Episode 3: Jongmyo Shrine

On December 6, 1995, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee designated Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul as a world heritage site.
The Jongmyo Shrine was Korea’s first cultural property to become a heritage with a universal value of humankind. The royal shrine constitutes the root of the 500-year history of the Joseon Dynasty.

Now that we have decided on a new capital, Hanyang, we need to relocate the old one. We have to build houses and a castle. What should we do first?
Your majesty, I would like to make a suggestion. To establish the foundation of the nation, I suggest that along with the palace, we build Sajikdan Altar to hold rituals for the gods of earth and Jongmyo Shrine to keep memorial tablets for ancestors.
What is your reasoning?
The palace is to show the state’s dignity to the people, and Sajikdan Altar is to pray for a rich year so the people can lead comfortable lives. Most of all, Jongmyo Shrine, which serves ancestors, will be the spiritual basis of Joseon that adopted Confucianism as its ruling principle.
You’re absolutely right. If the king serves ancestors himself, the people will also value filial duty. Then, Confucian manners will surely be established.

Yi Seong-gye, who became King Taejo, overthrew the Goryeo Kingdom and founded the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. He adopted Confucianism as the ruling ideology.
In Confucianism, good manners were highly valued as one’s duty and the ancestral memorial service was regarded as a key element in good manners.
That is why King Taejo built the Jongmyo Shrine in the new capital of Hanyang in 1394.

The word “jong” means “key” or “most important” and “myo” refers to “shrine.” Jongmyo stands for the most important shrine in the nation. There, spirit tablets for kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty are enshrined and ancestral memorial rituals are performed.
Since this place was built to show the dynasty’s magnificent ancestral rites and the example of filial duty, the structure itself is solemn and sacred.

Entering the shrine that covers 186,786 square meters, a stone-covered path with three lanes come into view.
The central lane is reserved for the spirits of royal ancestors, and the other two lanes are for the king and the crown prince.
While the palace was the place where the king lived and governed the nation, Jongmyo was dedicated to the spirits of the deceased kings and queens. Therefore, the king and the crown prince had to walk on the side lanes, not on the central one.
Jeongjeon or the Main Hall, where the royal spirit tablets are enshrined, has very little ornamentation. It doesn’t even have dancheong, which refers to traditional colorful patterns painted on wooden structures.
With its length measuring 101 meters, the building is the world’s longest single wooden structure.

When Jongmyo Shrine was completed in 1395, the Main Hall had seven chambers to preserve the spirit tablets of the four past generations of King Taejo.
Later, the place was expanded to accommodate more tablets. In 1836, the Main Hall had 19 chambers with 49 tablets.
An additional 34 memorial tablets were enshrined at Yeongnyeongjeon, or the Hall of Eternal Peace, which was created in 1421 for the late kings and queens whose tablets were not kept at the Main Hall.

Ancestral memorial rituals are held at this royal shrine even to this day.

“Jongmyo Jerye” is the nation’s top ancestral ritual that has lasted over 600 years. Rules should be strictly observed in all the procedures such as welcoming the ancestral spirits and sending them off. Please pay full attention to the ritual. Have you prepared all the ritual utensils?
Yes, of course. Each chamber needs a total of 114 utensils, including 66 brass pots, 13 bamboo containers, 14 wooden dishes and two ceramics. All of the 24 kinds of utensils are ready.

During the Joseon era, kings themselves performed the royal ancestral ritual. The memorial rite is still carried out today with its original procedures kept intact.
Korea is the only country that has maintained the tradition of the royal ancestral worship ceremony for such a long time.
In 2001, the royal ritual praying for peace and stability and the accompanying music and dance called Jongmyo Jeryeak were included in the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The spirit and history of the Joseon Dynasty live on at Jongmyo Shrine, which is dubbed the “Parthenon temple of the East.”
The world’s oldest comprehensive ritual culture can be found at this valuable heritage that mirrors the 500-year Joseon Dynasty and the present time as well.