Modernity Takes A Back Seat, and Confucian Rites Rule for a Sunday

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Modernity Takes A Back Seat, and Confucian Rites Rule for a Sunday

Korea may be on the road to modernization but every year on the first Sunday of May a ceremony takes a look back on the hundreds of years of the nation's Confucian traditions.

This Sunday, Jongmyo shrine, located near Piwon, the Secret Garden in Jongno downtown Seoul, will observe an age-old ceremony known as jerye, which is the highest ranking ritual ceremony from the Choson dynasty (1392-1910). What makes this ceremony different from ordinary rites is that it was performed by the royal family. Jerye is a form of paying respect to deceased rulers and seeking their blessings for peace and prosperity. Traditionally, the king himself officiated as the shrine filled up with solemn music and people dressed in majestic traditional clothes.

Since 1971, the Lee clan of Jeonju has taken the responsibility for holding the jerye and about 150 family members will attend. While not all the original traditions may be followed, and there is no real king to officiate, the spirit remains.

The ceremony starts in Seoul at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m. There will be a parade starting at 10:40 a.m. at Gyeongbok palace.

Carrying a person designated as king on a sedan chair, a procession of "lords and warriors" with a traditional Korean band in tow will follow a route through Sejongno to the Gwanghwamun intersection, through Jongro 1-ga and on to Jongmyo where it is scheduled to arrive at 12:30 p.m.

Once at Jongmyo, the sacrificial rites will begin. The ceremony starts with the yeongsinrye, when the presider symbolically meets the gods. The king offers a gift, a sacrifice and traditional liquor before going through songsinrye, the procedure of seeing the gods off.

Throughout the rituals, the court orchestra will perform traditional court music, which has been categorized as the nation's foremost intangible cultural property. The music used during the rites are botaepyeong and jeongdae-eop, composed by King Sejong. One of the reasons why the Korean government recognized this music as Korea's greatest intangible cultural property is because during King Sejong's time Chinese music was performed at royal banquets and sacrificial rites. The king begin using Korean music at ceremonies, a move fiercely opposed by his courtiers.

About 15,000 people attend this yearly event, which is a window on what court life might have been like during the Choson dynasty. The event usually draws about 1,000 foreigners, mostly from the United States and Europe. Every year, the rituals are repeated, creating a line of tradition to the present.

For more information, call 02-765-0195 (Korean only).

by Joe Yong-hee

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