Jongmyo, the Ancestral Shrine of the Joseon Kings

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During my very first morning in Seoul, I decided to go to the nearest tourist attraction to my hostel, which was Changgyeonggung. Alas, it was a Monday, and Changgyeonggung is closed on Mondays. So I walked to the nearest tourist attraction which is open on Mondays, which turned out to be Jongmyo.

Jongmyo is in Seoul's Jongno district.

Jongmyo is in Seoul’s Jongno district.

Individuals are not allowed into Jongmyo; visitors must join a guided tour. I would have had to wait over an hour for the next tour in English. However, I spotted quite a few people speaking in Mandarin standing at the entrance, so I inquired if there was a tour in Mandarin, and indeed, the next Mandarin-language tour was starting in ten minutes.

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In many parts of South Korea, Mandarin-speaking tourists far outnumber English-speaking tourists, and thus some people who help tourists are more used to using Mandarin than English. I had already noticed that, when talking to people at Tourist Information Centers, in was sometimes better to speak in Mandarin than English.

Of course, as a white person, nobody expects me to speak Mandarin, and it’s usually a surprise when I do talk in Mandarin. My visit to Jongmyo was no exception. Everyone was surprised when I asked to join the Mandarin language tour, and the guide asked me ‘聽得懂嗎?’ (Do you understand?) a few times at the beginning.

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I think going with the Mandarin language tour might have been better than going with the English language tour. Jongmyo is a Confucian shrine, and the Chinese invented Confucianism, so Mandarin has all of the appropriate vocabulary to describe Confucian concepts. I think some nuances which can be conveyed in Mandarin are lost in translation to English.

The guide introduced herself and the Joseon dynasty. She mentioned that the family name of the Joseon royal family was ‘Lee’ (also sometimes written as ‘Yi’), and that she herself is also a ‘Lee’. However, she is from the Lee of Gyeongju clan, whereas the Joseon royal family was the Lee of Jeonju clan, therefore she is not related to the Joseon royal family.

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Confucianism was the official religion of the Joseon kingdom, and ancestor worship is an important part of Confucianism. Therefore, the Joseon kings considered honoring their ancestors to be very important. In fact, in Jongmyo, the royal ancestors have a higher status than the living king, which is reflected in the layout. There are stone paths throughout the shrine. Traditionally, the left side was reserved for the king and only the king, the right side was reserved for princes (I forget whether only the crown prince could walk on the right side, or any prince could walk on the right side, but I think any prince could walk on the right side), and the center was reserved for the spirits of the ancestors. Since South Korea no longer has any kings or princes, anybody can walk on the left or right sides of the stone paths, but we are forbidden to walk on the spirit road since, presumably, the spirits of the Joseon kings are still around and thus demand respect (crossing the ‘sprit path’ is okay).

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In fact, the South Korean government continues to perform all of the ancestral rights to honor the Joseon kings, much as they were performed in Joseon times. Descendants of the Joseon kings perform the role of the living king and princes since they are, well, the descendants. Nowadays, the descendants of the royal family live like ordinary South Koreans. Our guide told us that one of these royal descendants complained about always being summoned by the government to perform these Confucian rites, since they interrupted his work and caused him to lose income. In response, the government set up a special paid position for royal descendants who perform official Confucian rites.

Thus, Jongmyo is the only official Confucian royal shrine where the Confucian rites continue to be faithfully observed. That is why it is a World Heritage Site. I think the guide said that, because the Japanese nominally respected Confucianism, they didn’t dismantle/ruin Jongmyo the way they did to other structures of the Joseon royal family, which is why Jongmyo is the best preserved part of the Joseon palace complexes.

A view of the Jeongjeon

A view of the Jeongjeon

Since this was a Mandarin-language tour, our guide compared Jongno to the imperial ancestral shrine of China, saying that even though it still exists in the Forbidden City, few people, including those who visit the Forbidden City or living in Beijing, are aware of its original purpose, and that the Confucian rites have long ceased to be performed there, unlike Jongmyo.

We eventually reached the most important building in Jongmyo, Jeongjeon. This is possibly the longest wooden building built in traditional Korean style, and the oldest part of the building dates to 1601. Furthermore, all of the original ancestral tablets for the Joseon kings, even the tablet for the founder King Taejo, have been preserved, and are stored inside. As there were more an more kings, and thus more and more ancestors, the hall had to be expanded to accommodate more tablets.

A view which shows just how long Jeongjeon is.

A view which shows just how long Jeongjeon is.

Our guide asked us if we could tell which was the oldest part of the building, and which parts were newer. We couldn’t tell. She said that to most people it is not obvious, but that traditional Korean architecture experts notice subtle differences in style between the older and newer parts of the building.

The roof of Jeongjeon

The roof of Jeongjeon

The roofs of many Joseon palaces have statues of animals on them, representing characters from the Chinese classic Journey to the West. The more important a building, the more statues on the roof. The fact that there are this many statues on the roof of Jeongjeon shows that it is an extremely important building.

After the tour, I talked a little more with the guide. She of course studied English in school – it’s a compulsory subject in South Korea – but she can’t speak English. She started studying Mandarin around the same time I did (in which case she made excellent process – I think she speaks Mandarin better than I do) and she did it because she loves the Chinese language and has great interest in Chinese culture.

When I first arrived at Jongmyo, I didn’t realize its historical and cultural significance, and it only really sunk into me after my visit as I learned more about Seoul’s Joseon palaces. I think it was a good way to start my exploration of Seoul, and anyone who visits Seoul, even for a short time, should visit.

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12 Responses to Jongmyo, the Ancestral Shrine of the Joseon Kings

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