What is Jongmyo Jaerye? Despite being one of the most important cultural festivals in Korea, most visitors have never heard of it. Who can blame them, I have been in Korea for three years and it took active researching to find out when and where it was (and I knew what I was looking for).
Jongmyo Jaerye, also known as Jongmyo Daeje, is a Confucian Royal Ancestral Memorial Rite held in the Jongmyo Shrine once a year on the first Sunday of May. It is meant to honor the past kings of the Joseon Dynasty and was the most important memorial rite of that era (1392-1911).
I have been looking forward to seeing this event first-hand for almost a year now. I missed it last year, but was determined not to repeat the same mistake again. The festival started out with a parade from Gyeongbokgung Palace to Jongmyo. Men dressed as royal guards stood at the door of the shrine as the parade marched in. Due to over crowding, the parade took a different route, which made the spectators panic and scramble to get a good view. The parade was a lot larger than I expected with hundreds of people participating. The march itself, however, was a quiet one in respect of the kings.
There were two different rituals done at 1:00-3:00 pm and 4:30-6:30 pm respectively. Since this was probably the only time I was going to see it, I decided to go to both. When the rituals began, the participants went into each shrine one by one at an incredibly slow pace to acknowledge that king’s and queen’s accomplishments, and to make the royal food offering.
On the outside, other participant groups played drums, flutes, or danced to the slow rhythm. The festival is not flashy in the sense that there are no dramatic changes in tone or style. In other words, if you see the first 30 minutes and you leave, you won’t miss anything new. Still, I am glad I stayed for all of it as the Jongmyo Jaerye definitely exceeded my expectations.