Monday, June 11, 2012


  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”  Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

  For ten years, I occasionally wandered as a clueless tourist through Jongmyo, its countless trees creating one of only several green oases among the hackneyed asphalt and concrete jungle, home to 13 million souls. Paths just to the north of the shrines followed along the mini-forest’s rim; its gently inward slopes likely formed by hundreds of toiling hands who once shaped the terrain to reinforce the balance of natural elements and its allure of geomancy. The island of nature provided an artistic ying yang balance against the Joseon architecture of centuries past; the perfect place for a hobbyist photographer.
Mangmyoru Pavillion; Heaven and Earth Pond

  Yet this year, with the grand scale of the 1st Sunday in May Jongmyo Jerye, or Royal Ancestral Memorial Rites, a desire surfaced to understand the meaning behind the ceremony.  What accompanied an understanding of the rite’s Confucian roots, was a reprise that echoed from 18th Century Europe into 21st century Asia.  Some sound waves reverberated from proud spirits of Joseon centuries past into a modern cyber world of the Republic of Korea.  Some waves travelled across the DMZ to Pyongyang, where a similarly conceived worship of modern leaders is tarnished by the excesses of a “Communist” state, reminiscent of the intemperance of 18th century Paris.  Across space and time, ceremonies in both North and South shared a common purpose among many – a legitimization of political leadership.  Yet the common road diverged, leading to quite different endpoints.

The twists and turns of my own life, my family, emerged from the Korean War of sixty years ago, the unfortunate struggle to establish one northern dynastic vision over the southern  imperfect hopes for some form of human self-expression. Thus this blog is weighted toward exploration of Joseon origins; less on copied displays in the north. 

Jongmyo and its Jongmyo Jerye took root in the mind of Yi Seong-gye or King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty.  He moved his capitol south from Gaeseong to Hanyang – today’s Seoul.  In December 1394 he ordered Ch'oe Won, his director of government administration, to start building Jongmyo.  After completion ten months later, Taejo moved spirit tablets of four generations of his ancestors from Gaeseong to the new shrine. 
Note only one path:  for spirits only.  Entering the Moon Pedestal.
King Taejo envisioned a construct on which he could legitimize his family’s supreme position within the Hanyang capitol.  He encouraged the transition away from Buddhist traditions towards Confucian precepts. For the previous thousand years through the Gogureyo, Shilla then Goryeo dynasties, Buddhism existed throughout the Korean Peninsula and surrounding shores.  It influence on lives swelled and ebbed like tides on the Yellow Sea. During the mid-13th century resurgence of faith, the wooden Tripikata plates – some of the oldest print “type” – were carved. But with the lingering malaise of Mongol influence and political weakness of the dying Goryeo Dynasty, Buddhist monks became overly meddlesome in politics, adding to royal strife. General Yi Seong-gye’s influence grew into the early 1380s as he pushed Mongol remnants off the peninsula and repelled Japanese pirates.  Although tasks to take forces into China, he turned to defeat the ineffective King U.  After several years of shadowing subsequent puppet kings, he himself assumed the throne and founded a new dynasty.  During the 14th century Confucianism and Buddhism had coexisted.  With the new dynasty Taejo leveraged a regimen of social hierarchy to tighten his hold on the reins of power, and created Jongmyo as the theater where Confucian ceremonies played out five times yearly.

 Participant in Joseon Dress

Royalty made seasonal processions from the Gyeongbokung Palace .   Within the shrine they walked along special three-lane paths, king on one side, crown prince on the other, and spirits of past kings travelling the middle high road.  Past and then present parted.  The living royalty made their first stop at Mangmyoru, a wooden pavilion with tiled roof where they would rest prior to the ceremonies and reflect on the accomplishments of past kings.  The pond in front, made in 1443, has a round island representing heaven, surrounded by the square sides of earth.    At the next stop on the journey – Jaegung – the king and crown prince performed ablutions to purify body and mind.  They next entered the east gate of the shrine Jeongjeon, musicians entered from the west, honored spirit guests entered through the central main gate.

 Mangmyoru - a place for relaxation and reflection

One entered a plaza simple in decoration yet grand in scale and dynastic theatrics.  One climbed a few stairs onto the Woldae or moon pedestal – more than 100 meters long and wide. Here most performers played instruments or danced in unison.  Another set of stairs took officiates the highest plane, hosting within 19 identically constructed rooms, 49 spirit tablets of deceased kings and queens.

Plaza where sacrifices made, foods prepared for the ceremony.

Everything within the site – from the smallest morsel of food to the expansive plaza – has some symbolic meaning with universal Yin-Yang, a concept – like Confucianism – imported from China. Yin-Yang represents the combination of two forces – opposing but complimentary, unique but integrated. (Hard for dualistic Westerners to fathom.) Yin is dark, passive, downward, cold, contracting, and weak; yang is bright, active, upward, hot, expanding, and strong.  Performers enter from the west gate and officiates from the east gate. The cool, dim moon pedestal lays a granite stone nexus between one world and another.  Participants vector into the site; performers enter the west gate, officiates enter from the east gate crossing the plaza, climbing steps to the platform and series of linked rooms housing the spirit tablets. This higher platform, itself dark and restful during periods between ceremonies, assumes its yang characteristics – thrusting upward beyond the moon, illuminated with candles, brightly polished brass ritual vessels.  From a huijun or brass oxen sitting on an outside table, or perhaps from a chakjun decorated with inscriptions implying that yang energy comes down to earth, celebrants make an initial offering of the sweet rice wine yeje to the expected honored guests of past kings and queens.  These spirits enter through the main south gate, expectant to participate in ceremonies of music, dance and reliving tales of their past grandeur; ready to partake in a ritual feast.  Here, raw fruits like almond, date and chestnut, dried items like slices of dried meat or fish, and red food items are all placed on the right side of the ritual table representing yang fiery, alive elements of sun, heaven and current souls.  White food items, fermented foods, pickled vegetables or any watery items are set on the left side of the table; representing ying elements of  earth, moon, death, spirits and gods.

Volunteer prepare brass vessels for the ceremonies.
Along with ceremonial food and drink to welcome august spirits past, jonmyo akjang fills the plaza.  Lines of musicians playing wooden flutes, pounding gigantic base drums and striking stone chimes provide a solemn largo-like tempo to which orators proclaim praises and artists dance with elongated, deliberate movements, all in unison.  All perform two major musical works: Botaepyeong and Jeongdaeeop.  Botaepyeong praise the civil works of the former kings, while Jeongdaeeop focuses on their military exploits. Botaepyeong is performed during the "first service" when the first cup of wine is offered, and Jeongdaeeop accompanies the offering of the second and third cups.  Boetaepyung is rather slow and calm as it represents the scholarly virtue of kings.  Ten booming sounds of large drums signal the beginning of the Jeongdaeup performance.   Dances are performed while holding symbolic objects in the dancers' hands: for the civil dance, two kinds of flute, the yak and jeok (the latter made from a pheasant feather), and for the military dance, a wooden sword and spear.
Musicians enter the plaza.

With the orchestrated performance, a light clicked within my foreigner’s brain.  The six hundred year-old ceremonies must have spawned the grand theater of political legitimacy in North Korea. As such, in some ways, the northern Kim Dynasties claim as the country’s political mantle has some plausibility, if only from a recidivist, regressive perspective.  The tightly choreographed movement of colorful gymnasts at an Arirang mass games in Pyeongyang echo synchronized mass movement in Jongmyo; all to the glory of the ruling dynasty.  Joseon rulers such as King Sejo maneuvered to limit political power of traditional yangban gentry, packing the ranks of bureaucracy with his own appointees.  Through the years, although by design, the appearance was that any hard charger could through his initiative and wit, enter the ranks as some civilian administrator, in fact, the cards were finally stacked in favor of the entrenched order.  The families that came to support the Joseon dynastic order had the best chances of adding sons to the line of bureaucrats.  Likewise, Pyeongyang perpetuates an established order. In the supposed workers' paradise of North Korea, inequality is assigned at birth. Education, job, access to food and health care, and even whom you marry all hinge on how loyal your forebears are viewed to have been to the Kim dynasty that took power six decades ago. The songbun system has its origins in social class restructuring enforced by the North's communist founders, led by Kim Il Sung, that began even before the state's formal creation in 1948, to elevate peasants and laborers at the expense of landlords, businessmen and religious leaders. Moving up a songbun category is rare and requires a lifetime of devotion to the Kim family regime and ruling Workers' Party of Korea. But songbun can be downgraded for political or criminal offenses or failing to cooperate with authorities. Today the loyal class alone lives in the relatively prosperous capital Pyongyang and monopolizes the prestige universities and best jobs; in turn they provide a sense of legitimacy and perpetuate dynastic rule through shared self interest. Much like the privileged insiders participated in Jongmyo ceremonies, welcoming past royalty back to their spirit tablets; the privileged of Pyongyang make pilgrimages to 20-meter-high bronze statues of the Eternal President Kim il-Sung and his newly immortalized son.  As do officiates at Jongmyo’s main memorial Yeongnyeongjeon , or Hall of Eternal Peace bow in front of spirit tablets; visitors to the  Kumsusan Palace of the Sun mausoleum bow to the left and rights sides of Kim il-sung’s heavenly lit statue.

     Hence, we return to the Tale of Two Cities analogy: the age of wisdom, of foolishness, of light, and of darkness.  Traditional political theater has its place, not in the enforcement of some dynastic rule, but in the modern sense, in remembrance of a colorful past.  For me, I would rather walk past officiates taking cell phone calls before ceremonies, jostling for position among countless camera-toting tourists, then walking into the evening lights of Seoul, ultimately sharing the personal freedom with citizens of a new order; rather than being bound to over 600 years of dynastic tradition.

     Ceremonies at Jongmyo, downtown Seoul, the first Sunday in May.  Guided tours offered.  Take orange subway line 3 or line 1 to Jongno-sam(3)ga (both line meet there).  Head northeast for 2 or 3 blocks.

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