Field Report: Seoul (11 February 2013) – Part 1/2

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The Kingdom of Joseon was a Confucian state, and its rulers considered ancestral veneration a high priority. It should come as no surprise that royal ancestors would be enshrined, and the prescribed rituals performed for them, in appropriately grand surroundings – like the ones I encountered on the third day of my trip to Seoul this past winter.

Day three: the 11th of February 2013. Temperature: high of -1 degree C, low of -10 degrees C.

In a word: freezing.

My first stop of the day was Jongmyo, the sprawling memorial shrine complex of the Joseon dynasty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Completed in 1395, the Confucian shrine was built to house the memorial tablets of Korean monarchs and their queens, and to provide an appropriate setting for the lavish ancestral rites that were offered each year to the spirits of the deceased royals. Like so many other prominent landmarks in Seoul, Jongmyo was destroyed by Japanese invaders in 1592; the complex we see today was constructed in the early 17th century and expanded in the centuries that followed.

Like the Secret Garden in Changdeokgung, on most days Jongmyo can only be accessed on guided tours – unsupervised walks are not permitted. (The official pamphlet did state that visitors can see the shrine without a guide on Saturdays.) Having arrived a few minutes too early for the first English-language tour – scheduled to begin at 10:00 AM – I bought my ticket and killed time by admiring the shrine’s main gate . . .

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. . . and going for a short walk in the leafy park next to the shrine compound.

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Well, perhaps more needley than leafy, the cold winter having stripped bare most of the trees that weren’t evergreens.

In the park stood a fine statue of Lee Sang Jae (1850-1927), a hero of the Korean independence movement.

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As the appointed time drew near, I returned to the main gate and met the guide assigned to do the 10:00 AM tour. I was the only one present when we set off – no surprise given the inhospitable season and the relatively early time slot – but as we were making our way towards the shrine buildings, two young women (from Germany if memory serves) came running up to join us, followed by two more (I believe it was a couple from Brazil). Having a fairly small group certainly seemed better for everyone involved: easier for the party to ask questions and benefit from the commentary of the guide, who in turn had fewer people to monitor and manage along the strictly controlled course.

Guided tours can be a hit-and-miss affair, depending on the quality of the guidance offered – but I do think we were quite lucky to have the one who was assigned to our time slot. She spoke very good English and clearly knew her subject matter well, offering the right amount of context for what we were seeing and returning confident answers to the questions we sent her way.

Off we went, following a stone path laid into the earth of the shrine garden.

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We weren’t supposed to walk on the slightly raised middle section – I’ll explain why in due course. And no, it wasn’t because it was reserved for the king: in fact not even he or the crown prince could use it, and they had to walk on either side of it instead.

The first major structure we encountered was the Mangmyoru pavilion, part of a group of buildings linked to the Hyangdaecheong hall. Hyangdaecheong was where preparations were carried out for the ancestral rites that were conducted in Jongmyo.

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A little further into the wooded grounds, the central forbidden pathway branched off and trailed away towards the main shrine, which we’ll get to shortly.

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Our group continued on, following the rest of the stone path towards Jaegung: a walled compound where the king and crown prince would purify themselves before participating in the ancestral rites. Three buildings were located within its walls, facing a common courtyard. The one in the north, Eojaesil, was reserved for the use of the king.

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The eastern hall, Sejajaesil, was used by the crown prince.

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The western hall, Eomokyocheong, was used for bathing.

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Back to Eojaesil for a view of the interior.

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Near the western end of the hall was a figure representing the Korean monarch in his ceremonial robes.

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Off we went again, though a side gate that pierced the wall of Jaegung (and that’s our capable guide by the way) . . .

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. . . across the snowy ground on the stone walkway. We were allowed onto the middle section this time, once used by the king – unlike the “forbidden” path which had forked off earlier.

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We soon found ourselves at the side gate of the main shrine hall.

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Two raised platforms near the gate were used for the inspection of food and sacrificial animals.

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From here, we proceeded through the gate and entered Jeongjeon: the splendid main hall of Jongmyo, where the spirit tablets of dozens of Joseon kings and queens were enshrined over the course of several centuries.

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Jeongjeon’s impressive length is the cumulative result of years of expansion, which saw the building extended on either side to accommodate additional spirit tablets as the centuries marched past. However, the structure could not be lengthened to the point where it would have more chambers than the imperial ancestral shrine in China, of which the Joseon kingdom was (at least symbolically) a tributary state. Since the local monarchs, naturally enough, couldn’t quite stop dying, a solution had to be found when storage space in Jeongjeon ran out.

Passing through a side gate in the walls of Jeongjeon . . .

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. . . we walked a short distance and came upon the solution that the royal court decided upon.

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This is Yeongnyeongjeon, a secondary shrine hall first built in 1421 on the orders of King Sejong, where the overflow of spirit tablets from Jeongjeon was accommodated.

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This newer, smaller hall didn’t simply take up the tablets of more recently deceased royals. Apparently some that were once housed in the main hall were transferred here. As to which tablets were entitled to a place in Jeongjeon and which ones had to make do with Yeongnyeongjeon, our guide provided an answer (perhaps oversimplifying things but no doubt with a basis in fact): the smaller hall was the final destination for kings with “fewer accomplishments”.

Afterwards, our group began trekking back to the main gate and to the modern, bustling city beyond.

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Now about that forbidden path we saw earlier. Why wasn’t anyone allowed to walk upon it, not even the king?

Enlarge the next picture, read the sign, and all will be revealed.

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In my next post, we’ll pay a visit to yet another royal palace. (The Joseon monarchs seem to have had a rather costly habit of putting these up everywhere in their capital.)

To be continued.

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4 responses to “Field Report: Seoul (11 February 2013) – Part 1/2

  1. Ah, you really kept your readers in suspense with why that path was forbidden. This reader here almost skipped to end of the post just to find out….but I was able to control myself! I love how it’s for the spirits and not even the King or Crown Prince could walk on it.

  2. Pingback: Field Report: Seoul (11 February 2013) – Part 2/2 | Within striking distance·

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