Monday, October 12, 2015

Gocheonje at Hwangudan, Rite of Heaven Re-enactment

Hwangudan, "Yellow Altar" with yellow signifying the emperor, was built in 1897. The altar has long since been torn down but Hwanggunggu, "Yellow Palace Shrine"  in its octagonal form, a form which only an emperor could use, has been rebuilt. It was the site where the emperor kept his memorial tablets and made his imperial prayers to Heaven.

Hwangudan the altar along with Hwanggunggu the shrine were constructed when King Kojong declared himself Emperor Kojong of the 대한제죽, the "Great Han (Korean) Empire". Proclaiming himself emperor was a political move to make himself on equal status with the emperors of China and Japan in a desperate move to get the US to give him political backing to keep his failing nation from being overrun (which eventually happened in 1910 when the Great Han became a colony of Japan.)

With a change in status, Emperor Kojong was then eligible to make offertory prayers to the heavens as only an emperor, viewed as "son of the heavens", was entitled to make such sajik (sa for earth and jik for grain) prayers. A king could worship the earth and grain spirits, but an emperor was allowed to petition them. But those prayers were offered at the sajikdan, the altars of earth and grain, located to the west of the imperial palace, Gyeongbokgung. However, here at Hwangudan with its imperial octagonal shape and imperial iconography painted throughout (double dragons, the animal motif of only the emperor, painted on the uppermost ceiling) Emperor Kojong prayed to his ancestor King Taejo, the founder of the empire, and also he, as "son of the heavens", raised prayers to his ancestor, Heaven itself, for blessings on his nation and for a return to peace and abundance.

Ceiling of the Hwanggunggu in a rare moment when the building was unlocked.
Picture taken immediately after the ceremony as workers were hastily dismantling the ceremony properties.

For more on the cosmology and pungsujiri (geomancy) of the Hwangudan site, read "Temple of Heaven, Seoul".

Actually the octagonal building is not Hwangudan, the altar also known as Wongudan and Hwangdan. The Japanese during their colonial occupation stint between 1910-1945 destroyed the iconic three-tiered round altar (round symbolizing heaven) of the emperor to make their statement that the imperial kingdom was no more, and that it had been annexed by Japan. The term 'annexed' was initially used, but later 'colony' was the more fitting descriptor. And on the site where the altar once stood, the Japanese constructed the Joseon Gyeongseong Railroad Hotel which was torn down after occupation and replaced by the Chosun Bando Hotel and now the Westin Chosun Hotel.

The altar will never be rebuilt. The Joseon Dynasty, also known as the Lee Dynasty (which I used today with one of the descendants of the Lee family but was promptly told that that phrasing was colonial usage), came to an abrupt ending with the colonialization of Korea by Japan.

However, since 2002 the octagonal building has been the site of the reinstated Rite of Heaven ceremony, which Emperor Kojong briefly reinstated at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. The original Rite of Heaven can be traced back to King Seongjong of the Goryeo Dynasty (ruling 961-997); he performed the ceremony to ensure bountiful harvests, but sometime late in the dynasty, the rite was abolished. King Sejo, the seventh king of the Joseon Dynasty (ruling 1455-1468), restarted the ritual but ten years into his reign he abandoned the ceremony. Nearly 450 years later in 1897 Emperor Kojong re-initiated the ritual in hopes of bountiful returns and peace for his struggling dynasty, but the majority of years Kojong was "emperor" he was also hiding behind the Russian legation or becoming more and more of a mere figurehead for his country and failing to access celestial blessings to positively shape the destiny of his country.

Not until 2002, when the country as a democracy, albeit calling itself a republic (the ROK), South Korea revived the Rite of Heaven. The Organizing Committee for Visit Korea Year, Mr. Jo Hong-gyu (President of KNTO) and Mr. Jang Gyeong-jak (President of the Westin Chosun Hotel) arranged a re-creation of the Gocheonje (which I believe translates as "Ancient Heavenly Ceremony"). The ritual was revived, according to Wikipedia, "with the intention of annual performance as a revival of Korean cultural heritage". It was also performed in the hope that Korea's co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup Finals would be a great success (and it was), and that this biannual (spring and autumn) traditional ceremony would be revived and developed into one of Korea's living Cultural Heritage performances.

Back in 2002, the leading official of the ceremony, the jeju, was Mr. Yi Seok (born 1941) and was the oldest surviving claimant to the Joseon Dynasty throne (which will never be revived although there are some small factions who whisper for it to happen). Obviously Mr. Yi has since passed on as the oldest claimant to the throne looked to be 40ish and was walked through the detailed ceremony: he was told when to bow, how to bow, was helped with bowing, for obviously his role and performing it was of the utmost importance for the heavenly returns to be accessed.

Though Wikipedia states this ritual is for the revival of Korean cultural heritage and the President of the Westin Chosun Hotel was involved in 2002, this ceremony today was very private. Almost everyone in the Hwangudan precincts was wearing the yellow ribbon stating family membership. They were dressed formally and with dark muted colors. The only person really other than myself and a friend who I told about this ceremony was the photographer wearing a blue company jacket with "UNESCO 세 계유산 조선왕릉 Royal Tombs of the Korean Dynasty". The ceremony was long, tedious, very repetitious and there were a tiny few Koreans on lunch break who watched a bit and moved on. This was definitely a private event.

2015 performance of the Gocheonje "Ancient Heavenly Ceremony" in front of Hwanggunggu
at Hwangudan, the temple of Heaven

Court dancers in the courtly color of red performing their dance to the five directions,
the dance for bringing the energy to the center (see Seokjeon Daeje at Munmyo Shrine for more on the pungsujiri / geomantic principles employed during the dance)

Some of the court musicians - for types of Korean traditional musical instruments employed at court and ritual performances, see Joseon Dynasty Court Instruments.

Family members wore yellow ribbons and a large number of them (almost exclusively males), perhaps the ones closest in blood relationship, stood in lines on mats for their ritual bowing. The groupings on the mats were expected to do the full jesa and put their foreheads to the ground while those along the perimeter of the Hwangudan compound only bowed their upper bodies, yet all wore yellow ribbons.

After several court dancer performances accompanied by court musicians (which was for the inviting of the ancestors' spirits) and several sessions of jesa to the ancestors, officials with ancestral tablets in hand performed ritualized ceremonies for the ancestors at the front: ritualistic hand-washing, the blessing and offering of food to the ancestral spirits, and more bowing.

With the food properly offered to the spirits and a bit of time given for them to enjoy, the ritual was coming to a close. When spirits are well fed and honored by the descendants, they are happy and then good returns can be expected.

Finally the one closest to succession to the Yi Dynasty throne was to perform ancestral bows and make his prayers for health and peace. The man, perhaps in his 40s, was coached on correct deportment and proceedings throughout. The Confucian idea of "correctness" and "proper etiquette" is very important during rituals, especially if one hopes for good returns.

Off to the side, the offered prayers, which had formally been written, were ritually burned in a censor, and the next-in-line-for-succession man returned to the ground for concluding the ceremony.

Official respectfully holding ancestral tablets.

And of course the documentation of the completion of yet another ceremony: picture time!

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