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Jongmyo Ancestral Shrine - 종묘 (宗廟) (built 1395 onward)

Like the Chinese, Koreans have traditionally believed that the soul separates from the body at the time of death. The soul does not disappear, but roams the earth for a period of months or even years, causing all manner of mischief. A luckless family might blame their misfortunes on a restless ancestor spirit. To placate the dead and ensure peace, an ancestral shrine was commonly built, where the family could keep in communication with the ancestor and lead him--or her--to peace through the help of a Shaman. Afterward, descendants would regularly visit the grave to keep the soul informed of his living family.

Jongmyo's purpose is somewhat different. When Taejo, the founder of the Joseon (Chos´┐Żn) dynasty, established his rule in Seoul, he built Jongmyo to honor his ancestors in a properly filial way according to the dictates of the new ideology, Neo-Confucianism. Jongmyo also served a didactic function. It served as a model for the ancestral rites the people were expected to perform. The Neo-Confucian literati, who held the real power, wanted the people to turn away from the traditional Buddhist mourning rites toward Neo-Confucian ones. They ordered the yangban nobility to build miniature shrines in their homes, but the rule was often ignored in the early years. Later, as Neo-Confucianism gained ground, the shrines were carefully tended in every household.

Jongmyo was completed in 1395. The grounds were planted with a solemn dignity. No excess ornamentation was permitted, nor were the buildings meant to overawe. The most precious objects enshrined here were the ancestral tablets of the King and his successors. During the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598, the tablets were kept for a time in the house of a commoner, but were returned here after reconstruction in 1608.

As the Joseon dynasty unfolded, Jongmyo became the scene of a yearly ceremony in which the current King honored his seven previous male ancestors. Royal merit subjects might also be remembered in a separate hall, as were remote ancestors. Close relatives of the King and Queen in line for the throne who died without receiving it were often posthumously awarded the title. Every time a living King or Queen died, their names were recorded on a wooden tablet and installed in the Chongjon building. Active use ended in 1910 with the Japanese occupation.

Address: 서울 종로구 훈정동 1-2 종묘.

(Designated National Treasure #227).


The approximate location of Jongmyo is 37.574652' N, 126.993889' E (WGS 84 map datum).


All images copyright 2005 Timothy M. Ciccone

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