Posted by: Matt Kelley | 20 September 2008

Jongmyo: The Royal Ancestral Shrine


Built in the late 14th century, the Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine was built to honor ancient Korea’s kings and queens.

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on September 20, 2008.)

Upon founding ancient Korea’s Joseon Dynasty in 1392, one of King Taejo’s first matters of business was designating Seoul (then known as Hanyang) as his new capital. But even before his main palace was built, Taejo began construction on the Jongmyo Shrine.

Jongmyo is the royal ancestral shrine of the Joseon Dynasty. In keeping with the tenets of Confucianism, the spirit tablets of ancient Korea’s kings and queens are enshrined and memorial rites are performed here. Jongmyo is the world’s oldest and best-preserved royal Confucian sanctuary, and Korea is the only country to have preserved its shrine and ancestral rites. It’s primarily these reasons why Jongmyo Shrine was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.



Jeongjeon (정전) is the main hall of the Jongmyo Royal Shrine (click for larger image).

Located east of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, the most notable buildings of the Jongmyo Shrine are two very long buildings that hold the royal spirit tablets. In fact, these buildings are so long that the main hall, Jeongjeon (정전), was once thought to be the longest building in Asia. Although it was originally seven rooms, the need to accommodate succeeding monarchs resulted in what is today an impressive 19-room structure honoring a total of 49 kings and their queens. The first tablet belongs to Taejo, and the last belongs to Emperor Sunjong, Joseon’s 27th, and Korea’s final monarch.


Yeongnyeongjeon (영녕전) is the Jongmyo’s secondary hall housing 34 royal tablets.

The smaller annex, Yeongnyeongjeon (영녕전) or “Hall of Everlasting Peace”, has 16 rooms enshrining 34 tablets of kings moved from the main hall, those who were posthumously designated kings, several princes and their wives. Two deposed Joseon kings are not kept in Jongmyo. Although both structures were destroyed by Japanese invaders in 1592, the tablets were hidden and returned when the shrine was rebuilt in 1608.

Curiously, Jongmyo also includes a small shrine honoring King Gongmin (공민왕) and his wife, a princess from Mongolia. What’s extraordinary is that Gongmin wasn’t a Joseon Dynasty king, but the 31st monarch of the Goryeo Dynasty. Although he was heralded as a reformist who restored the sovereignty and territory of ancient Korea by defeating Yuan China, it’s peculiar that the supreme shrine of the Joseon Dynasty would honor a king from the previous ruling family. To this date, the reason is unknown.

The shrine was also site of Josen Korea’s most important ritual. Jongmyo Jerye (종묘제례), the Royal Ancestral Rite, was conducted several times per year. The king would perform the majestic and solemn ritual while the crown prince and all high-ranking officials attended. The elaborate dance and music were meant to appease the souls of deceased kings and to ask for their benevolence. Currently, the rites occur each May, and are overseen by descendants of the royal Yi family. The rites, which remain virtually unchanged for 600 years, were designated UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.

Another beautiful wall representative of the Joseon style.

The architecture of Jongmyo’s two major ritual halls is simple and austere, but definitely still very impressive. The 150-meter wide, 100-meter long, two-tiered stone terrace in front of Jeongjeon is massive and imposing. It’s bare, cream-colored stones are meant to contrast vividly with the area’s densely wooded surroundings, which better expose the halls to spiritual energy.

So, the next time you’re spelunking around Seoul, I strongly encourage you to visit the Jongmyo Shrine. A walking bridge connects it with Changdeok Palace, so you’ll get two remarkable Joseon-era sites, for the price of one. Jongmyo has a great English-language Web site where you can learn more about the royal ancestral rites and even watch videos of it.

Getting There:
→ Take subway line 1 (exit #11) or lines 3 or 5 (exit #8) to Jongno 3-ga Station and walk towards the Jongmyo Citizens’ Park. Or, enter through a walking bridge from Changdeok Palace. 1,000 won for adults and 500 won for youth. Open 09:00-18:00 March through October and until 17:30 November-January. Closed Tuesdays.

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Responses

  1. […] Seoul, the major palaces and the Jongmyo Shrine (종묘) will be open over the holidays and are offering special programs, like traditional folk […]

  2. […] little booklets, each highlighting one of Seoul’s five major palaces, and another for the Jongmyo Royal Shrine. The booklets’ sophisticated design featured nice photos, brilliant bird’s eye […]

  3. […] gone, you’d better hurry. Of what’s left, the best place is actually across the street between Jongmyo Shrine (종묘) and Tapgol Park (탑골공원). Take a seat, eat a meal, and wander down one of Seoul’s most […]


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