Honoring Ancestors through Ritual and Music - Ancestral Rituals of the Royal Shrine

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The Jongmyo Ceremonies are memorial rituals held in the Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine where it is believed the spirits of the past kings of the Joseon Dynasty reside. The Shrine complex was initially built in 1396 by Founding King Taejo Yi Seong-gye to house the spirit tablets of four of his ancestors.

The central building, called Jeongjeon, is 101 meters long and features twenty red pillars. Its nineteen chambers contain the spirit tablets of nineteen kings and thirty queens. Jeongjeon is the resting place of Taejo (who established the Joseon Dynasty) and other kings who have made particularly memorable contributions to the nation. When a king passed, his spirit tablet would be kept at the Jeongjeon for five generations, after which those tablets of kings with exceptional legacies would continue to be venerated there or be otherwise transferred to the Yeongnyeonjeon, built west of the Jeong-jeon.

Yeongnyeonjeon houses the spirit tablets of sixteen kings and seventeen queens. The current Jeong-jeon and Yeongnyeonjeon were expanded in 1836. The Gonshindang annex next to Jeongjeon keeps the tablets of eighty-three high-ranking and meritorious Joseon Dynasty officials.

The Jongmyo Ceremonies include regular rituals as well as those for special occasions such as petitioning the royal ancestors for better fortunes after calamities or auspicious events. There were only incense offerings during the Japanese occupation, and the country was in such turmoil after liberation that not even incense was lit at the Jongmyo Shrine for a time. But from 1969, the Jeonju House of Yi began to hold ceremonies again under the auspices of its Daejongyak-won clan-organization, and from 1975 onwards, the main ceremony has been held on the every first Sunday of every May with full rites observed.

The Jongmyo Shrine’s Royal Ancestral Ritual Music, called Jongmyo Jaeryeak, involves music and dance that praise the ancestors and invoke well-being in the royal household. The rites were formalized during the reign of King Sejong, fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty, and modified during the time of seventh King Sejo in late 15th Century.

The shrine complex was listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1995, and its rites and the music were designated one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO.

[Jongmyojeongjeon (K-HERITAGE)]

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