Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hello Kitty in Korea

Hello Kitty is a popular character in Korea, whose iconic image is plastered on everything from cell phone covers to hard case luggage. There's even a pink-colored café in Seoul by the same name. It's not just for young girls either. I've seen men (without kids) sporting luggage with the familiar kitty. I have not succumbed to the lure of the pink, nor do I intend to do so.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cutsey or Glitzy?

Cell phone covers and accessories are a big thing in Korea. From glitzy to cutsey to utilitarian, you can find them all, firmly clutched in the hands of smartphone users. Some of the cutsey ones are quite massive and bulky. Not my taste...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

It's Raining Cats in Yangdong

When walking through the Yangdong Village in Korea, I spotted this cat sunning itself on the thatched roof of one of the traditional homes in this UNESCO village. It reminded me of the theories of the etymology for the phrase "raining cats and dogs" in which the animals would sleep on the straw roofs of homes and slide off when wet with rain. Not at all worried about rain, this cat seemed totally relaxed and content. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Jongmyo Daeje Royal Ancestral Rite - an Expat's Reflection

Observing the rites and ceremonies happening at both the Yeongnyeongjeon and Jeongjeon halls at Jongmyo Shrine was a mixture of fascination, confusion, and frustration. The highly prescribed rituals were very strict and solemn. I was happy to see the young dancers and musicians of various ages who were eager to learn the music, dance, and songs in order to preserve this national treasure and tradition. Some of the traditional instruments used in the ceremony were unique and those I had not seen before. Elaborately carved and painted, form and function were equally important. With the large expansive courtyard separating the viewers from the main action taking place under the sheltered chamber area, it was difficult or next to impossible to really see what was going on.

 The cameramen with their massive equipment went back and forth, documenting the ceremony but also obscuring any view of spectators. Some wore a blue uniform making them slightly less distracting, but many others wore jeans - marring any photographic shot of the events. Announcements were made throughout the ceremony, but everything was in Korean, so foreigners were even more clueless as to the events and their meanings. To the untrained ears and eyes, things could look and sound rather repetitive and monotonous. The singing was more like chanting and the rhythms and melodies of music very different than that of Western music. This definitely was no farmer or folk masked dance. Still, I understand that the ceremony is not about nor is it for the spectators. This is a deeply traditional cultural ritual with a very solemn tone that needs to be respected and preserved. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Wine, Prayer and Music - Jongmyo Jerye

In the next stages, three wine offerings are made, with prayers and music happening at distinct times. This was followed by four deep, ceremonial bows made by the officiants. The next stage is called Cheolbyeondu - at which time the ceremonial vessels were collected an moved slightly from their original place on the altar. At this time, the music of Heunganjak was performed by the Upper Terrace Orchestra. The Songsinye -the bidding farewell to the spirits - was the closing part, in which all the officiants offered four more deep, ceremonious farewell bows to the mortuary tablets. The tablets would then be carried back to their original locations in the shrine chambers, at which time the Lower Terrace Orchestra performed the Heunganjak. Finally, the gifts and written prayers used in earlier stages of the ritual would be burned and buried. In the original ceremony, the royal procession would return to the palace, where a post-ritual ceremony would be held to congratulate the king on the successful completion of the rite. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Ceremonial BBQ at the Jongmyo Shrine

The chief prayer reciter would enter each spirit’s chamber at the Jongmyo Shrine and bring out the mortuary tablets of the king and queen and place them on an altar prepared outside, at which time the first wine signaled the start of the rite. At this time, the Botaepyeong Music and Dance was performed. In the first part of the ritual, incense was burned to invoke the royal ancestral spirits from heaven. Following this, Jinchan, the rite of sacrifice was held. Worshippers offered meat, beef, mutton, and pork to the spirits while praying for the safety and prosperity of the royal dynasty. Each sacrificial table was carefully prepared, arranged in strict prescribed places and in elaborate vessels. On each table were three raw meats, two soups, four wild grains, two rice wines, three alchoholic beverages, six fruits, six cakes, two ried meats, four salted and fermented sauces, four salted vegetables, nuts, and bloody animal skin. Musicians seated on the lower terrace played their instruments at this time. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Regalia of the Jongmyo Jerye

After a while longer, the officiators, all dressed in ritual robes, hats called a coronet, an angled waist belt, rear tasseled trimmings, black & white leather shoes, and carrying a jade tessera, solemnly made their way up the stairs and over to their designated spot by the different royal chambers of the Yeongnyeongjeon hall at Jongmyo Shrine
Each of these men would have partaken of a special purification rite beforehand, designed to keep their mind and body clean and pure before the ritual. Participants, including the king, were required to refrain from visiting sick people, listening to music, or even signing a document for a death sentence. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dancing with the Dragon Stick

Young people perform with carved dragon sticks as part of the Confucian Royal Ancestral Rite at the Jongmyo Shrine in Soul. This rite has been designated as the Important Heritage Cultural Heritage No. 56 as well as the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity UNESCO list.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Geogachulgung - Royal Procession to the Jongyo Shrine

While I waiting at the Jongmyo Shrine, the action was taking place elsewhere - at the Gyeongbukgung Palace. Here, the king was escorted into a royal palanquin and accompanied by civil and military officials both in front and back. The king would be surrounded by carriage attendants carrying parasols and fans, as well as a band. Leading the procession were honor guards bearing swords, spears, and flags symbolizing the king. According to the Korean tourism site, over a thousand people would proceed from the palace, go through downtown Seoul via Sejongro, Jongro 1, 2, and 3 streets, and then arrive at Jongmyo. 

Finally the sounds of the band announced the king’s arrival. Once through the gate at Jongmyo, the band and most of the procession went left, while the king’s palanquin kept on going straight. Heeding the advice of a kind Korean professor of English, I kept my spot in the straight ahead path and was able to photograph the palanquin procession, including the descendant of the royal dynasty. 

Friday, June 07, 2013

Sungnyemun Gate - Finished at Last

Ever since the 2008 arson fire that destroyed the wooden portion of Seoul's landmark, the nation has been anxiously anticipating the re-opening of the Sungnyemun Gate. Also known as the Namdaemun Gate due to its proximity with the famous market located nearby, this National Treasure #1 was one of eight gates that comprised the fortress walls originally surrounding the capital of the Joseon Dynasty. Originally constructed in 1398, it was rebuilt in 1447, the Sungnyemun Gate, meaning "Gate of Exalted Ceremonies," was used to welcome foreign emissaries as well as to keep out Siberian Tigers. During the early 20th century, the Japanese colonialists demolished the fortress walls surrounding the gate to ease traffic problems. During the Korean war, the gate was heavily damaged and was restored in 1963. Further renovations were completed just two years prior to the arson.

Adherence to the original colors, carvings, and designs was practiced in reconstruction of the wooden structure. Over 22,000 ceramic roof tiles, fired in a traditional kiln were also included to keep the gate as authentic as possible. In early May, the public opening ceremony was held.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Jongmyo Jerye - Ancestral Rite History

Originally, the Jongmyo Jerye, or Royal Ancestral Memorial Rite, was held five times a year - once at each season as well as an annual sacrificial day. It was also performed at auspicious events or in times of national crisis. Now it is held on the first Sunday of May. At this time, songs praising the virtues of the kings are sung, accompanied by music and dance. Two pieces were later refined- the Botaepyeong and Jeongdaeeop, extolling the desire for spiritual unity between the king and its people, as well as for the nation’s prosperity. The entire ritual is complex, solemn and rigidly conformist with specific details. It contains three parts according to Confucian principals; welcoming the spirits, entertaining those spirits, and then ushering the spirits away to heaven. 

Korea is the only country amongst the Confucian states in Asia that has preserved its royal shrine and continues to perform the royal ancestral rites.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A Visit to the Jongmyo Shrine

This past fall, I visited the Jongmyo Shrine, located close to the Changgyeonggung Palace. Our guide explained how the long buildings were part of the shrine that housed the ancestral tablets of deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty. Originally built in 1395, Jongmyo was burned down during the Japanese invasion of 1592 and rebuilt in 1608. Throughout the years, the buildings were enlarged to accommodate additional enshrinments of royalty. The buildings themselves are not ornate. Visitors are not allowed to see the enshrined tablets or other items inside the chambers, leaving the contents of the shuttered buildings up to unfamiliar conjectures. 

Facilities at the Jongmyo Shrine all have a very specific purpose and meaning according to Confucian philosophy. For example, Sillo, the long walkway with three parallel stone footpaths leading from the main gate to the two main shrine buildings is the passageway for the spirits of the deceased; The center path is for officiants carrying the tablets, offerings, etc., while the right path is for the king and the left path is for the crown prince. Each path was paved with rough stones, forcing people to walk slowly and solemnly. Special platforms called Panwi denoted where the king and crown prince would stop and pay their respects. The gates to each of the spirit chambers have double doors with one being slightly misshapen, with the crack symbolizing the coming and going of the spirits of the deceased, as well as allowing air to get in and moderate humidity. Special staircases each have a special function and are reserved for specific people to go up and down. But for the most part, Jongmyo, with its massive stone yards surrounded by shuttered buildings, felt empty and lacked the vibrancy of the royal palace grounds. I would have to come back when the ritual ceremony take place. Only then could I begin to appreciate why Jongmyo was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995 and the rites & ancestral ritual music designated by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.