[Visual History of Korea] The tradition of worshiping the heavens continues in 21st century Korea
Dancers perform during the annual Royal Ancestral Rite Ceremony with court music held at Jongmyo Shrine on May 1 in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
From the earliest days of Korean civilization, Koreans have looked to the heavens for spiritual strength.
Chamseongdan, one of the oldest shrines for worshiping heaven, dates back to the Gojoseon (old Joseon) period and is still in use at the top of Manisan on Ganghwa Island.
The indigenous belief of worshiping heaven, earth and people was based on the Cheonjiin philosophy. Cheon, the sky which is round, ji, the earth which has four corners, and in, the people, all are inextricably linked.
Some 45 dishes of cooked and raw foods are served on elevated platters with drinks during the annual royal ancestral rite with court music at Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
Korean kings across Goryeo had dedicated altars for regular rituals to pray to heaven. This changed when Neo-Confucianism, the official religion of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), became the norm governing ancestor worship among ordinary citizens.
During the Joseon period, ancestor worship became institutionalized with the construction of a royal ancestor shrine called Jongmyo, and a set of royal altars called Sajikdan — a place where sacrifices were made. to the gods of earth and grain — near a royal sanctuary. palace in Seoul.
Until the early 20th century, Korean kings often made ceremonial sacrifices at the Sajikdan altar several times a year, praying to the earth and grain gods to avert famine or drought.
Generally, when an ancestor dies, the deputy remains in the family for four generations. That’s about 120 years, spanning 30 years per generation. On celebrations and memorial anniversaries, families offer food and drink to the honbaek of ancestors, down to the previous four generations.
Visiting graves to please the baek spirit of the ancestor buried underground on special occasions is also a common practice.
A hairpin called a “gae”, used to fasten the headgear of a male celebrant called a “yanggwan”, is seen during an annual royal ancestral rite with court music at Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
Jongmyo Shrine was dedicated to holding ancestor worship rituals led by the outgoing king to please the honbaek of deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty.
On May 1, some 140 celebrants wearing head coverings called yangwan, wearing hairpins called gae, conducted a ritual led by Yi Won, the last heir to the Empire of Korea, offering drinks and food to the honbaek of all Joseon kings and queens.
Incense was burned to invoke the hon, the souls of heaven, and drinks were poured into a hole dug in the ground to welcome the baek, the spiritual bodies of the departed from hell.
During an elaborate annual royal ancestral ritual at Jongmyo Shrine, over 550-year-old court music composed by King Sejong the Great (1397 – 1450) was played.
Some 45 cooked and raw dishes are served on raised platters accompanied by drinks. “The offering of raw meat and food reflects an ancient tradition of rituals that date back to prehistoric times, when food was eaten raw,” according to the Korea Cultural Heritage Administration.
Some 140 celebrants line up after celebrating the ancestral rite, offering drinks and food to the souls and spirits of Joseon kings and queens during the annual Royal Ancestral Rite held May 1 at the Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul. . Photo © Hyungwon Kang
“On this beautiful occasion, experience a number of ceremonial dishes that were prepared with a nostalgic heart while adhering to proper guidelines.”
Reflecting the practice of ancestor worship, a number of visual clues were observed during the annual Jongmyo rite that are evident in the Hanja script.
For example, a Hanja character that means a man or husband, “drunk”, has an extra slash on a character that means a tall man. A hair stick called “gae”, which is worn to fix the headgear of a male officiant called “yanggwan”, resembles the character Hanja “bu”.
A Hanja character in the shape of a three-compartment wooden tray for meals placed on the table of the deceased, is part of the word “jo” which means a cutting board for the food of the ancestors.
A Hanja character, “mu”, which means dance, has a logogram showing a reclining dancer with equipment.
The annual royal ancestral rite at Jongmyo Shrine and its music are listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Since the time of Confucius, Koreans have been referred to as the “impeccably mannered people of the Orient”. “Koreans worship gods and pursue ideals. The reason why Korea still maintains the 3,000-year-old Gojoseon rituals is because they suit the psyche of the Korean people which is Confucianism, the Gojoseon philosophy taught by Confucius,” said Yi Ki-hoon, the author of “Dongyi Korean History”.
Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.
By Korea Herald ([email protected])