Posted by: rbbadger | April 23, 2009

Royal ancestral rites

On the first Sunday in May, the surviving descendants of the old imperial family will gather at Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine in Seoul to perform the memorial rites for the long-deceased kings and queens of Korea.  I’ve been to it twice before and I’m not certain whether or not I will be going this year.  Still, it is an opportunity to see Confucian ritual of the type that has long since been extinguished in China.  I have heard of Chinese followers of Confucius coming to Korea to watch both the Jongmyo ancestral rites and the memorial service to Confucius.  These things have been far better preserved in South Korea than in mainland China.

Here’s a shot of last year’s festivities.


The people in the purple hanbok are the dancers.  However, the dances aren’t of the joyous, frenetic type.  Rather, they are very sombre.  The people in the red hanbok are the musicians. At each of the rooms, you see officials who are performing the rites in each of the rooms. The music and its accompanying dances have been designated as an intangible cultural heritage of Korea and the skill holder of it is the National Center for the Traditional Korean Performing Arts (국립국악원).  The ceremonies themselves, performed by the members of the former royal family, are also an intangible cultural heritage and the royal family is the skill holder of the royal ancestral rites.  The Korean government has designated certain things, such as music, dances, and even the talent of making certain things in a certain traditional manner as important intangible cultural heritages.  The music of the ancestral rites was the first-ever such designation of an important intangible cultural heritage.

This long wooden buildings holds the memorial tablets bearing the names of the deceased kings and queens.  On the grounds of the Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential blue house, there is a shrine to the deceased royal concubines who bore male heirs to the king.  If the king wasn’t able to produce a male heir with his wife, he would try to have a male heir with one of his concubines.  There has been more than one king who was the fruit of a union between a king and his concubine.  It seems that legitimacy didn’t play as big a role in Joseon as it did in the time of the European monarchies.  But even still, European monarchies managed to find a way around things, such as Henry VIII and his six wives.  A more modern example concerns the late Prince Rainier III of Monaco who married the American movie star Grace Kelly.  He was the son of Princess Charlotte of Monaco, originally an illegitimate daughter of Prince Louis II.  When it looked like a German relative was going to inherit the throne, Charlotte, the fruit of an affair between Louis II and a cabaret singer, was hastily adopted and became the Hereditary Princess.  She was married to Prince Pierre Polignac and later bore Prince Rainier.  Upon Prince Rainier’s twenty-first birthday, she renounced her rights to the throne and gave them to Prince Rainier.  Royal families do have a way of extending their reigns.

In Korea, the male line of the family of Empreror Gojong came to an end in the 1990s.  Hereditary Prince Imperial Gu, grandson of the last Korean Emperor Gojong, died without having had any children.  He had married an American woman by the name of Julia Mollock.  Sadly, they weren’t able to have children, though they later did adopt a girl.  The family put tremendous pressure on Prince Gu to divorce his wife because she was unable to have children.  He later did so.  Sadly, when his ex-wife was prevented from attending his funeral by the family.  A distant relative, Yi Won (李原), was posthumously adopted by the family to be the son and heir of Prince Gu.  It is he who performs the ancestral rites.




  1. So if you went again to those ancestral rites for the imperial family, where do you sit? It looks pretty crowded! Are all of those people spectators or descendants? Thanks for all the interesting pictures and explanations! We’re seeing the rest of the world through you!

    • There is seating provided, but it is limited and you have to show up early. Otherwise, like me and most everyone else who was there, you have to stand. The rites themselves are lengthy, but not nearly as long as they used to be.

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