[personal profile] niori_1709
For the past couple travel guides, I've hit some places that were fairly modern. Both were very contemporary, built and thriving within the past one hundred (give or take) years. With that in mind, I've decided to take a few steps back in time for this one, going for a far more traditional location. The place I've chosen is Jongmyo Shrine. Not only because it's an interesting place, but because just this week it was playing a key role in Korean cultural history.

This place takes us back to the familiar Joseon Dynasty. Jongmyo Shrine served a very specific, very important purpose during the dynasty. This was the spot that housed the ancestral tablets of the dead kings and queens, and where the living royals undertook the very serious ceremonies to honour them. This is a deeply Confucius ritual, rooted in filial piety to both the deceased as rulers and as parents/elders (filial is arguably the most important cornerstone in Confucianism). It was believed that the spirit separated from the body immediately after death and moved straight onto the heavens. The body is sent back to the earth, which is why tombs/burial sites and spirit tablet shrines are in completely different places- the spirit and the physical body need to stay apart. After a three year mourning period, where the tablet of the dead monarch was kept in the palace, it was moved to its final resting place at Jongmyo. Offerings were made to these tablets, which was basically a stand in that could bring the spirit of the owner back to receive them.

For all that the ceremonies and rituals that take place here are elaborate and decorative, the shrine itself is not. Founded in 1394, Jongmyo Shrine is a model of simplicity. The buildings are traditional hanok, but they lack the design found in most of the royally used areas. There's virtually no colour and the architecture is without flourish. All of this is very, very deliberate. This is meant to be a serious place, where all who entered were meant to contemplate the ancestors they were about to honour. This isn't only seen in the plain buildings, but the walkways as well. The paths leading to and from the main halls are just like I described when writing about Seolleung and Jeongneung Royal Tombs (divided into three parts, one for the king to walk on, the other side for everyone else, and a raised middle reserved for spirits), but these are a little different in the construction. These paths are made of rough, uneven stones, one that would be easy to trip over if you weren't paying attention...and that's the point. This pathway forced you to not only go slowly, but to think seriously about where you were going and what you were doing. This path allowed for no frolicking only deep, sombre thought.

I was pretty surprised at how large the shrine was, and just how spread out it was. In my mind, a shrine was a pretty well packed and self contained, but I was very wrong. Not only is the shrine fairly wide, but the outlying edges are set on and off some fairly steep hills (fun fact- a good lot of those hills are artificial. They were made by builders to make the shrine surrounded by hills to give it some more harmony with the landscape). It's actually much bigger than it used to be. It began with only a few buildings, but after it burned down in 1592 and rebuilt in 1836, even more buildings were built to house even more tablets. By the time it reached full capacity, it was up to sixteen chambers, growing bigger to accommodate the increasing amount of deceased monarchs.
When you first walk into the shrine, you have to pass through a traditional gate. A stone walkway, which I already mentioned, one that goes on and on in a straight line. If you follow it along (and please, for the love of all that's good, be respectful, and don't walk on the spirit path. I don't care if you believe it or not, the sign says 'stay off the path'). The path eventually branches off into dirt paths, but the stone keeps going all the way to the tablet buildings. Eventually you pass by a pond, one that's round with a small island in the middle. There's a nice, twisty evergreen tree, but sadly the foliage wasn't as pretty as it could have been. I went to the shrine in early December, at a time when only a few brightly coloured leaves were left clinging to the trees. It was a bit...brown overall, which might have taken a bit of the huzzah out of the place, but it wasn't really an issue. There's plenty of symbolism going on with the pond (because of course). The pond is round to represent the round heavens, while the islet is the flat Earth.

You pass by many buildings as you travel around, and many of them aren't even used to store spirit tablets. Everything that's needed for the rituals is kept on site, and everything is prepared there as well. There are waiting rooms, preparation buildings, storage buildings, and just about everything in between.

Finally, you come to the main buildings, the biggest one being Jeongjeong. The first thing you notice is just how long the building is. It wasn't all that tall, but it was one of the longest traditional buildings I've seen in Korea. In front of it is a wide rectangular stone pavilion. The stone yard is raised off the ground and it's huge. I'd wager you'd be able to fit at least 40-50 people on it, easily enough. This is where the spirit tablets of the former kings and queens are housed. The pavilion is where the ancestral rites were (and still are- now only once a year, still very serious, and it's the only ritual like this that still happens in Asia) performed. There are a lot of tablets in the buildings is closed and you can't see them. After moving capital to Seoul, King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty moved the past four generations of kings and queens to the shire to give it an air of legitimacy. Speaking of legitimacy, the four generations weren't the only ones the king moved there. The tablets of one King Gongmin and his Mongolian queen of the Goryeo Dynasty were also brought to Jongmyo. Here's the thing- moving the tablets to say 'Hey look! We have a former king now so we're legit!' is boring. No one likes a boring explanation, so of course a far more interesting legend popped up. The legend goes that a portrait of the king was accidentally blown onto the shrine's ground when it was first under construction. The heavy wind didn't damage it, nor did the landing, and that of course was taken as a sign. That led to his tablet being moved, since his portrait had shown its desire to go there. The portrait stayed as well. While I'm sure the first explanation is the true one, my over active imagination is determined to go with the second. One last note on the spirit tablets. There are two Joseon kings you're not going to find- King Yeonsangung and Gwanghaegun. Fun fact- being deposed and kicked off your throne will get you banned from the royal spiritual resting place. If you ever find yourself ruling a country, maybe keep it in mind.
So the shrine itself is wonderful. Its simplicity compared to the palaces is refreshing. It's importance and sombreness is on a different level than most of the places I've been while here. It's so interesting and different, but the place is not the only thing of fascination here. As I mentioned, the ancestor rituals still happen here. Full disclosure- I didn't actually get to see this on my visit, and I've just never gotten back. So this isn't a first hand account, but a rundown on the events (that I'll hopefully get back to someday).

The royal ritual is called Jerye, and it made up for all the pomp and circumstance the shrine itself lacked. This is big, loud, colourful, and elaborate. It's also very serious and very important. To start the ceremony, everyone (and everything) has to take its place. There are three gates that lead to Jeongjeong, the ritual site, and each is there for a purpose. The south gate, AKA the spirit gate, is where the spirits are to enter. The ritual officiates, including the king and crown prince, come in from the east gate, and the dancers and musicians come through the west. They meet in the middle, and then the ritual begins. It takes place in three sections. The first person is to welcome the spirits. This makes sense, given the fact the first thing you do when you invite someone over is to greet them. To welcome them, they burned incense, poured wine on the ground, offered them clean white cloth, a mixture fur/blood/cooked entrails of sacrificial animals (why the spirits would want that unpleasant concoction I am not sure), and burned a mix of liver, millet, and mugwart in a charcoal brazier.

After the spirits have been nice and welcomed, it's time for them to be entertained. They're offered more food and wine, this time from the king and crown prince themselves. Afterwards, it was assumed blessings were given to the king, and he ate a little of the ritual food. This was also where the royal music, or Jeryeak, played the biggest role. The music was an ode to the virtues of dead kings. It praises both civil rule (botaepyeong) and military accomplishments/prowess (jeongdaeep). Both of those things were important to the unity of Korea, for different reasons, and the music reflects this. Civil rule tends to relate to diplomacy and other such talents. It's a skill we consider to be a strength of the mind. It's all about cleverness and slight of hand, of manipulation and compromise. It's the calmer way to rule, thought probably (I'd personally argue) far more important, or at least more efficient, for all that it's far less overt. It makes sense that the music for that part is far more soft and calm. Battle, on the other hand, is bombastic and loud. This is also shown in the music- it's a strong beat, far more powerful than the first. It's aggressive, just battle (though with infinitely less bloodshed).

To finish the ritual, they need to send the spirits back to heaven. This part loses the musical aspect, and goes back to a more formal-formal. The ushering of the spirits back to heaven goes on by burning ritual paper and white ramie cloth. Then, with the offerings burned and the words spoken, the ritual comes to an end. With that, the officiates and royals depart, leaving the shrine until the next ceremony needs to take place. With the end of the ritual (that yes, I seriously do have to get back and see it for myself), I'm going to close out this review. This is a great place to visit, especially given it's right in the heart of the palace district (and literally right next door to one of the palaces). It's easy to combine Jongmyo Shrine with a tour of (at least one) of the palaces. Play it smart and schedule it around the time of the ritual (early May- it actually happened last weekend), and it'll be a day of the best of Joseon history, AKA a day well spent.
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