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Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

2010 Travel Diary #7: The Jongmyo Rituals, part 1

Sunday 2 May 2010. I found it really quite hard to find accessible information online in respect of the Jongmyo rituals. Often, on the UNESCO site, there is documentation which sets out why the submitting country thinks that this particular intangible cultural property is worthy of inscription on the international list. But no such information was immediately evident on the UNESCO site for the Great Jongmyo Rituals.

Some of the individual shrines
Some of the individual shrines

In my Korean book collection I have a two-volume publication by Hollym on Korea’s intangible cultural assets, which to be honest weren’t much use to me; the ever-helpful EJ Shin, librarian at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, had provided me with a much more useful book on Korea’s UNESCO listings. But if you had tested me on my knowledge of the ritual beforehand I would have been able to provide only the following information

  • King Sejong had something to do with it (always a good bet with any of Korea’s cultural achievements);
  • In one dance, all the dancers move to the left, and in the other they all move to the right;
  • One dance is about the civil achievements of the ancestors, the other is about the military achievements;
  • The titles of the two dances are unpronounceable;
  • The instruments used include a rack of tuned slabs of rock, and a tiger with a spiny back which sounds a lot like a washboard;
  • There’s lots of Chinese influence in the music; and
  • Most people think it’s very, very boring.

Armed with that limited information, I turned up at the entrance to the Jongmyo shrine at 9:30am with my interpreter Morgan and an open mind.

The dancers and the lower orchestra
The dancers and the lower orchestra

It was a brilliantly sunny day, but with a pleasant crispness to the air. Numerous volunteers at the entrance were handing out informative brochures and plastic sun-visors. I didn’t feel quite ready yet for ajumma status, and it wasn’t that hot, so I declined the visor and just took the brochure.

Once through the gate, the walk through the park was beautiful. The last remaining blossom clung to the shrubs in the middle of the ponds, and people posed for photographs. We followed the crowd in the direction of where the action was.

When the shrine was first built in 1394 there weren’t that many royal ancestors which needed honouring. The Yi / Joseon dynasty was in its early days: more precisely, King Taejo, the founder of the dynasty, was only in the third year of his reign. But with the march of time and as the centuries rolled on, the main shrine got rather crowded, and an overflow shrine was required. And that meant ceremonies needed to be done at both shrines. In a way, it’s a good job the Joseon dynasty finished when it did: we’d soon be needing a third shrine.

The butlers bowing en masse
The butlers bowing en masse

The flow of people was headed to the secondary shrine, the Yeongnyeongjeon, and as we got near I could hear some mystical music and chanting. I was a little surprised that the proceedings had started bang on time at 9:30 – not a normal occurrence for a Korean event in London. But then I suppose you can’t keep the ancestors waiting. They are important people, and they’ve been waiting a whole year for this. The ceremony used to be performed several times a year, but now the ancestors have to wait a full twelve months and must get hungry.

The ceremony’s history goes back to Silla times, but received an infusion of Chinese ritual in the 12th century. The result was a mix of Korean and Chinese music and ceremony. King Sejong (r 1418-1450) tried to redress the balance a little. He instructed one of his scholars, Park Yeon, to catalogue all the music that had been used in the ceremony over the years. Sejong then selected the music that would be used in the future. Finally, in the reign of King Seongjong (r 1469-1494) the format of the ceremony was documented in a formal manual, and the rites have remained in more or less the same form ever since.

Bells in the upper orchestra
Bells in the upper orchestra

The shrine is already crowded with sightseers, but Morgan and I spy a less congested spot towards the West of the arena, right next to the 8 by 8 square of dancers. The crowd is three-deep against the restraining rope barrier, but we can just about see around the heads of the people in front.

When court music was introduced from China into Korea in 1116, the gift was accompanied with 36 costumes for the dancers. The memorial rites for the ancestors of the Chinese emperor featured 64 dancers – an 8 by 8 square. But Korea, being the younger brother, was only permitted a 6 by 6 square. That’s how it stayed until the late 19th Century. As the power of China declined, and an emergent Japan declared itself an empire, Korea followed suit. If the upstart Japan could decide to have an emperor and thus claim equality to China, Korea was not to be outdone, and proclaimed the Great Han Empire. And the number of dancers at the Jongmyo rituals was promptly upgraded to the imperial 64.

The dancers’ moves are steady and measured. They perform a dignified semaphore with the implements in their hands: during the first dance which celebrates the civil achievements of the ancestors, they hold a three-holed bamboo flute and a feather-tasselled wooden stick. In the military dance they hold a wooden sword or a small pike. A good sense of balance is required as much of the dance involves standing on one leg.

The music is slow and stately. The solo chanting by the leader of the ceremony is perfectly out of key with the orchestra, presumably intentionally, because it takes some skill to hold one’s own against superior forces in such a way. For those used to western music, the soundworld is totally alien, but not unpleasant. It’s not toe-tapping stuff, but it enters into your body and slowly possesses you.

If the sights and sounds start repeating, what about the smells? The aroma of toasted mugwort and oiled millet wafts across the shrine as the offerings to the ancestors are made. Then the music changes, with more drums; the rattling sound of a stick on the tiger’s back makes the washboard sound: I’d been waiting for that. Are those suspended slabs of stone really producing music, or is it the bells that are struck almost at the same time? Where is the sound of the shawm coming from? What is producing that sound like a swarm of angry bees? The intervals intoned by the precentor change from an augmented fourth through the quarter tones to a perfect fourth. Suddenly the dozens of butlers are on the move, first in a long queue, then prostrating themselves in unison.

With so many ancestors to honour, the ceremony is a bit of an endurance test. Soon the less dedicated audience members call it quits, giving the opportunity for you to get to the front of the crowd. For the performers too, stamina is required, and two of the 64 high school girls had to be led out of the arena, fainting. Fortunately, substitutes were available.

Some of the sightseers were well-prepared. Some of the amateur photographers had come with stepladders or extension poles so that their cameras had a bird’s eye view of the proceedings. And the professional photographers, getting in everyone’s way, were trying to find ever more inventive camera angles, grovelling on the ground pointing the lens upward at the performers.

Even if you find the ceremony boring (which I didn’t), there was plenty else to keep you interested. Watch the people in the crowd picnicking or playing ring o’ roses. What is that idiot with the long lens doing? Those high school girls who’ve been sent to the ceremony as a photo assignment are grumbling at how dull it all is and have started eying up some boys. That dancer in the third row is really uncomfortable with that hat: she keeps adjusting it. And that girl in the 7th row shouldn’t really be turning round to chat with her friend in the 8th, should she?

Try moving from your position in the crowd, get a different viewpoint. There’s endless entertainment to be had, all for free, and the two hours pass extremely quickly. Periodically I check to see that Morgan isn’t bored out of her mind, but she seems to be quite happy watching me watching the crowds watching the ceremony.

Team photo
Team photo

Finally the rituals are over, promptly finishing two hours after they started, and we realise that all the elaborately-dressed ceremonial officials are really just ordinary people after all. They all line up in front of the shrine for a team photo as a memento of the occasion.

Jongmyo Shrine is Historic Site #125. Its Main Hall is National Treasure #227, while its Yeongnyeongjeon Hall is Treasure #821.


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