In Joseon Dynasty days, royal ancestral rites were held separately at Jeongjeon and Yeongnyeongjeon. At Jeongjeon, the rites were observed in spring, summer, autumn, winter and in the month of December in the Lunar Calendar. In Yeongnyeongjeon, ancestral services were held three times, in spring, autumn and in Lunar December. In both cases, appropriate dates were selected respectively. Nowadays, however, Jongmyo Jerye is held on the first Sunday of May supervised by the Preservation Society of the Jongmyo Ancestral Rite.
Accompanied by his queen, and top-level civil and military servants, the king walked to circle the Jongmyo compound before observing the ancestral rite, but in the latter days of the dynasty, the king rode in a carriage to Jongmyo from the Changdeokgung Palace. The present-day royal procession, which takes place just prior to Jongmyo Jerye, is patterned after the formalities of old days to elevate the solemn royal event to a national-level festivity.
Then, why is this former royal rite of Jongmyo Jerye considered a national ritual? Some may regard Jongmyo Jerye merely a family ancestral rite because Jongmyo is the shrine of "Jeonju Lee" royal families. However, the Royal Family of the Joseon Dynasty was simply regarded as the state itself, and so Jongmyo Jerye could be considered a national ritual by all means.
Jongmyo Jerye faithfully observed Confucian procedures as the rites intended to elevate the image of the nation as a Confucian country. Since Jerye (ancestral rite) was classified as an auspicious service, all those attending Jongmyo Jerye were required to wear formal dresses worn on auspicious occasions. The king, who supervised the observance of the rite, was dressed in a set of formal constumes, called Myeonbok, to symbolize the dignity of a king. Myeonbok was the term for a suit of Myeonryugwan and Jangbok. In Josen Dynasty days, the king wore Gujang Myeonbok, and in 1897 when the country was declared the Empire of Daehan, the king began wearing Sibijangbok, which was a formal dress for an emperor.
There are 12 designs embroidered on the dress. The designs included the sun, the moon, dragon, pheasant, water chestnut, rice grains and so on. These designs are to symbolize the authority of the emperor, meant to let the emperor rule the people well at the will of Heaven. Myeonryugwan is a mortarboard-shaped coronet with 12 jade-beaded colorful strings hanging. It is said that the strings partially hinder the sights of the emperor so that he ignores some of his servants' shortcomings, symbolizing the emperor's generosity. The ancestral rite consists of procedures for greeting the spirits, entertaining the spirits, receiving blessings from the spirits, and sending off the spirits, in that order, in a authentic and solemn way to match the festive atmosphere of the crowd.
Upon arrival of the royal procession, the formal ceremony starts. As Chukham, a box containing the prayer paper and incense, arrives, moving through the Nammun Gate of Jeongjeon, along Sinro (spirit pathway) towards the main shrine, music and dancing are performed. The Choheongwan, acting for the king, comes out of Socha (temporary waiting court), moving toward Jeongjeon. The ritual for Gwanse, or washing hands, follows, symbolizing the purification of minds and bodies of the officiants, before observing the rite. The officiants then move to their designated positions.
In one of the most solemn rituals in Jongmyo Jerye, the officiants remove the spirit tablets of former kings and queens from Gamsil to Sinsil, or spirit chamber. The chestnut tablet, containing the name of a king with the date of his demise, his posthumous and honorific titles recorded, represents the king's spirit. Gamsil also keeps the turtle-shaped royal seal of the king, a book containing royal directives given on the occasion of installing his crown prince, and so on. Jongmyo Jerye represents harmony between Heaven, Earth and Human. The royal ancestors and their posterity exchange invisible communications in the quietness of Jeongjeon while candlelights and incense burn.