It refers to ritual music-including instrumental music(ak 樂), song (ga 歌), and dance (mu 舞)—performed at the Jongmyo Shrine, where memorial tablets for the kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) are enshrined. During the Joseon period, Jongmyo jerye—the royal ancestral ritual—was regularly practiced five times a year; it is currently performed once a year on the first Sunday in May.
Jongmyosajik, The Foundation of the Dynasty
Jongmyo (宗廟)—the royal shrine for the deceased kings and queens—and Sajik (社稷)—the altar enshrining the spirits of the earth and the grains—together represented the nation itself in the time of the Joseon Dynasty. Relative to the Gyeongbok Palace, the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty, Jongmyo was located on the east while Sajik was placed to the west. In both sites, the kings of the Joseon Dynasty performed the sacrificial rituals in person, demonstrating their absolute governing authority.
Staged form of Jongmyo jeryeak by National Gugak CenterNational Gugak Center
The buildings in Jongmyo were designated as UNESCO World Heritage in 1955. Jongmyo jerye (the sacrificial ritual performed at the royal ancestral shrine)—National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 56—and Jongmyo jeryeak (the music used for the ritual)—National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 1—were designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.
The Long History Accompanied by Written Materials
Jongmyo jeryeak has a long history recorded in various written materials. The musical changes of Jongymyo jeryeak in the early Joseon Dynasty can be studied through the Annals of King Sejong and the Annals of King Sejo. Two music books—Daeakhubo (Scores of Great Music: Later Edition, published in 1759) and Sogagwonbo (Original Score of Popular Music, publishing date unknown)—have been handed down. In addition, in Siyongmubo (Current Dance Notation, publishing date unknown), the ritual dances are recorded with illustrations.
The process of Confucian rituals (2015-09-18) by National Gugak CenterNational Gugak Center
The Format of Jongmyo jeryeak
In Jongmyo jeryeak, a type of composite art, instrumental music, song, and dance are performed together harmoniously. The formats of the ritual and the music are filled with symbols based on Confucian values and virtues.
deungga and heonga (2015-09-18)National Gugak Center
The Two Orchestras used in Jongmyo jeryeak
In Jongmyo jeryeak, two different types of orchestras are utilized: deungga (登歌), an orchestra that performs on the terrace of the shrine; and heonga (軒架), another orchestra located on the ground of the courtyard. The instrumentation of the two orchestras differs slightly.
akjang (2018-02-02/2018-02-02)National Gugak Center
Songs Praising the Virtues of the Deceased Kings
The songs sung in Jongmyo jeryeak are called akjang (樂章), and they are included in both the deungga and the heonga. Composed during the time of King Sejong the Great (r. 1418–1450) they contain praise for the preceding kings and the forefathers of King Taejo (r. 1392–1398), the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, in Sino-Korean poetry.
ilmu (2002-06-02/2002-06-02)National Gugak Center
Ilmu (佾舞), Dance in lines
The dance performed with Jongmyo jeryeak is called ilmu, literally meaning “line dance,” with sixty-four dancers dance in eight files and eight lines.
mumu (2015-09-18/2015-09-18)National Gugak Center
Munmu (文舞) and Mumu (武舞):
The Harmony of Yin and Yang
Ilmu comprises munmu, civil dance, and mumu, military dance, which praise the civil virtues and the military achievements of the ancestors, respectively. Ilmu was divided into these two categories because of the belief that the works of humankind could be grouped into literary and martial arts. Munmu is performed in the actions welcoming the spirits, the offering of gifts, and the first wine offering, while mumu is danced during the procedures of the second and third wine offerings.
The Unique Dance Props Used in Ilmu
In ilmu, the dancers perform in their rank and file, almost without change of position. The dance props used in the munmu and the mumu are distinct. In munmu, the dancers hold a yak (籥, a small bamboo flute) in the left hand and a jeok (翟, an implement made of pheasant feathers) in the right hand. In mumu, dancers in the first four lines hold a geom (劍, a wooden sword) and dancers in the last four lines hold a chang (槍, a wooden spear). The yak and the ,jeok symbolize virtues that Confucian scholars should have, while the geom and the chang signify military qualities.
Theatrically Staged Jongmyo jeryeak
The National Gugak Center has focused on the artistry of Jongmyo jeryeak, and on recreating it as performing arts for the 21st-century theatre. Their first effort was presented on the Yeak-dang stage of the National Gugak Center in Seoul in 1999.
The Curtain-Raiser Celebrating the Year of Korea-France Mutual Interchange, 2015–2016
Jongmyo jeryeak, an everlasting classic of the Korean people, was praised for showcasing the aesthetics of slowness and moderation on the stage of the Chaillot National Theater, Paris, France in 2015.
The Olympics and Jongmyo jeryeak
The Olympics and Jongmyo jeryeak have a special relationship. Two Olympics in Korea, in 1988 and 2018, observed the eve of the event with Jongmyo jeryeak. In particular, on the night before the opening of the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, the ritual was performed for the first time under the lights at the Jongmyo Shrine, where public access at night had formerly been prohibited.
Thirty Years Later, in 2018
The PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games incorporated the National Gugak Center production of a large-scale Jongmyo jeryeak, with 100 members performing with the hope of the Olympic success of all Koreans. Jongmyo jeryeak—the representative ceremony of the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty and the essence of the court arts—continues to carry its symbolic importance as the quintessential cultural icon of Korea, and a reminder of the cherished values of “tradition” and “never-failing virtue” through its music and dance for modern Koreans living in the rapidly changing 21st century.
○ Curator+Publisher: Gugak Archive