The Dead Lives Among Us: The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty

The International Federation for Theatre Research – Asian Theatre Working Group (IFTR-ATWG) 2019 was hosted by the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul through the Department of Theatre Studies’s Prof. Meewon Lee. The colloquium was slightly different in the sense that the opening program and the opening keynote were scheduled at 3:00 pm.

IFTR-ATWG Members (Photo: SAPT)

We arrived in Seoul at 5:30 in the morning. We were given instructions about how to proceed to our hotel. By 8:30 AM, we were already in our hotel albeit checking-in would only start in the afternoon. We got six more hours before the opening ceremonies. A lot of time might be wasted if we would just stay in the hotel especially since no room was still available for us to settle.

It was a chance for us to do some sight-seeing. However, we were also aware that on the last day of the colloquium, an excursion was organized by the host for the IFTR-ATWG participants. So we decided to go and visit less popular but culturally important or significant destinations. We decided to see some of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul.

The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty form a collection of 40 tombs scattered over 18 locations in the Northern region of South Korea. Eight of the 40 and five of the 18 locations are in Seoul. Built from 1408 to 1966, the tombs were erected to commemorate the memory of ancestors, showed respect for their achievements, asserted royal authority, protected ancestral spirits from evil and provided protection from vandalism. According to the dossier found on the UNESCO website, spots of outstanding natural beauty were chosen for the tombs which typically have their back protected by a hill as they face south toward water and, ideally, layers of mountain ridges in the distance.

Ceremonial entrance gate of Queen Jeonghyeon’s tomb; The elevated pavement is the footpath of the spirits and the other footpath is reserved for the ceremonial priests (Photo: SAPT)

The royal tombs also feature some ceremonial areas and entrances. In addition to the burial mounds, associated buildings that are an integral part of the tombs include a T-shaped wooden shrine, a shed for stele, a royal kitchen and a guards’ house, a red-spiked gate and the tomb keeper’s house.

The grounds are adorned on the outside with a range of stone objects including figures of people and animals. However, visitors are not allowed to step inside the mound/tomb itself. But some tombs offer “viewing decks” to see the magnificence of the tombs and the adornments.

Pretending to be a model inside the tomb keeper’s house (Photo: SAPT)

The tomb keeper’s house is now used to prepare for ceremonial rites.

The footpaths at King Seongjong’s tomb (Photo: SAPT)

Two paved footpaths are present in all tombs. The elevated footpath is reserved for the spirits while the other footpath is for the priests and other ceremonial attendants.

The stele shed house found at King Seongjong’s tomb (Photo: SAPT)

There are stele shed houses in all tombs. Sometimes, tombstones are inscribed inside the houses. These are inscriptions of the achievements of the occupant of a tomb.

The T-shaped Shrine found at Uireung Tomb (Photo: SAPT)

The T-shaped shrine is used for the rites and other ceremonies for the occupant of the tomb.

Figures found at King Jungjong’s tomb (Photo: SAPT)

Stone figures are either military officials or civil officials. Like the terracotta sculptures in China, these were strategically placed to guard the occupant (king or queen) in the afterlife.

The burial mound of King Seoungjung (Photo: SAPT)

The burial place is a mound protected by a bent wall.

Our first encounter of the Royal Tombs was the Tomb Complex of Seoullung and Jeongneung. Going there is easy – via Bundang or Yellow line of Seoul Metro, a 15-minute walk from the Seonjeongneung Station or a 10-minute walk from Seoullung Station via Green Line of the Seoul Metro. It is not difficult to navigate the location of the site because directions to important destinations are found everywhere underground and on the ground.

The World Heritage Site Marker at the Seolleung and Jeongneung Tomb Complex (Photo: SAPT)

There are three tombs in this complex: King Seongjong’s and Queen Jeonghyeon at the Seoulleung section of the complex and King Jungjong at the Jeongneung section of the complex.

Seongjong is the 9th ruler of the Joseon Dynasty. Jeonghyeon is the third consort of Soengjong – but she definitely was the king’s favorite. Some interesting trivia about the place: Seongjong was buried in this site in 1495 and his queen on an adjacent hill in 1530. Memorial rites for the king and queen are performed every 24 December and 22 August respectively. Seongjong is often commemorated for his (love of) poetry and sculptural works.

The members of the IFTR-ATWG pose in front of the Uireung Tomb (Photo: SAPT)

Interestingly, Korea National University of Arts is also home to another Royal Tomb: Uireung where the 20th King of the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeongjong was buried.

We had a quick stop at the site before continuing with the colloquium on the second day. I learned from the student who assisted us in the site that during his short reign as king, four years in total, Gyeongjong was very unpopular. To start with, there were two major incidents of massacres during his reign. First is the Sinchuk-oksa in which the ruling political party, Soron, swept the opposition Noron, a group that insisted that Gyeongjong’s half-brother, Prince Yeoning, handle national affairs on behalf of the weak and ailing king during the first year of Gyeongjong reign in 1720. The second is Imin-oksa which took place in the 2nd year of his reign, ca 1722.

There were some speculations from the Soron party members that Prince Yeoning had something to do with his death due to the earlier attempt by the Noron faction to replace him as the new king. But the most celebrated (or acceptable) cause of his death is food poisoning by eating spoiled seafood.

The burial mound of Queen Jeonghyeon (Photo: SAPT)
The spirit staircase (Photo: SAPT)
A view of Uireung from the entrance of the Royal Tomb (Photo: SAPT)

I had hoped to see all Royal Tombs in Seoul but time was very unfriendly during the period I was in Seoul. Also, the locations of these tombs are also very difficult to manage. These tombs are not located closely with each other. But as what the student guide mentioned, all these tombs are somehow the same in terms of structures. Perhaps, some differences that may be identified are the inscriptions found in the stele shed house and the occupant of the burial site.

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