The Jongmyo Daeje or Jongmyo Jerye Ceremony is a seasonal Confucian ceremony held at Jongmyo, the Royal Ancestral Shrine of the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul, to honour the past Joseon kings and their consorts, who founded the country and whose mortuary tablets are enshrined there. Also called Jongmyo Daeje, the Great Jongmyo Rite, because it was the largest and most important memorial rite held by the Joseon Dynasty. Accompanied by solemn music and dancing, the confirmed formalities of the service have been preserved almost in their original forms more than 500 years since 1464: Jongmyo Jerye could be considered the oldest comprehensive Confucian-influenced ritual culture in the world.
Originally, Jongmyo only referred to Jeongjeon (Main Hall) where the memorial tablets of Joseon’s reigning kings and queens are enshrined. Today, however, Jongmyo also encompasses Yeongnyeongjeon (Hall of Eternal Peace) where the tablets of posthumous kings and queens are enshrined and Gongsindang (Hall of Meritorious Subjects) where the tablets of esteemed ministers of the state are kept. King Taejo, the first ruler of the Joseon dynasty, started building the main building of Jongmyo, a wooden structure, in October 1394, the third year of his rule. He moved the capital from Gaeseong (presently Kaesong, North Korea), to Hanyang, the present day Seoul, in December of that year and completed the project on Jongmyo in September of the following year.
Jongmyo Jerye largely consists of procedures for greeting the spirits, entertaining and receiving blessings from them. Strict formalities accompany each procedure. Ritual foods and wine are offered to the spirits by the officiants, special ritual vessels are used and Jeryeak, ritual music, is played by two orchestras: Deungga, which plays on the upper terrace of Jeongjeon with no songs, while Heonga plays music with songs on the lower terrace. Some numbers were composed personally by King Sejong (1418–1450) to pray for national security and prosperity. King Sejo (1453-1455) later made some revisions to complete the music.
The dance performed by groups of red-clad dancers, called Ilmu, consists of two parts; the first part, Botaepyeong-ji-mu or Munmu, is performed with the music of "Botaepyeong" (Preservation of Great Peace), a dance to praise the civil achievements of former kings, with dancers holding a Yak (a three-holed bamboo flute) in the left hand and a Jeok (a pheasant-feather tasseled wooden bar) in the right hand; the second part, Jeongdaeeop-ji-mu or Mumu is a dance to praise the military exploits of former kings, performed with the music of "Jeongdaeeop", holding wooden swords and spears. The songs, music and dancing are meant not only to please those officiants and all others on the scene but also entertain the spirits and gods in order to move Heaven to bless country and people to enjoy national security and prosperity.
The last procedure in Jongmyo Jerye is the ritual for sending off the spirits, called Mangryorye. It is believed that the ancestral spirits, who had been to Jongmyo, will return to Heaven with the smokes raised when the cloth covering the king's spirit tablet, made from white ramie (a very durable, pure white textile fibre commonly know as China grass) and incense, used for the ancestral rite, are burned in this final procedure. Now that the ancestral spirits are entertained and worshipped with utmost sincerity, they will take care of the country and people to be happy and prosperous.