2010 Travel Diary #8: The Jongmyo Rituals Part 2

Sunday 2 May 2010. As we file out from the shrine after the first ceremony of the day, we mingle with the butlers who are off to have a quick breather and cigarette before the next ceremony. Already the queues are forming to get into the main shrine for the headline event at 1pm. No need for us to queue, though: we’re lucky enough to be on the guest list, courtesy of our Ministry of Culture hosts.

We have one and a half hours to kill before the event at the main shrine – the Jeongjeon. We have the choice of following the royal procession though the streets of downtown Seoul, from the Gyeongbokgung palace to the Jongmyo shrine for the main ceremony at 1pm; or sneak off into the Bukchon area for something to eat. We take the latter option.

We return in good time, and I find that I’m accredited as an official journalist, complete with a Press jacket. But without a monstrous camera I don’t really look the part, and I decide to just try to mingle in with the other guests. Now that the sun is stronger, I decide to grab an official Jongmyo sun-visor, helping me to blend into the crowd still further.

Stupidly, this is the only shot I have of some of the uninterrupted roofline of the Jeongjeon

The rituals in the Jeongjeon, the majestic shrine with the long, unbroken roofline and huge courtyard, is the showcase event. This is the one to which the foreign guests are invited. There are speeches by VIPs, live screens with subtitles broadcasting the proceedings to people unlucky enough not able to fit into the courtyard itself, and introductory promotional videos with rousing soundtracks proclaiming the significance of what the guests were about to see. For the privileged few, live multilingual running commentaries were available through headsets:

And now the [pause] Ujeongwan and … the Daechukgwan put the … er … mortuary tablets of royal ancestors to their … place in each shrine chamber. The Chanye officially [pause] announces for the Choheongwan that the ceremony has just started.

On second thoughts, I think I’ll turn that off.

The Jongmyo Rites: the terminology
Jongmyo Daeje = “Great Rites”, used interchangeably with Jongmyo Jerye = “Rites for the Royal Ancestors”.
Jongmyo Jeryeak = “Music for the Rites for the Royal Ancestors”
Jongmyo: the Royal Shrine itself.

What I hadn’t realised was that the ceremony in the Jeongjeon is an exact repetition of what had happened earlier in the day. If I’d thought about it, it should have been obvious: it’s just a different bunch of ancestors to respect: why would you treat King Injong any different from King Taejong. OK, the latter is sandwiched between the august figure of King Sejong and the founder of the Joseon dynasty, King Taejo, but you shouldn’t show favouritism.

Despite the main shrine holding three more ancestors, there being further to walk around to “set the tables”, and there being all the speeches to fit in, somehow the ceremony was exactly the same two-hour duration as the more intimate ritual at the Yeongnyeongjeon earlier in the day. If anything, it felt shorter rather than longer.

Some of the visitors, with the giant TV screen

Members of the public sat down on the ground in the courtyard; the VIPs sat on reserved seats under awnings around the edges. Press photographers annoyed everyone by roaming seemingly wherever they pleased, while TV cameramen were respectfully dressed as Joseon dynasty palace servants.

King Sejong also invented TV

Like the earlier ceremony, some members of the public showed more determination than others in staying the course and towards the end there was plenty of empty space in the courtyard.

We eventually filed out with all the other members of the public knowing we had witnessed something special. Students try to get visitors to complete assessment questionnaires. How would we rate the rituals as a tourist experience? Excellent. Would we come if we had to pay to get in? Absolutely.

As we neared the main gate to the shrine complex, we encountered some discrete souvenir stalls (though strangely none of the excellent photographs of the shrine were for sale). Young girls in hanbok were directing the crowds, one of whom had been number 1 dancer in row 8 of the first ceremony that same morning. A long day for the performers as well as the audience. But the ancestors must be properly honoured, and the Korean heritage authorities do it in great style.

Despite all the naysayers proclaiming its dullness, I would heartily recommend the Jongmyo rituals to anyone. It is a great day of sound and spectacle, a unique experience unavailable anywhere else in the world. If you don’t want to attend both, go to the earlier ceremony. It’s more intimate, more informal and less crowded but has exactly the same ingredients as the main one. And then come back to appreciate the architecture of the main shrine another day.

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