The Jongmyo Shrine, in the Jongno district of the South Korean capital of Seoul, is a shrine complex, the last of its kind in Asia, the supreme shrine of the state where tablets of royal ancestors, typically kings & queens, are enshrined & where memorial services are still to this day performed in their honour.
The shrine was first built between October 1394 & September 1395 by King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty (1391-1910), shortly after he designated Hanyang (present-day Seoul) as the capital of his new dynasty. It was built prior to the city’s Gyeongbok Palace, the main dynastic palace in Seoul, and sits to the east of the palace to conform to Confucian philosophy – its location form & layout all adhere to principles devised specifically for shrines. When a king or queen died, mourning at Gyeongbok Palace typically lasted for a two or three year period after which memorial tablets of the deceased would be moved to be enshrined here at Jongmyo.
Tombs & Shrines
According to Confucian belief, the spirit separates from the body upon death & goes to heaven while the body returns to earth. For this reason, Koreans separately built tombs, for the body, & shrines, for the spirit – it was here at the shrine that they stored spirit tablets & made offerings to worship their ancestors.
Like all buildings in Seoul, the Jongmyo Shrine was burnt down during the Japanese invasion of 1592. The shrine as seen today dates to 1608, quite old for Seoul – unlike most other historic structures in the city the shrine survived the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea (the Japanese thought the shrine to be cursed & thus they avoided it), not to mention the 1950-1953 Korean War.
– UNESCO commenting on Jongmyo Shrine
Among the Confucian states in Asia where similar shrines were established, only Korea has preserved its royal shrine & only in Korea do they continue to perform royal ancestral rites, with the largest of the ceremonial rituals taking place each year on the first Sunday in May. As a result of this the Jongmyo Shrine was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list of protected sites in December 1995, with UNESCO going on to cite it in 2001 as a Masterpiece of Oral & Intangible Heritage of Humanity.