10 am on a blistering hot summer day in Seoul. Our Korean guide arrives with a battery-powered handheld fan tucked into her belt. She is very professional about her sightseeing tour to Jongmyo Shrine.
More than 100 years after the fall of the dynasty, the descendants of those Korean kings still regularly hold Confucian memorial services for their ancestors. This longstanding tradition of complicated rites has been named a UNESCO intangible heritage in 2008 and also made Jongmyo Shrine a UNESCO world heritage site. It is also the reason why Jongmyo is probably the most solemn and tranquil place in the 20-million megalopolis of Seoul. Visitors are only allowed in on guided tours.
Our tour starts at Hyangdaecheong, a small building complex exclusively used for the preparation of the rituals: The ancestors' souls would get offerings consisting of a whole banquet of dishes. These days, a recreated model of such a memorial buffet is displayed in the kitchen and pantry block for the benefit of curious tourists.
There was also a separate courtyard (Jaegung) for the king and crown prince to change into special ritual robes for the event. For ritual (and perhaps also literal) cleansing they would also take a bath in this place, only a few steps from the main shrine. The layout of all these buildings was dictated by complicated geomantic rules (feng shui): East of the palace, but before the mountains, and so on. "They even had to add a small man-made hill in the Southern part of the precincts to get it right", our guide claims.
Finally, we reach Jeongjeon itself, the large shrine for the royal ancestors – that is, for their souls: The ashes are buried in a different location. The centre of Jongmyo Shrine is a very long building with wings extending to the sides, consisting of 19 chambers all opening to the front yard. Each chamber is for a different royal ancestor –the first shrine established in 1395 for the first king's immediate forebears was later extended to both sides as the dynasty continued. The Yi Dynasty turned out rather long-lived – it ruled Korea until 1910 (then as "emperors") and when space got scarce at the Jeongjeon main building, the kings even built a smaller shrine (Yeongnyeongjeon) somewhat to the side.
Everyone still wanted to be honoured in the main shrine, however, so the new appendix became a kind of second-rate shrine: Kings who had ruled only briefly, and those very first ancestors who had not yet been kings were moved to the less important Yeongnyeongjeon. The last to be enshrined with the second league was Yi Un, Crown Prince without a kingdom, who only died in 1970. Confucianism, we learn, is very competitive even in death. The kings were probably used to constant rankings, as our resolute guide explains: They were supposed to continue studying the old scriptures for all their life. During their reign as well as posthumously they were awarded scholarly titles for their achievements (complete with certificates and seals).
The main shrine's courtyard is rather similar to other Confucian palaces and buildings we have seen, from the Imperial Palace in Beijing to the restored Shuri-jo Royal Palace in Naha/Okinawa. The stone platform in front of the ancestral chambers used to have fittings to add sun shades, and markers for the different ranks of officials who had to line up for the rites. Shortly after a king's death, such rituals had to be conducted quite often, but there are some ceremonies that are to be held even after many years.
Obviously, guided tours would not be held when rituals are under way, so all the royal cubicles in the ancestral shrine were closed to ensure the royal ancestors' privacy and solitude.
But as soon as we leave the Jongmyo Shrine compound, we are propelled back into the noise and activity of central Seoul – Jongmyo Shrine is within walking distance from Seoul tourist attractions such as Insadong pedestrian street and Gyeongbokgung Palace.
***All expenses for our trip to Seoul were paid and organised by ourselves and we did not receive any funding.***