Deoksugung, Jung-gu, Seoul, Sunday 15 September, 10:45am. By the time I reach the Deoksu Palace at 10:45am I’m already perspiring. I was wearing sunblock, but should have been wearing a sunhat and some shorts. It was going to be a hot day.
This morning’s activity is a guided walk following the Sajik Daeje procession from the Deoksu Palace to the Sajikdan with the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, and then to witness the ceremony itself. The Sajik Daeje, together with the Jongmyo Rituals, were the two great state ceremonies of the Joseon dynasty. While the Jongnmyo rites – being UNESCO registered – are state supported, the Sajik Daeje is funded by the remnants of the Yi royal family – the Jeonju Lee clan. But the occasion is no less splendid.
At the ceremony as it existed in the Joseon dynasty, the king would pray to the gods of land and grain for the nation’s physical security and for a bountiful harvest – for peace and prosperity. The ceremony in part legitimised the king’s rule: it was the king’s duty to rule in the interests of the people, and to look after their well-being, and here was the king publicly officiating in a ceremony interceding for his people’s prosperity. Together with the Jongmyo rituals at which the Royal Ancestors were honoured, the two ceremonies were central to the identity of Joseon Korea. Here is a useful quote from The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea by Henry H Em:
Performing the sacrifices at the Jongmyo and the Sajikdan in the presence of his ministers and lesser officials, the Joseon monarch mediated between Heaven and Earth, between the dead and the living. Through the act of invoking Heaven and welcoming the spirits of his dead ancestors at the Jongmyo, or invoking the gods of land and grain at the Sajikdan, praying for rain, the Joseon monarch affirmed his legitimacy, his responsibility for the welfare of his subjects (the moral criterion for exercising power), and the metaphysics of hierarchy that defined Joseon’s unique political and social order.
The ceremony, which is registered as Important Intangible Cultural Heritage item number 111, dates back to the Three Kingdoms period, and is said to reflect the Korean people’s respect for and gratitude to nature. The Sajikdan Altar, where the ritual has been held since end of the fourteenth century, was built in its current position by Yi Seong-gye (King Taejo), founder of the Joseon dynasty, and the area was registered as Historic Site No 121 in 1963. An extract from the UNESCO-registered annals of the Joseon dynasty reads as follows:
“The king sent officials to Hanyang in order to choose the sites of the Royal Ancestral Shrine, the Altars of Land and Grain, the royal palace, and the markets and roads.”
This was in the autumn of 1394, two years after Taejo came to the throne. The site of the Sajikdan was clearly a priority for the founder of the Joseon dynasty, of equal importance with the site of the altar for the royal ancestors. Four years later, Taejo abdicated in favour of his son. And the first proclamation of the second king of the Joseon dynasty, Jeongjong, contains this as its very first measure:
“The sacrifices to the Royal Ancestral Shrine and the Altar of Land and Grain shall be offered with sincerity and respect. The foods and sacrificial vessels on the table shall be clean, and invocations and rituals appropriate so that there may be no disrespect at all.”
Two entries among many which testify to the central importance of the Sajik rituals in the early Joseon dynasty. A network of subsidiary sajikdan altars were built in each province throughout the peninsula for smaller rites to be held, emphasising the connection of Korean people with the land.
The national rites were once performed at the Seoul Sajikdan in February and August, and additional ceremonies were held on the site in times of trouble or drought, but they were banned under the Japanese. The ceremony was restored in 1988 under the guidance of the scholar in charge of the Jongmyo rituals, Lee Eun-pyo.
The procession starts at 11am at the Deoksu Palace – a seemingly endless stream of attendants in traditional costume, both on foot and on horseback. Some bear pikes and other weapons; others are playing warlike instruments. The most exciting sound is made by the nabal, a raucous, tuneless noise which really stirs the soul. According to Wikipedia, “the nabal has historically been used primarily in the military procession music called daechwita… to signal the beginning and end of performances.”
The traffic in Sejong-ro is halted as the procession crosses from the palace to the east side of the road, then walks north towards Gwanghwamun. The RASKB tour group shadows it from the other side of the road, nosing around the flea market which is an innovation of the latest mayor of Seoul.
As we reach Gwanghwamun itself, our guide pauses to tell us about the stone Haecha – the fire-eating lions – which sit outside the palace on each side of the gate, there to protect the buildings against another conflagration. His voice is drowned out by a vocalist who is performing an Arirang for the benefit of tourists and shoppers alike.
We make our way to the Sajikdan, just west of the main Royal Palace, the Gyeongbokgung. The positioning of the great national altars, as approved by King Taejo, follows Chinese tradition. Looking south from the palace, the altar for the ancestors (Jongmyo) is to the left (East) while the altars for the god of land (Sa) and god of grain (jik) are to the right (west).
At the entrance to the park we are given little yellow paper pennants, signifying (we are informed) that we are guests of the Yi family, and we settle down to watch the ceremony, shading ourselves from the fierce sun as best we can. Goodness knows how the celebrants managed to survive the heat in their thick costumes.
The ceremony is not a million miles from how I remember the Jongmyo rituals three years previously. Here, there are no ancestral tablets to be honoured. Instead, there are the twin altars for the gods of land and the gods of grain. The music is just as splendid, and the sixty-four dancers form an eight-by-eight square as they make their studied gestures and poses.
- yeongsinnye (greeting the gods),
- jeonpyerye (offering incense),
- chenjorye (offering meats and foods),
- choheonnye (offering the first cup of liquor),
- aheonnye (offering the second cup of liquor),
- jongheonnye (offering the last cup of liquor), and
- eumbongnye (drinking the liquor),
- cheolbyeondo (cleaning up foods on the table)
- sonshinnye (saying farewell to the gods),
- mangryorye (final greeting and burning of ritual papers).
The sections were punctuated by different chants, and the officiants moved from one altar to the other, pouring wine and making offerings. As the celebrants processed around, onlookers would follow to get the best photographs. Stewards struggled to keep the sightseers out of the way, but I managed to snatch two minutes of video footage on my phone:
We stay for an hour or so, long enough to get the gist, and head off towards Tongin market where we are due to browse round and have lunch. It is just before Chuseok, the early autumn festival, and the stalls are full of colourful rice cakes. I select a small food shack and have a spicy chueotang washed down with a large beer before walking slowly back to Insadong, trying hard not to become overheated in the sun.