Jongmyo Jeryeak in Munich, Or: What makes intangible heritage?

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to see Jongmyo Jeryeak, the Royal ancestral ritual and music of the Korean Joseon period (1392-1910), performed in Munich by the National Gugak Center of Korea [1]. Jongmyo Jeryeak was inscribed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008.

The material context of intangible heritage

One of my thoughts since seeing the performance went back to something I discussed with my then supervisor, Rodney Harrison, during my PhD studies a few years back. I had thoroughly embraced the dismissal of the material in the critical heritage concept of heritage. So when I read Rodney’s idea of dialogical heritage in his 2013 book Heritage. Critical Approaches, I wasn’t quite prepared to allow the material back into my thinking. But Rodney, as always, made a convincing point: while all heritage is nothing without people, it also does not exist outside of the dialogue with the material world, and in fact with other living beings [2].

Jongmyo Jeryeak, as it is known today, goes back to the 15th century, when the Joseon kings would lead the ritual five times per year. The rituals weren’t held just anywhere but at Jongmyo, the Royal shrine for the deceased kings and queens. Location appears to have mattered because Jongmyo (itself inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995) as well as the second Royal shrine, Sajik, had a spatial relationship to Gyongbokgung, the main Joseon palace.

In other words, the ritual was connected to place. Judging from videos and photographs of Jongmyo Jeryeak in Korea, the shrine itself seems to guide the movements of the priests and determine the spatial arrangement of the musicians and dancers. The relationships between these groups also seem to express the Confucian values and ideas on which the ritual is based.

All of this is necessarily lost when Jongmyo Jeryeak is performed elsewhere. On the stage in the Prinzregententheater in Munich, where I saw the performance, there wasn’t much space, so what were actually two orchestras merged into one, and instead of 64 dancers there were only eight.  

In consequence, I did feel that what I saw had been drained of much of its meaning. I kept wondering what this might feel like at Jongmyo itself, not only because of the architecture giving structure to the ritual but also because the kings and queens are (supposed to be) right there where you hear their praises sung. Jongmyo, and Jongmyo Jeryeak, apparently were seen as the heart of Joseon itself, but without that material context its heartbeat could barely be heard in Munich.   

Whose heritage is it?

Of course, 21st century Korea is not Joseon. Judging from the comments of the Koreans and Korean-Germans around me in the audience (and there were lots!), many had never seen Jongmyo Jeryeak performed either. This made me wonder to what extent it can still be considered a ‘tradition or living expression inherited…and passed on…’, which is of course how UNESCO defines intangible heritage [3]. There is no doubt that Jongmyo Jeryeak is a fantastically documented Confucian ritual of the past, and as such immeasurably valuable. Seeing it performed today is an amazing experience. However, without people, it would by now have passed into history and no longer be heritage.

In its definition of intangible heritage, UNESCO thus refers to the ‘community’ that is necessary to live and pass on the listed heritage today. The inscription of Jongmyo Jeryeak states that the ritual is ‘organized by the descendants of the royal family’ once a year [4]. Presumably, they would then be the heritage community to whom Jongmyo Jeryeak owes its status as intangible heritage.

The listing itself actually concludes with the acknowledgement that, ‘The ancestral ritual is nowadays often considered to be devoid of meaning (…)’ (my emphasis). While on one hand, this seems to contradict the ritual’s listing as intangible heritage, it does on the other hand suggest that there are some beyond the descendants of the royal family who do at least sometimes consider Jongmyo Jeryeak to have meaning as part of their Korean intangible heritage.

Reducing heritage to a spectacle?

Which brings me back to the question of performing Jongmyo Jeryeak elsewhere. Is it really acceptable to transplant the ritual into a German theatre and to adapt it to fit a stage? And as an audience member, was I complicit in making a mockery of someone else’s intangible heritage [5]? Is it a sufficient excuse because it was a Korean organisation that brought it here?

Intangible heritage must be allowed to change

The thing is, the National Gugak Center didn’t actually claim to bring Jongmyo Jeryeak to Munich as intangible heritage. It brought a ‘theatrically staged’ version, in which the centre focuses ‘on the artistry of Jongmyo Jeryeak’. And this seems to be aimed at non-Korean audiences as much as Koreans themselves.

The centre makes much of Jongmyo Jeryeak’s relationship to the two Olympics in Korea, and I wondered whether through this a process of transformation has occurred. Rather than being reduced to ‘mere’ historic art, Jongmyo Jeryeak in this theatrical staging, performed at key moments of modern Korean history, may have begun a new cycle of being intangible heritage. Only this time, it may have a different (dialogical) context and a different meaning. As the centre claims, ‘[Jongmyo Jeryeak] continues to carry its symbolic importance as the quintessential cultural icon of Korea (…) for modern Koreans (…)'[6]. Understood this way, what I have seen ‘worked’ as intangible heritage. And it was beautiful.


[1] In the following, whenever I quote or refer to the National Gugak Center, the source is their page on Google Arts and Culture.

[2] I’m paraphrasing. Rodney also called this the ‘ontology of connectivity’ through which people together with the world surrounding them form part of a natural and cultural collective. If one changes, so do all others in the collective.

[3] I could go into a discussion about the sense or nonsense of a list for protected ICH.  

[4] Bearing in mind that Korea is no longer a monarchy.

[5] With regards to indigenous intangible heritage, many have argued that this must not be done, and certainly never without involving the community concerned. For three reviews of examples in museums see for example Alivizatou, M., 2011, ‘Intangible Heritage and the performance of identity.’ In: Jackson, A. and Kidd, J., eds., 2011, Performing Heritage. Research, practice and innovation in museum theatre and live interpretation, pp. 82-91.

[6] And just maybe, that symbolic importance may be enough. One may not need to have seen Jongmyo Jeryeak before for it to have that meaning. Perhaps that was the reason why so many of Korean descent attended. For all I know, in watching Jongmyo Jeryeak, they may have been performing their intangible heritage right there beside me. If anyone knows more about how modern-day Koreans feel about Jongmyo Jeryeak, or if you know about any studies, do let me know!

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