Honoring Ancestors through Ritual and Music - Ancestral Rituals of the Royal Shrine
The Jongmyo Ancestral Rituals are memorial ceremonies held in Jongmyo Shrine where it is believed the spirits of the past kings of the Joseon Dynasty reside. Jongmyo Shrine, located in central Seoul, was first built in 1396 by King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty (1932-1910), to house the spirit tablets of four of his ancestors.
The complex features three main buildings, among many other auxillary structures. The largest, main hall, called Jeongjeon, is 101 meters long and its nineteen chambers contain the spirit tablets of nineteen kings and thirty queens.
Jeongjeon is the resting place of King Taejo and other kings who have made particularly memorable contributions to the nation. When a king died, his spirit tablet would be kept at Jeongjeon for five generations. After this, if a king was deemed to have had an exceptional legacy, his spirit tablet would remain in Jeongjeon. The spirit tablets of those kings with less exceptional legacies would be moved to Yeongnyeongjeon Hall, the second largest hall in the shrine complex.
Yeongnyeongjeon houses the spirit tablets of sixteen kings and seventeen queens. The Jeongjeon and Yeongnyeongjeon you can visit today were expanded in 1836. Gongsindang Hall, the third largest hall in the complex, enshrines the spirit tablets of 83 high-ranking and meritorious Joseon Dynasty officials.
The Jongmyo Ancestral Rituals encompass regular rituals as well as those for special occasions such as petitioning the royal ancestors for better fortunes after calamities or auspicious events. During the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), only incense offerings were held. After liberation in 1945, the country was in such turmoil that not even incense was lit at Jongmyo Shrine for a time. But from 1969, the Jeonju Yi Clan - the descendants of the royal family - began to hold ceremonies again under the auspices of its Association of Jeonju Yi Families. From 1975 onwards, the full ceremony has been held each year on the first Sunday of May, and beginning in 2012, rituals also have been held the first Saturday of November.
Jongmyo Shrine's Royal Ancestral Ritual Music, called Jongmyo Jeryeak, 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 Heritage in 1995, and its rites and the music were inscribed on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2001.