Korea's Religious Places - 2.1 Jongmyo Shrine (The Royal Ancestral Shrine)
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
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|2. Confucianism||1) Jongmyo Shrine (The Royal Ancestral Shrine)||2) Seonggyungwan National Academy|
Jongmyo Shrine (The Royal Ancestral Shrine) (Seoul)
In 1995, as a new member of the United Nations, Korea got its first three UNESCO World Heritage Sites recognized by the international body. Among them was the Jongmyo Shrine, the Royal Ancestral Shrine of the Joseon Dynasty. The shrine houses the spirit tablets of the former kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910). Here, over the centuries, the current king would perform ceremonies for his ancestors, the kings who had preceded him. Today, the descendants of the kings meet one day a year, on the first Sunday of May, to carry out the ceremonies.
The ceremonies are identical to those held at the Seonggyungwan National Academy. There is an orchestra of traditional instruments, dancers who perform a very sedate dance without moving their feet, and the offerings of food and drink to the deceased. Tables are set before each spirit tablet. Unlike the Seonggyungwan National Academy, however, where all the spirits are in one hall, at the Jongmyo Shrine, each king has his own room. The rooms are set in a long row, making it one of the longest buildings of the premodern world.
There were twenty-seven kings of the Joseon Dynasty, and one could look at the long building with a doorway marking the entrance to each room and assume there were twenty-seven doors, twenty-seven rooms. But such is not the case. It turns out that there are two halls. A second hall is a little farther down the pathway deeper into the compound. The second hall is also a long building with separate entrances to separate rooms for each king, but the building is not quite as long. The reason for two halls is that there were two, really three, levels of kings in the Joseon Dynasty.
Two of Korea’s kings are absent altogether. These two kings were deposed, and were forever known by their princely titles. They were never given the suffix denoting a king, either -jo or -jong, such as Sejong or Yeongjo. The two kings without kingly titles were Yeonsangun (r. 1494–1506) and Gwanghaegun (r. 1608–1623). Although each ruled for longer than many other kings, twelve years and fifteen years, they were never given the posthumous honor of a king’s title, and they were not enshrined in the Jongmyo Shrine because they were removed from the throne.
For the remaining kings, there was a hierarchy of status between kings who were considered worthy and good, and lesser kings. The first of the lesser kings were kings who never ruled. Indeed, the founder of the dynasty, Yi Seong-gye (1335–1408), who was given the kingly title Taejo (r. 1392–1398), saw to the promotion of his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather—four ancestors—to be kings, posthumously. After all, a king cannot be a legitimate king unless his father and ancestors were also kings—that was the rationale. At the center of the secondary hall at the Jongmyo Shrine, the central portion of the hall is raised slightly above the roofline of the portions of the hall to the left and right. That center portion houses four rooms for these ancestor kings.
There were other kings who were included in the secondary hall as well. This hall included kings who did rule, but were considered lesser kings. They were not deposed, but most had extremely short reigns. In another case, there was a king who reigned for twenty two years but was not as well regarded as other kings. This was King Myeongjong (r. 1545–1567), a king who was manipulated by his mother and his maternal uncle through much of his reign. Finally, there were other kings who did not rule, but were elevated to kingship; these men were biological fathers of royal relatives adopted as heirs to kings who had no biological heirs. The biological father of a king became a king posthumously; several such kings are found in the secondary hall. There were also crown princes who died before becoming kings. The most noteworthy was Crown Prince Sado (1735–1762), who was executed by being locked in a rice chest on order from his father, King Yeongjo. He was later enshrined as King Jangjo.
Finally, in the main hall are the nineteen kings who, without argument, were noble kings. These included King Taejo, the founder of the dynasty; King Sejong (r. 1418–1450), who invented the Korean alphabet; King Yeongjo (r. 1724–1776), a noble king who had the longest reign, fifty-two years; and King Gojong (r. 1863–1907), the king who saw the end of the dynasty.
Enshrined with each king is his wife or, in some cases, wives. Most kings have one wife in the hall, but some have two and a few have three.