Rediscovering aesthetics of Jongmyo Shrine

2014-03-18 : 17:27
Jongmyo Shrine is a Royal Ancestral Shrine that symbolized the Joseon Kingdom. / Courtesy of Academy of Korean Studies

This is the fourth of a 20-part of Jangseogak series in collaboration with the Academy of Korean Studies. Jangseogak houses Joseon Kingdom’s documents. — ED.

Lee Wook of the Academy of Korean Studies

By Lee Wook

Have you visited Jongmyo yet?
The Jongmyo Shrine, otherwise known as the Royal Ancestral Shrine, is located in the center of Seoul. Along with “Sajik” (Altars of the Earth and Grain Deities), it flanks Gyeongbok Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon Kingdom.

Jongmyo Shrine is a sacred place that symbolized the dynastic state. Once you walk past the Oedaemun Gate, you will enter the thickly wooded pathway that sharply contrasts with busy Jongno streets behind you.

If you keep to the path, you will be greeted with another set of gates and wall. Once you pass these gates, called “sinmun” or “spirit gate,” you will see the long, widespread building across the courtyard covered with stone slabs.

Sitting atop two tiers of terrace, the building’s simple, restrained beauty makes the viewer feel reverential and solemn. A continuous colonnade of brick-red color extends sideways, and on top of the building sits the black tiled roof laid like the teeth of a comb in an orderly manner.

The architecture of Jeongjeon, Jongmyo’s main hall, shows the aesthetics of “sindo,” which emphasizes solemnity. For this reason, many consider Jongmyo as the sacred place that best demonstrates the religious sentiment of the Korean people. Jongmyo Shrine was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

What can you expect to see at Jongmyo? Jongmyo is a shrine where ancestral rites are performed. A shrine is a place where deities or spirits of the ancestors reside.
But can you expect to see them there? When a king died, the body was buried in the royal tomb and the spirit was housed in the shrine. Of course we cannot see the spirits with our eyes, since spirits have no visible substance.

What you can see at Jongmyo Shrine are not the spirits of kings, but “sinju” or spirit tablets. There are in total of 49 spirit tablets including one belonging to King Taejo, who founded the Joseon Kingdom.

Sinju is a plaque that records the name and the status of the deceased. Whereas a portrait painting or sculpture is a figurative representation of its subject, the sinju represents the individual by his/her “myeongho” or praising title.

On each spirit tablet are usually inscribed three titles given to the king _ “siho” or the posthumous title, “jonho” or eulogistic title), and “myoho” or temple name).
After a king’s passing, his officials and the new king bestowed him with posthumous titles, in accordance with appraisal of the late king’s achievements. In other words, these titles are a written portrait of the preceding king’s achievements and virtuous deeds during his life.

At Jongmyo Shrine, these meritorious and virtuous deeds recorded on spirit tablets serve as a bridge between the deceased king, and his descendants and his people.

Sinju isn’t the only place where you can find the records of such virtuous acts.
On either side of the tabernacle where tablets are enshrined, stand a treasure chest on the right and a book chest on the left; they housed royal seals inscribed with posthumous titles, and the “chaekmun” or the letters praising the king’s virtues.

This was to pass down to posterity forever the virtuous deeds of the predecessors. For this reason, in the “Book of Documents” or one of the five classics of ancient Chinese literature, it says that seven generations will witness the virtues in the shrine of their ancestors.

Since its foundation in 1395, Jongmyo has held the performance of sacrificial rites to this day. In 2001, “Jongmyo Jerye” or the royal ancestral ritual and “Jongmyo Jeryeak” or the royal ancestral ritual music were designated by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Let’s take a closer look at how these sacrificial rites were. “Jerye” is a ritual of worshipping deities or spirits that are invisible to our naked eyes. In Jongmyo Jerye ceremonies, incense is burned and the “ulchangju,” a ritual wine made from rice, and saffron roots and stems, is poured over to the ground in order to welcome the ancestral spirits.

This is a ritual of calling the souls and spirits of ancestors that are believed to reside separately after death in heaven and earth.
Burning incense calls back “hon” or soul, the yang component of the soul and pouring ulchangju summons “baek” spirit, the yin component of the soul. This ritual has its origin in the dualistic understanding of human life and death, in terms of yin and yang.

Jongmyo Jerye ritual is a sacrificial rite and cows, sheep, and pigs are offered as sacrificial animals. In the Joseon period, a rare breed of black cows was raised specifically for sacrificial rites.
In present times, animals are no longer slaughtered within the grounds of Jongmyo Shrine, but the blood, fur, raw meat and cooked meat of sacrificial animals are offered at the rituals.

These sacrificial rites can be said to be closely linked to the primeval religious sentiments of humankind.
In addition, you will recognize that in Jongmyo sacrificial rituals simplicity was valued more highly than extravagance, in that simple food such as raw meat, unflavored meat soup, and “hyeonju” or pure clean water was offered to deities.

Also, during the sacrificial rites, songs, orchestra music, and dances praising the virtues of the deceased kings are performed.

In summary, Jongmyo Jerye was a ritual of sharing blessings where they expressed their gratitude for the ancestors through offerings and music and shared these among the living.

Reverence towards Jongmyo is well documented throughout the history of the Joseon Kingdom. Documents on Jongmyo Shrine include “Jongmyo Uigwe or tje Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty,” a UNESCO Memory of the World Register; “Jongmyo Deungrok” or the Records of Royal Ancestral Shrine; Jongmyoseo Ilgi” or “Diaries of the Custodians of Royal Ancestral Shrine”: and “Jongmyo Ilji.”

These documents, most of which are housed at the Jangseogak Archives of the Academy of Korean Studies, hold the long history from the late Joseon period to the Great Han Empire, and to the Japanese occupation period. Jongmyo Uigwe, compiled eight times over the period of 136 years from 1706 to 1842, records a detailed history of Jongmyo Shrine.

It describes the procedures of the sacrificial rites, preparation of sacrificial offerings, assignment of staff in charge of rituals, maintenance of buildings, administration of chaekbo and recruitment of personnel.

These documents show us that the sacredness of Jongmyo Shrine with a long history of 500 some years is something that was formed and kept by many variables such as the ideals of Confucianism, the political relationship between the king and his vassals, material foundations, and organized management system.

The writer is a researcher at the Center for the Korean Studies Materials of the Academy of Korean Studies.