rite is the Mangyorye. In this portion of the ceremony, the prayers and gifts used in the Daeje are burned and buried. Finally, the participants march out.

Watching the Jongmyo Daeje is one of the most intriguing cultural experiences available in Korea. Anyone interested in its history, culture, or pageantry should not miss it.

Jongmyo Daeje – Sunday, May 6, 2012
Royal Procession: 11:30am – 12:30pm
Ceremony at Yeongnyeongjeon: 1pm-3pm
Ceremony at Jeongjeon: 4:30pm-6:30pm

About the Author

Steve Miller

Steve Miller, the QiRanger, is Korea’s best-known travel video blogger-journalist. His videos have been viewed by millions and seen on media outlets in throughout the word. In addition to sharing his entertaining and informative videos, he writes about life abroad and releases a popular podcast. Steve appears regularly on international radio stations, talking about travel, Korean culture and East Asian news. He’s also appeared on Arirang Television sharing unique aspects of Korean life. You can follow Steve on Twitter @QiRanger or visit his site