By Michael Judd
History Matters Series.
A large, eerie, and beautiful shrine lies in the middle of Seoul amongst the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Jongmyo is a UNESCO World Heritage site and perhaps one of Korea’s most unknown tourist treasures. Perhaps I am talking only for myself, but it was not until my 5th trip to Seoul that I encountered it, and having been to most palaces and historical places of interest in Seoul and other cities, I surprised myself at having missed it all that time. So just what is Jongmyo Shrine, and should you visit it?
Jongmyo is a shrine housing the spirit tablets of the former Kings and Queens of the Joseon dynasty. The current king would regularly visit the shrine and perform royal ancestral rites in order to pray for his kingdom. It is the only shrine in the world that still follows and performs these same ancestral rites, based on Confucian philosophy. The main hall, Jeongjeon, contains 49 spirit tablets of deceased monarchs (19 Kings and 30 Queens). It is a magnificent shrine that was created by King Taejo in order to legitimize his new royal family, he enshrined his ancestors as Gods, ensuring no one would question his divine right to rule. Jeongjeon was said to have been one of the longest wooden structures in the world. It has 19 doors, with each room hosting a spirit tablet of a king. The tablet contains the teachings and the accomplishments of the kings. When a Joseon ruler died, they observed 3 years of mourning before they were enshrined. The current structure dates to the 17th century, the original having been burnt down during Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s invasions from Japan in the 1590s. My tour guide told me that the building was rebuilt in about 1601 with 19 rooms, not knowing exactly how many rooms would be needed for future generations, but that with the end of the Joseon dynasty in the early 20th century they had just the right number of rooms built. Which is an incredible feat of premonition that would make even Nostradamus jealous.
Nearby is the second, shorter shrine, Yeongnyeongjeon. It houses the spirit tablets of King Taejo’s ancestors, and also his descendants, who were deemed not quite great enough to make it to Jeongjeon. The decision on which shrine the king’s spirit tablet would end up in wasn’t up to him, actually, he had no say in it at all. Chroniclers recorded the king’s reign and achievements and then decided where to place him. I believe they deemed one or two so bad they didn’t even make it into the shrine altogether.
To enter the shrine you need to enter on an hour guided tour. Booking is not necessary but there are only 4 tours in English every day. You can also enter without a tour guide on Saturdays and I’m not sure if they put any limitations on that, only that I personally recommend the tour. The first thing you will notice when you enter is that there are three stone paths in the middle of the pathway. Hopefully, my photo helps that make sense. The central path was reserved for the spirits of kings. And in fact, it still is, there are signs not to walk on it. The pathways on either side were for the current kings and princes, who would follow a pathway from the nearby palaces. Even the gates have exclusive uses, with the south being for the spirits, the east for the kings, and the west for everyone else. (Everyone else meaning the members taking part in the ritual).
The ceremony now takes place annually and has itself become UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage recognized. I will link an absolutely amazing video from Arirang that has details on the ritual specifics. But essentially the ritual is about welcoming and entertaining the spirits with music and offerings.
In truth, it is just a fascinating and incredible place to visit. You can forget that you are in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, more so than at one of the nearby palaces, because here you can feel at peace, and without the usual masses of fellow tourists.
If you are looking for something to do in Korea, look no further than Jongmyo Shrine.
Here is another video, this time from UNESCO/NHK.
Michael JuddWriter and Historian
Michael is an avid writer and historian. Since leaving South Korea, he has furthered his studies and completed a Master’s degree in East Asian history with a focus on Korean and Japanese historical relations.