The Jongmyo Shrine is the earliest surviving Confucian royal ancestral shrine. It was dedicated to the memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Korean Joseon Dynasty.
It was built in 1394 and has been used until the early 20th century.
The main hall is the longest building in Korea of traditional design. During the Seven-Year War, Japanese invaders burned down the original shrine and a new complex was constructed in 1601 which has survived to this day. The original tablets were saved in the invasion. There are 19 memorial tablets of kings and 30 of their queens, placed in 19 chambers.
Map of Jongmyo ShrineLoad map
I visited here in late 2007.
The Jongmyo Shrine grounds is literally across the street from the Changdeok Palace compound. Like the Changdeok Palace, it suffers from a lack of fixtures and artifacts. Unlike the Changdeok Palace, you can enter the grounds with a ticket and stroll around the facilities to your heart’s content as a guide is not required.
Read more about the Jongmyo Shrine on my website.
I visited this WHS in May 2017 using the combination ticket to 4 Palaces and this shrine. Unlike most sites in South Korea, it is closed on Tuesdays. Having done some reading prior to visiting the site and also by attentively reading the superb information boards on site, I opted to visit on a Saturday to be able to visit at leisure. Even though I visited the site when it's truly active with the Royal Culture Festival taking place during the first week of May, the crowds were not that huge and the nighttime performance (entrance with prior registration) with royal ancestral ritual music was a truly unexpected highlight.
Jongmyo Shrine is the supreme shrine of the state where the tablets of royal ancestors (top right photo) are enshrined and memorial services are performed for deceased kings and queens. The construction of Jongmyo predates that of the main palace of Seoul, Gyeongbokgung. According to Confucian philosophy and the concepts of geomancy, it was built on the east side of the royal palace, while the Sajik Shrine, where ritual services for the gods of earth and crops were performed, was built on the west side.
Several kings and queens were enshrined with the passage of time, making it necessary to expand to what we see today. When a king or queen died, mourning at the palace would continue for 3 whole years! After that period of mourning, memorial tablets of the deceased were moved to Jongmyo and enshrined in Jeongjeon (top left photo), which now has 19 spirit chambers and houses a total of 49 tablets. The second largest is Yeongnyeongjeon, which has 16 spirit chambers and houses 34 tablets.
Apart from being a truly unique Confucian site, what gives this site OUV is the fact that of all the Confucian sites in Asia, Jongmyo is the only preserved one and continues to be used today for royal ancestral rites. The most important state ritual, Jongmyo Jerye, performed once a year in May with ritual instrumental music, singing and dancing, is inscribed on the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Moreover, other ceremonies to report important state affairs or to pray for the state are performed at Jongmyo.
None of Jongmyo's facilities are lavishly adorned. The idea is to emphasize solemnity, piety and sublimity. Through its extreme simplicity, one is supposed to feel the deep meaning of life and death as well as the sacred legacy of the Joseon Dynasty. A similar passageway to the Royal Joseon Tombs, called Sillo, consists of 3 separate footpaths paved with stones for ancestral rituals. The slightly raised one in the centre was for those carrying the spirit tablets, incense and written prayers. The path on the right was for the king and the one on the left was for the crown prince.
Overall, I enjoyed my visit and I'm glad I allowed a full day to visit the site and to enjoy the royal culture festival. Visiting together with Changdeokgung with be a bit too much (although perfectly doable) as there is obviously much more to see there.
The 7 reviews to date of the Jongmyo Shrine are fairly “mixed” in terms of the degree of “value” which people felt they had obtained from their visit. One issue seems to be how best to “understand” and appreciate the site. We visited on a Saturday – the only day when visitors are allowed to wonder around unguided. It is perhaps worth highlighting here that Jongmyo has Tuesday as its closing day and is therefore a useful site for visiting on Mondays when the other WHS in/around Seoul are closed (The National and Palace Museums are also open then). Others have praised the guided aspect, though I must say that we found our guided tour of the Huwon at Changdeokgung something of a disappointment - too many people and not enough “meat” in the explanations (not unreasonable given the range of visitors and their interests - or lack thereof!), too long in some places and not enough in others, no ability to go back and re-look etc etc – we are not good “tour group” material! Whether we “missed out” regarding a Jongmyo tour we will, of course, never know (though I note that there are 2 different tour routes according to whether there are over or under 200 people! We only had 100 for the Huwon tour.)
In fact Jongmyo contains a full range of the usual bilingual metal signs we grew to know and love around Korea and they are excellently detailed (Nowadays I always photo such signs and they are proving a very useful resource on our return) - a problem, however, is the extent to which the buildings and the Jongmyo Jerye ceremony which takes place there are inextricably intertwined - one can’t be understood without the other. The separate buildings, the big open square, the row of closed doors, the kitchens etc etc all relate specifically to the ceremony - but how to understand it? To illustrate the problem I have deliberately not chosen a photo of the main Jeongjeon area – there are plenty of those on the Web – instead I show the 2 raised “inspection tables” of Chanmakilan and Seongsaengwi. Esoteric maybe, but worth knowing about within the overall context of the shrine and the Jerye! One of the buildings in Jongmyo has a video showing a recent ceremony, together with a spirit table “loaded” with replica plastic food and various pots and implements. But this didn’t really add a great deal for us. The video was in Korean with no obvious way of getting a different language (and anyway all the attendees were Korean!) and the “chairs” to “sit” on whilst viewing were at floor level – not good for ageing western joints and bones!
IMO, by far the best explanation of the shrine - its structure, purpose and history and of the ceremony which took/takes place there, is to be found in the excellent (and free) “National Palace Museum of Korea ” situated next to Gyeongbokgung Palace (The National Museum itself is well worth visiting too but is less good than the Palace Museum in respect of Jongmyo). I am sure that most tourists will visit it but, whilst the entry level on Floor 2 is good for the Joseon Palaces and kings etc, it is important to go down 2 further floors, past the display of the Korean Empire and the 2 imperial cars, to the basement level. There, room 7 is given over to the Jongmyo Shrine (Other things at that level are worth seeing also – there is a delightful reconstruction of an early 15th C Korean Water Clock for instance). As well as cabinets describing and explaining each of the implements/pots etc used in the ceremony, there are videos of it (this time with English subtitles!) and, best of all, CGI videos which first show the stages in the construction and extension of the shrine and then bring the ceremony to life by animating the relevant “Uigwe”. These are over 3000 documents (now all inscribed on the “Memory of the World” register) which, with incredible detail, describe the many Joseon court rituals in the form of both text and beautifully drawn/painted scenarios in which the location of every “actor” in the ritual is shown and their movements through the ceremony are described. They really lend themselves to animation and those in the museum also have English sub-titles. I had hoped that “National Museums of Korea” would have made the animations available on the Web but I can’t find any - perhaps I should have videoed them!
Jongmyo Shrine is a Confucian sanctuary dedicated to the Joseon dynasty dead members. It was built in 1394 by king Taejo and is then thought to be the oldest Confucian sanctuary. It was destroyed by the Japanese and rebuilt in 1601. This one is still in place. It used to welcome some of the Tripitaka Koreana, wooden tablets that are now within the Haiensa temple, as well registered as WHS.
The main distinctive element is the great square in front of the building, 150 meters long and 100 meters width. The complex is still used today for ritual ceremonies.
This site is really intersting for its architecture and its symbolism. Located in the center of Seoul, you can easily get there by subway, the syop is Jongno 3 ga on the line 1.
From reading the other reviews it seems there is a bit of a split in people’s views of this shrine. I will say I am in the baffled camp. It is a pretty austere site to get a grip on.
Essentially it is a walled park with two large rectangular courtyards lined with bulky wooden buildings fronted with closed doors on one side. It isn’t really an easily accessible site, which is why I was glad to see that access to this site is now by guided tour only (about every 2 hours in English). I think this is actually good as the guide was able to try and make some sense of the Confucian concepts behind the function of the shrine. That being said; I don’t think I have ever seen people look as bored as many did on my tour. It wasn’t the fault of the guide who did a sterling job considering how alien the concepts can be to many westerners.
I was sort of looking forward to seeing the architecture of the site. I am a big fan of the modern architect Mies van der Rohe who is famous for stating “Less is more”; as such I have a fairly high tolerance for buildings that others may see as monotonous, but however hard I tried I still didn’t get much from the structures, and perhaps that would be missing the point anyway.
The site does tie in well with Seoul’s other World Heritage Sites as they cover the places where the kings lived, were buried and Jongmyo is where their souls rest.
Also just to pick up on Rob’s point below; Korea’s attitude to entrance fees really should be commended. If there is any cost it tends to be in the ‘nominal’ category, and here was no different (€0.80 entry and tour).
The shrine is right next to Changdeokgung another WHS, and just a short stroll form the antique shops and tea rooms of Insadong (my recommendation is Sin Yetchatjip/ Old Teashop where you can enjoy your cuppa in the company of some inquisitive finches that fly around the knick-knacks inside).
It think it won't be the most understandable of sites for many that are not up on Confucian ideas, I am glad that I visited it but I enjoyed my tea with the curious birds a little more.
[Site 2: Experience 4]
What makes Jongmyo Shrine special is it's unique architecture and peacefulness. The site is a splendid place to take a walk, or as a quite spot for reflection. This site will not amaze you, but be patient and relax and you can certainly appreciate this beautiful shrine.
Update: I revisited Jongmyo in 2016 to improve my pictures and better appreciate this quite WHS. My second visit was rewarded with a serene environment and lush green landscapes in the center of old Seoul. A pleasant 45 minutes deviation from my rather full itinerary. I've noticed some nice changes to the surrounding property since 2008. The entrance has been expanded forming a "green axis" that is aimed toward connecting Jongmyo Shrine with Namsan Park. I am excited by this development. In the years to come, Seoul City Wall, Changdeokgung Palace, Jongmyo Shrine, Namsan Park, Yongsan, and the Han River will all be connected. It is astonishing that this "green axis" will happen in a city of 10 million.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
Unlike the other posters, I don't think this place is boring at all! I really like it, and is one of my favourite places in Seoul. It is beautifully serene and peaceful (most of the time). It is also only about $1 to get it, making it one of the cheaper WHSs that I've been to. Korea has a commendable policy on entry fees.
The royal ancestral shrine of Jongmyo is a simple but serene wooden complex housing spirit tablets of kings and queens of Joseon dynasty who ruled Korea for more than 500 years in the city center of Seoul.
The complex is quite unique in East Asia where normally the spirit tablets are kept in a small shrine in the house or palace in case of royalties, but Jongmyo was built apart from the palace which makes it different from other royal Confucius shrines in China. However, Jongmyo is not an active shrine and most of the times are closed making it just big boring buildings in the forest-liked park with few visitors, a really contrast to lively Japanese royal shrines in Tokyo or Kyoto.
The royal ceremony in Jongmyo called Jongmyo Daeje, a performance of ritual, music and dance, is considered the only existing royal Confucius ceremony that still practicing in modern time recognized by UNESCO as world intangible cultural asset, so Jongmyo is a few place on earth holding two statuses from UNESCO world heritage program.
In 2008, I chose to visit Jongmyo on the first Sunday of May, the only time of the year when Jongmyo is backed to its glory by the performance of Jongmyo Daeje. The whole park is really crowded with thousands of spectators and lots of people dressed in ancient Korean ceremonial robes, a real feast of sight. I decided to see the morning ceremony at Yeongnyeongjeon Shrine since it was impossible to find a seat in the already full Jeongjeon Shrine where the afternoon ceremony would took place. The ceremony was nice with strange sound of ancient musical instruments and many graceful ritual movements from dancers and because of the ceremony, all gates of the shrine were opened providing a rare chance to peek the spirit tablets inside the building.
However, I was not impressed Jongmyo at all since the whole area was quite chaotic with lots of noisy spectators and paparazzi-liked photographers in every corners of the shrine, the organizing system need to be set up, I even think it could be nicer to visit this place when there is no ceremony at all.
This is sober stuff. I don't know if you can say that you like it or not - it's meant as a shrine. Although I did some homework I didn't really get a grip on this monument during my first visit in 2001.
The shrine nowadays can only be visited with a guide (except on Saturdays, when you can walk around on your own freely). Four times a day there is a guided tour in English. I bought a ticket for the tour at 4 p.m., a tour that still attracted 25-30 people.
In this shrine are kept the so-called memorial tablets for the kings and queens of the last dynasty of Korea. Their bodies are buried elsewhere. Twice a year, these ancestors are honored by a big ritual of song, dance and music in the Confucian tradition. The rest of the year the complex is peaceful and quiet. The tablets are kept behind closed doors. You have to watch your step walking here: the spirits have their own path that leads directly to the shrine.
The tablets of the most important kings are located in the main building on the site: an elongated building with 35 rooms on a vast square. Next to it is a similar building for the less important ancestors. In the freezing cold of early January, it is all very austere, but I'm glad I went for a second time to hear more of the explanations from the guide.
C H Ho
Jongmyo Shrine is nothing to see. It likes an elders' garden. The worth thing and the most important thing is annual holy services for the Kings and Queens at the fist Saturday in May. It keeps the traditional dances and musical for over several hundred years
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Jongmyo Shrine lies in the center of Seoul. It can be visited from metro station Jongno-3 (sam)-ga.
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