In 2009, the entire royal tombs of an old dynasty were listed as UNESCO World Heritage items. More than 500 years of history of the Joseon Dynasty is well preserved in the royal tombs. The 40 royal tombs contain the mausoleums of 25 Joseon kings and queens as well as those who were posthumously recognized as rulers who reigned over the Korean Peninsula from 1392 to 1910.
Filial duty and good manners were of the highest value in Joseon that adopted Confucianism as its ruling ideology. In an effort to set an example to the people, the royal family created a tomb when a king died and held a funeral in a sincere and dignified manner. When creating a royal tomb, the first task was to find a promising site.
"Your majesty, Prime Minister Ha Ryun is here."
"Glad to see you, Ha Ryun. So, have you finally found a site for my father’s tomb?"
"Your majesty, the tomb of your father, King Taesangwang, will be the first royal mausoleum of the Joseon Kingdom. I looked for sites all around Paju and Goyang and I believe I have found the perfect site."
"Are you suggesting Geomam in Yangju? I ordered you to create the royal tomb in an area within 4 to 40 kilometers away from Gyeongbokgung Palace. But, Geomam is located northeast of the palace. Is that the right location for this tomb?"
"After leaving the palace, the memorial procession can reach Geomam in one day. Moreover, this site is in the shape of an imposing general. It is undoubtedly an ideal spot for the royal tomb."
If the palace is described as the house where the king lives while he is alive, the tomb is the house where the king stays after he dies. When the founder of Joseon, Yi Seong-gye, died in 1408, his successor King Taejong began to look for a good location for the tomb of the deceased king.
Arranged based on geomancy, the royal tomb should be located at a site where its surrounding nature can separate the tomb from other facilities. It should also be located in an area that is between four and 40 kilometers away from the palace. The purpose was to reduce the cost and burden of visiting the tomb. When the location was decided, the tomb creation work began in earnest.
"You are in charge of creating the royal tomb. So, please give me your opinion on how to make the tomb of King Taesangwang."
"I referred to several books, and I think it’s necessary to divide the tomb area into the three sections of Entrance, Jehyang and Neungchim."
"Are you suggesting that we follow the Confucian decorum and separate the sacred area from the earthly world? Then, I guess the deceased king and the current king can meet naturally. But how can we divide the three sections?"
"In the "Entrance Area," a bridge will be built to mark the boundary between the earthly world and the sacred area. Structures for holding memorial services for the dead will be built in the "Jehyang Area," while the tumulus and stone figures protecting the dead can be placed in the "Neungchim Area.""
People prepare for memorial services in the "Entrance Area" and hold the memorial rites in the "Jehyang Area," while the spirit of the deceased king stays in the "Neungchim Area." "Geumcheongyo Bridge" and "Hongsalmun Gate" represent the sacred area, and "Jeongjagak Shrine" is where the memorial services are conducted. Also, stone figures are erected to protect the tumulus. These structures indicate the meanings of each area.
But the size of the tomb area, building forms, and the use and scale of stone figures vary, depending on political situations and the architectural style of a certain period.
"After death, my body should decompose quickly. So, do not use a stone chamber or a stone cist. And do not set up the stone that encircles the tomb."
King Sejo did not like unnecessary waste, and his dying wish was to simplify his tomb. That is why his tomb, Gwangneung, has no stone surrounding the tomb, while stone figures in front of the tomb are rather small.
The Dongguneung Tomb Cluster houses nine royal tombs, including the tomb of the first Joseon monarch, King Taejo. King Sejong and his queen are buried together in Yeongneung, which marks the first joint royal tomb of the Joseon era. Hongneung is the tomb of King Gojong, who proclaimed the Korean Empire in 1897. It features the empire’s unique royal tomb system. And Yureung is the last royal tomb of the Joseon Dynasty. Created over the extensive period of five centuries, the royal tombs show Joseon’s life, politics and art in a comprehensive way.
It is the ancestral memorial ritual that further enhances the value of the royal tombs. The Joseon Dynasty no longer exists, but the descendants of the royal family still conduct the memorial rite called "Sanreung Jerye," just the way it was held in old times. A rite that has been performed for over 600 years is hard to find in any part of the world. This tradition played an important role in the UNESCO World Heritage listing for the royal tombs of the Joseon Dynasty.
The royal tombs of the Joseon Dynasty feature unique architecture based on Confucian and geomantic traditions, as well as the continued ancestral memorial ritual, the only one of its kind in the world. Korean people are proud of the royal tombs that are perfectly preserved to show the history and culture of the Joseon Dynasty.