Ewha president Lee Bae-yong and 51 Ewha students explored Jongmyo Shrine together on October 10.
Lee is a distinguished history scholar and the member of the National History Compilation Committee. “I had often explored historical sites with students when I worked as a professor. After being inaugurated as president, it was hard to have such opportunities and I always felt bad about that,” said Lee.
The exploration was planned to raise Ewha students’ interest toward the country’s cultural assets. “To protect cultural assets, you should know about them, said Lee. “The Koguryeo stone monument in Cheongju has been used as a washboard and Namdaemun was set on fire by a man with discontent toward society. If we are indifferent toward our cultural assets, such tragedys will keep happening,” said Lee.
Built in 1395, during the Chosun Dynasty, Jongmyo is a place where memorial services are performed for deceased kings. It is one of the representative cultural treasures of Korea. The shrine is comprised of halls containing several rooms, each of them housing the memorial tablets of one king and his queen. Jongmyo was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and the Jongmyo ritual was designated as an intangible part of World Heritage in 2001.
The process of Lee’s tour involved learning what the constituents of Jongmyo symbolize. The tour started along the road to the main hall. The tree-lined road curved in many times rather than going straight to the main hall. “Our ancestors intentionally curved roads in many directions. This was to give people time to purify minds and heart and think more about their ancestors. Jongmyo is a place where the ideals and reality of Confucianism are expressed elegantly. Every part of Jongmyo has its meanings,” said Lee.
The tour carried on to Sangyeonji, an artificially created rectangular lake with a small circular island in it. “The rectangular shape of the lake symbolizes the Earth and the circle in the middle symbolizes the heavens. Therefore, the lake is the symbol of the harmony of the two,” said Lee. “Water can go bad when it does not circulate. However, the circular island in the middle of the lake makes the water flow around the island, which keeps the water clean.”
After visiting several other sites, Lee continued the tour to the main hall, Jeongjeon. When first erected, the main hall contained seven rooms, but the number increased as kings died. Rooms were added from west to east until there were a total of 19. “The structure of Korean architectures enables the building to extend itself,” said Lee.
The stairs going up to Jeongjeon, which were sculptured in a cloud shape, caught students’ eyes. The cloud meant that Jeongjeon was the sphere for the spirits of deceased kings who live up in heaven, according to Lee. “Our forefathers did not need to put up a sign saying ‘restricted zone’ because the cloud shaped stairs said everything,” said Lee.
Students applauded as the tour ended. “The stairs are unique, but might have just passed by if there was no guide,” said Yoo Suk-kyung (Medicine, 3). “I was stuck in a rut, just studying my major, so this is my first time visiting any cultural sites in Seoul. It was a meaningful time and I was surprised by all the hidden meanings around Jongmyo,” said Yang Da-hye (Computer Science & Engineering, 3). “I hope there are more opportunities to visit historical sites with the President. It was meaningful and motivated me to be interested in history of Korea,” said Yoon A-jung (Elementary Education, 4).
“Not only students but also several professors participated. The exploration was an idea suggested by the president,” said Lee Jong-won, a staff member at Ewha’s Student Welfare Center. Reactions from professors were also encouraging. “Looking at the professors and students together concentrating on the president’s explanations during the tour, I felt the passion of the Ewha community,” said Professor Kim Yoo-hwan (Law), the dean of the Office of Student Affairs (OSA). “The OSA is trying to add more great extra-curricular activities that students can participate in,” said Kim.
The school plans to continue hosting the programs like this one that will arouse students’ interest in the history and culture. “I could see a bright future in the students’ sincere attitudes and cleverness when listening to the history of Jongmyo,” said Lee.