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Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Inscribed Korean Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Royal ancestral ritual in the Jongmyo shrine and its music
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Royal Ancestral Ceremony at Jongmyo
Stately Ritual Invokes Peace and Prosperity

Gods, or supernatural beings, are not recognized in Confucianism, but instead ancestral spirits are venerated as objects of divine worship. As an absolute monarchy that upheld Confucianism as its ruling ideology, the Joseon Dynasty placed utmost importance on worshipping the spirits of royal ancestors. Therefore, Jongmyo which housed the spirit tablets of past kings and queens was the loftiest pantheon, and the rites performed at this royal shrine were the state events of primary importance.

Throughout the five-century rule of Joseon, the major regular rites at Jongmyo were conducted five times a year - on the most auspicious day during the first month in each of the four seasons and the twelfth month. In addition, irregular rites were held to report important events in the royal household and the country to the royal ancestral spirits. The rites were drastically simplified during the colonial period (1910-1945). Even these brief rites of “mere incense burning” were suspended during the chaotic post-liberation years. In 1969 the Jeonju Yi Clan Association, consisting of descendants of the royal family of Joseon, began holding the rites once a year on the first Sunday of May. Hence, despite the dynasty’s demise, the royal ancestral rites have been performed for over 600 years.

The solemn state rites conducted by the king were prepared with the utmost care and devotion, and each ritual step was executed with strict formality. Preparations began days ahead with all the participants purifying their bodies and minds so that no impure elements could taint the holy procedures. On the day of the rites the ritual officiants, musicians and dancers donned ceremonial robes with different colors, patterns and accessories according to their rank and roles. Hundreds of officiants were assigned to perform the 27 different roles needed for the elaborate rites.

Vessels in an array of shapes and decorative patterns, each containing a symbolic meaning, were used for the rites. The vessels also differed in alignment, depending on the season and usage. Sixty-three types of vessels were needed to offer all kinds of grains, rice cakes, soups, meat dishes, fruits, dried meat, pickled fish, and drinks, as provided in the ritual manuals. The rites proceed with inviting and welcoming the royal ancestral spirits, serving food and wine to entertain the spirits, and finally bidding farewell to them.

Confucianism emphasized the role of music in cultivating virtuous human character as well as promoting the unity of gods and man, heaven and earth, and yin and yang. Accordingly, music and dance are indispensable for each phase of the rites to celebrate the civil and military achievements of preceding kings and invoke the prosperity of the royal household.

The solemn song suites for the rites at Jongmyo were composed by King Sejong, the fourth ruler of Joseon, in the 15th century to replace Chinese music and instruments that had been played at royal ancestral rites since the 12th century Goryeo period. Sejong, who also created the Korean script, Hangeul, believed that playing foreign music was improper for rites honoring ancestors who had enjoyed native Korean music during their lifetime.

The majestic and solemn rites at Jongmyo have represented the culture of the Joseon royal household as well as the nation’s time-honored tradition of filial piety expressed in the daintiest style. The rites have attained a high standard of austere aestheticism while they have been devotedly conducted over six centuries. The superb architectural space, the stern ritual procedures, the graceful music and dance - all these succinctly combined to create a sublime ceremony for spiritual communion between the living and the dead. Today, the royal ancestral ceremony at Jongmyo is recognized as the world’s only traditional Confucian ritual preserving its venerable, authentic style.