Sunday, March 22, 2015

Seokjeon Daeje at Munmyo Shrine

Munmyo, literally meaning "Confucian shrine", is also called Seoul Munmyo or Sungkyunkwan Munmyo. It is located at Sungkyunkwan seowon (Confucian school) and is another name for the famed Daeseong-jeon, "Great Sage Hall" there. The first munmyo or shrine was for the honoring and venerating of Confucius and his disciples, a practice that spread widely in Tang China (618-690 and 705-907). Munmyo practices were brought to Korea during the United Silla period (668-935) but didn't become widely practiced until Kim Taejo (reigning 1392-1398) started the Yi or Joseon Dynasty.

During the Joseon Dynasty, other notable scholars from the Goryeo and Silla periods were added, based on their knowledge of Confucianism, and subsequent scholars of the Joseon Dynasty were similarly added. Only scholars who were deemed to be extremely learned, of good character, and who made significant contributions to Confucianism were to be remembered, honored and venerated. Only a total of 18 munmyo bae-hyang, a title of the highest honor for a scholar, have been added to the list of Chinese scholars, thus, the 18 Sages of Korea.

39 Confucians venerated at the shrine:

  • The 5 Sages (오성): Confucius, Yangzi, Zengzi, Zisi Zi, Mencius
  • The 10 Wise Confucius Disciples (공문10철): Min Sun, Ran Geng, Ran Yong, Zai Yu, Duanmu Ci, Ran Qiu, Zhong You, Yan Yan, Bu Shang, Zhuansun Shi
  • The 6 Men of Virtue from the Song Dynasty (송조6현): Zhou Dunyi, Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi, Shao Yong, Zhang Zai, Zhu Xi

Seokjeon Daeje: National Rite to Confucius

Twice a year the designated Confucian scholars are venerated, and twice a year the king is carried in a palanquin by 12 men to an eastern gate at Munmyo (the sun rises in the east, as does the power of the king), and only twice a year is the king allowed to walk on the soil outside of his palace. The king is the head of the nation, and has the power set in place by the energies of the universe and therefore he is too highly regarded to walk on the paths of common man. However, the Confucian scholars are to be more highly esteemed than even the king because of their inherent goodness, their righteousness as good men of staggering knowledge and philosophical wisdom, and therefore the king steps down on the common man's soil and walks humbly into Sungkyungkwan seowon where the Munmyo Shrine is located to pay his respects, venerate the scholars and steep himself in Confucianism so that he can govern his country well.

SeokJeon Daeje (National Rite to Confucius)
On the First Jeong (上丁) of Lunar February (22 March 2015 Spring Rite)
Based on the “Stems-and-Branches" (Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches)
Daeseongjeon, "Great Sage Hall", also known as Munmyo Confucian Shrine, Seoul - Important Intangible Cultural Heritage 85 (1986 designation)
Munmyo shrine - Historic Site No. 143 (government designation)

Seokjeon is the daeje (ceremony) which honors Confucius and the great scholars. Seokjeon is derived from "seok" meaning "to give" or "to lay out" and "jeon", a Chinese character depiction of alcohol on a stand, thus creating the ideograph for "laying out of an offering". The ceremony traces its roots back to the 4th century in the Goguryeo period (37BC-668) when King Sosurim (371-384) adopted Confucianism. Though the ceremony originated in China, the ceremony there was discontinued in 1949 even before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and only restarted in 1984 after a Chinese delegation was sent to Korea to relearn the ritual. Korea is proud of its multi-centuries ritual heritage and in 2011 the ritual was nominated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, but due to insufficient documentation, was denied although allegedly allowed for resubmission upon including more complete information. Despite this, the ritual is highly esteemed and is registered as Important Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 85.

The ritual has deep cultural significance, and across the peninsula in some 200+ Confucian village schools the ritual is performed in the spring and the fall, based on the lunar calendar. Technically, it is performed on the Sangjeong (上丁, 상정), the first day with the celestial stem of 丁(정) in a month, in the second and eighth months of the lunar calendar.

The ritual itself

The rite entails inviting the spirits to the shrine by burning incense, playing harmonious music, dancing to the points of the universe, offering enticing foods and pouring spirits in front of each Confucian scholar's ancestral tablet for the paying of deep respects. The process is very ritualized and throughout the ceremony a master of ceremonies recites instructions in Classical Chinese whereupon a translator relays them in Korean.

performing absolutions before participating in the ritual
Spirits are welcomed to the earthly ceremony and given their own walkway, the spirit road. All others, including the king, are not to walk on the spirit road, thus the presence of volunteers to warn people away. When Korea was more ritualistic and more highly regulated by Confucianism, to cross the spirit walk was taboo, unless someone stopped, bowed deeply from the waist, before respectfully stepping across. (Source)

After the purification and symbolic cleansing of participants, court musicians play the Myeongan Tune (명안지악) while dancers move harmoniously in the Yeolmun Dance (열문지무). Dancers and court musicians both are grouped in the perfect bagua number of 64, particularly dancers perform in an eight-by-eight grid (팔일무, the "dance of eight"). This number is based on the bagua, literally "eight symbols" (Chinese), which are eight trigrams used in Taoist cosmology that encompass concepts of yin-yang, the five elements, principles of pungsujiri (geomancy) and more. Based on the ancient Chinese Confucian classic I Ching, the bagua consists of the 64 possible pairs of trigrams, the so-called "hexagrams". Therefore, the number of 64 dancers and 64 musicians implies a perfected harmony between the yin and yang, the elements, and the flow and balance between all things celestial and earthly.


the dancers in eight person by eight person alignment symbolizing the perfect harmony of completeness

Dancers perform two dances, the Yeolmun Dance and the Somu Dance (소무지무), the Civil (or Scholars) Dance and the Military (or Generals) Dance. The Civil Dance pays respects to the scholarly, the learned, the poet and the scribe. For both dancers and musicians, performers wear red, the color of congratulations. During the Civil or Scholars Dance, the dancers wearing the black hats connoting 'literature' and hold a 적 (?) in their right hand and a bamboo flute in the left. The dancing is performed to the Seongan Tune (성안지악), switching briefly to the Seoan Tune (서안지악) while the dancers change their headgear and hand-held accessories for the Military or Generals Dance, whereupon the music resumes with the Seongan Tune.

dancers properly attired for the Civil (Scholars) Dance
(black hat and accessories: cheok and bamboo flute)
the red hat, symbolic axe and shield for the Military (Generals) Dance


For the Military Dance, the headgear is red, not for the congratulation intimation of the robes but to symbolize weaponry. The right hand holds a symbolic axe and the left a symbolic shield decorated with a dragon, an auspicious symbol of power and celestial energy. According to Cho In-souk, architect and avid historian, the melody is representative of politeness, eloquence and reflection, and with the flowing hand and body movements is a wish to activate permanent peace and welfare for all people on earth as given by heaven. The dance movements are gestures and body positionings to the four cardinal directions, reaching upward to heaven and pulling the energy downward to earth. The dance represents the whole universe. These two dances are for the literati scholars who not only studied literature but also practiced martial arts according to the teachings of Confucius.

a court musician playing the chuk, the wooden box
The court musical instruments are rarely seen in public but during traditional Confucian rites may appear in ceremony to invoke the spirit world. The instruments used include flutes (hun, so, and bamboo flutes), zithers (seul andgeum), stone chimes (pyeongyeong), bronze bells (pyeonjong), various drums played with sticks, tiger-shaped wooden scraper (eo), wooden box (chuk), and wooden clappers (bak).

In years previous Seokjean daeje was performed on dates according to the solar calendar. However, this spring ceremony marks the return of the ceremony to the carefully regulated dates according to the lunar calendar. One of the reasons given is that this year the lunar calendar date is particularly propitious, so performing such a portentous ceremony on such a propitious date brings augur and vitality.
_ ___________________________________________ _

A particularly excellent resource on the history and steps in the ceremony is Ceremony in Honor of Confucius and the Great Sages – Seokjeondaeje (釋奠大祭, 석전대제). A detailed Korean version is linked in also.

1 comment:

  1. Q: When is the Seokjeon Daeje held annually?

    A:It is quite complicated - from 1953 to 2007 they did it on February and September first "Day of 4th" in lunar calendar but after a long debate they changed it into Gregorian May 1st (anniversary of Confucius' death) and September 27/28th (anniversary of his birth). However it created a big disagreement within several officials at 성균관 so they partially changed it back to the old rule - doing the first 석전대제 on the Lunar calendar first day of 4th of the second month but retaining the autumn one with September 27/28th (solar). To best know when, check the 성균관 website itself: http://www.skk.or.kr/xe/50429

    ReplyDelete