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Long-lost royal 'Sajik Jeryeak' returns to stage after more than a century

July 11, 2024 - 14:36 By Hwang Dong-hee
Members of the National Gugak Center perform "Sajik Jeryeak" during a press rehearsal on Wednesday. (National Gugak Center)

During the Joseon era (1392-1910), the two most important ceremonies personally overseen by the king were Jongmyo Jerye, a royal ancestral memorial rite held to pay respect to the late kings and queens; and Sajik Daeje, a national rite to gods of lands and crops.

This was when Jongmyo and Sajik were considered the very essence of the nation. Thus the Jongmyo Shrine housing the tablets of deceased royal ancestors is located to the left of Gyeongbokgung, the main Joseon royal palace, while the Sajikdan Altar is to the right of the palace.

The Jongmyo Jerye and Jongmyo Jeryeak, its accompanying music and dances, were designated as the nation's first Intangible Cultural Heritage in 1964, and inscribed on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2001.

However, the Sajik Daeje and Sajik Jeryeak, its accompanying music and dances, were abolished in 1908 during the Japanese colonial period, leading to an 80-year hiatus until the rite was restored in 1988. The Sajik Jeryeak was only recently fully revived.

Members of the National Gugak Center perform "Sajik Jeryeak" during a press rehearsal on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Now, 116 years after its abolition, the National Gugak Center will perform the Sajik Jeryeak again on Thursday and Friday. This revival comes a decade after the state organization first showcased its restoration efforts made based on the “Sajikseo Uigwe” (1783), a book detailing the rituals of the Sajikdan Altar, and musical materials from the Royal Music Department during the Japanese occupation.

At a rehearsal and press conference Wednesday, Professor Lee Dae-young of Chung-Ang University, who also directed the “Sajik Jeryeak,” said, "I hope the audience will feel as though they are participating in the ritual."

"From a modern perspective, Sajik may hold more significance than Jongmyo because the Sajik Daeje is a ritual praying for the well-being, happiness and abundance of the people,” Lee said.

“By restoring the long-discontinued Sajik Jeryeak, we aim to preserve and pass down our cultural heritage,” said Lee Gun-hoy, the artistic director of the NGC’s Court Music Orchestra. “Our goal is to have Sajik Jeryeak designated as a cultural heritage and eventually inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

Members of the National Gugak Center perform "Sajik Jeryeak" during a press rehearsal on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Notably, this version of Sajik Jeryeak follows the ceremonial protocols established after Emperor Gojong declared Joseon the Daehan Empire. It reenacts the Sajik Daeje based on the “Daehanyejeon” (1898), which records the ceremonial practices of the empire. The emperor's crown and attire are more elaborate than the king's and additional instruments were added to enhance the grandeur.

The performance involves over 120 members from the NGC, with LED screens on the ceiling and floor creating a spectacular and more immersive experience.

“While Jongmyo Jeryeak is based on music created by King Sejong, Sajik Jeryeak incorporates music passed down from the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) and restructured during King Sejong's reign,” said Song Ji-won, who led the Sajik Jeryeak restoration project in 2014, explaining the difference between the two rituals.

“Jongmyo Jeryeak, based on 'hyangak' (natively developed Korean court music), offers a variety of melodies, whereas Sajik Jeryeak, rooted in "aak" (an imported form of Chinese music), repeats the same melody in different pitches, giving it a modern music-like feel,” Song said.

From left, artistic director Lee Gun-hoy, director Lee Dae-young and gugak researcher Song Ji-won attend a press conference held at the National Gugak Center on Wednesday. (NGC)

The creative team said it was challenging to present a performance traditionally held outside at the Sajikdan Altar, within the confines of a theater. The movements of the emperor, officials, performers and the offering table were simplified for the stage.

The NGC aims to have the Sajik Daeje and Sajik Jeryeak recognized as national intangible heritage, eventually achieving UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status.