Ceremony in Honor of Confucius and the Great Sages – Seokjeondaeje (釋奠大祭, 석전대제)

Seokjeondaeje 0

2565th Year of Confucius.

I normally do not do personal blogging, but I am currently in Korea for Chuseok (秋夕, 추석) and I heard that the Ceremony in Honor of Confucius and the Great Sages (釋奠大祭, 석전대제) was going to be held on September 3rd, while I would be here. Since I have never attended one before, I decided to make room in my schedule to attend the ceremony at the Sungkyunkwan (成均館, 성균관). In this blog post, I present pictures that I took along with a brief explanation. The officiants did not allow non-press attendees into the shrine (大成殿, 대성전), so all my photos are from the outside. For a look inside, here is a news article. (On a related note, my email is kuiwonblog[at]gmail.com, not kuiwon[at]gmail.com. Apologies for the confusion.)

A Brief Overview of the Seokjeon

The Ceremony in Honor of Confucius and the Great Sages is known as Seokjeon (釋奠, 석전) in Korean. The Chinese character 釋(석) means “to lay out” (차려놓다); the character 奠(전) depicts alcohol 酋(추) being placed on top of a stand 大(대) as an offering. Together, the word means “to lay out offerings.” The Seokjeon is one of the primary reasons why Korea is often characterized as the most Confucian nation. The ceremony has been celebrated in Korea in continual existence since the 4th century, when Goguryeo’s (高句麗, 고구려, 37BC-668) King Sosurim (小獸林王, 소수림왕, r. 371-384) adopted Confucianism. Contrast this with China, Confucius’ birthplace, where the ceremony was discontinued in 1949 — even before the Communist Cultural Revolution (文化大革命, 문화대혁명, 1966-1976) — and was restarted in 1984, when the Chinese government sent a delegation to Korea to relearn the ritual. Recognizing the importance of this ceremony, in 1986 the Korean government designated Seokjeon as the 85th Important Intangible Cultural Property of Korea and called for the preservation of the rites in their pristine form. Korea thus boasts that it has the best preserved ceremony in Confucius’ honor. Today, in some two hundred Confucian village schools (鄕校, 향교) across the peninsula, the rite is held twice every year once in the spring and once in the fall (or more technically, the Sangjeong (上丁, 상정), the first day with the celestial stem of 丁(정) in a month, on the second and eighth months of the lunar calendar).

The ceremony is held in honor of thirty nine Confucians. They are grouped into the sages (聖, 성), wise (哲, 철), and men of virtue (賢, 현). The Five Sages (五聖, 오성), listed with their posthumous titles, are:

  • Confucius (孔夫子, 공부자, Gongbuja) – (大成至聖文宣王, 대성지성선문왕)
  • Yanzi (顔子, 안자, Anja) – (兗國復聖公, 연국복성공)
  • Zengzi (曾子, 증자, Jeungja) – (郕國宗聖公, 성국종성공)
  • Zisi Zi (子思子, 자사자, Saja Ja) – (沂國述聖公, 기국설성공)
  • Mencius (孟子, 맹자, Maengja) – (鄒國亞聖公, 추국아성공)

Confucius had several disciples during his lifetime; however, only some of them are memorialized in the ceremony. The Ten Wise Confucius’ Disciples (孔門十哲, 공문10철) are:

  • Min Sun (閔損, 민손, Min Son) – (費公, 비공)
  • Ran Geng (冉耕, 염경, Yeom Gyeong) – (鄆公, 운공)
  • Ran Yong (冉雍, 염옹, Yeom Ong) – (薛公, 설공)
  • Zai Yu (宰予, 재여, Jae Yeo) – (齊公, 제공)
  • Duanmu Ci (端木賜, 단목사, Danmok Sa) – (黎公, 여공)
  • Ran Qiu (冉求, 염구, Yeom Gu) – (徐公, 서공)
  • Zhong You (仲由, 중유, Jung Yu) – (衛公, 위공)
  • Yan Yan (言偃, 언언, Eon Eon) – (吳公, 오공)
  • Bu Shang (卜商, 복상, Bok Sang) – (魏公, 위공)
  • Zhuansun Shi (顓孫師, 단손사, Danson Sa) – (陳公, 진공)

The men of virtue are divided into those from the Song dynasty (宋, 송, 960-1279), where Neo-Confucianism was born, and those from Korea. These men are memorialized for their philosophical contributions to Confucianism. The Six Men of Virtue from the Song (宋朝六賢, 송조6현) are:

  • Zhou Dunyi (周敦頤, 주돈이, Ju Doni, 1017-1073) – (道國公, 도국공)
  • Cheng Hao (程顥, 정호, Jeong Ho, 1032-1085) – (豫國公, 예국공)
  • Cheng Yi (程頤, 정이, Jeong Yi, 1033-1107) – (洛國公, 낙국공)
  • Shao Yong (邵雍, 소옹, So Ong, 1011-1077) – (新安伯, 신안백)
  • Zhang Zai (張載, 장재, Jang Jae, 1020-1077) – (郿伯, 미백)
  • Zhu Xi (朱熹, 주희, Ju Heui, 1130-1200) – (徽國公, 휘국공)

The Eighteen Men of Virtue from Korea (我國十八賢, 아국18현 or 東國十八賢, 동국18현) are:

  • Seol Chong (薛聰, 설총, 650-730) – (弘儒侯, 홍유후)
  • Choi Chiweon (崔致遠, 최치원, 857-?) – (文昌侯, 문창후)
  • An Yu (安裕, 안유, 1243-1306) – (文成公, 문성공)
  • Jeong Mongju (鄭夢周, 정몽주, 1337-1392) – (文忠公, 문충공)
  • Kim Goengpil (金宏弼, 김굉필, 1454-1504) – (文敬公, 문경공)
  • Jeong Yeochang (鄭汝昌, 정여창, 1450-1504) – (文憲公, 문헌공)
  • Jo Gwangjo (趙光祖, 조광조, 1482-1520) – (文正公, 문정공)
  • Yi Eonjeok (李彦迪, 이언적, 1491-1553) – (文元公, 문언공)
  • Yi Hwang (李滉, 이황, 1501-1570) – (文純公, 문순공)
  • Kim Inhu (金麟厚, 김인후, 1510-1560) – (文正公, 문정공)
  • Yi I (李珥, 이이, 1537-1584) – (文成公, 문성공)
  • Seong Hon (成渾, 성혼, 1535-1598) – (文簡公, 문간공)
  • Kim Jangsaeng (金長生, 김장생, 1548-1631) – (文元公, 문원공)
  • Jo Heon (趙憲, 조헌, 1544-1592) – (文烈公, 문열공)
  • Kim Jip (金集, 김집, 1574-1656) – (文敬公, 문경공)
  • Song Shiyeol (宋時烈, 송시열, 1607-1689) – (文正公, 문정공)
  • Song Jun’gil (宋浚吉, 송준길, 1606-1672) – (文正公, 문정공)
  • Pak Sechae (朴世采, 박세채, 1631-1695) – (文純公, 문순공)

As for the ceremony itself, I would like to explain on the procedure of the rites in more detail, but I am unfamiliar with them and was unable to look inside the shrine. Those of you that are familiar with the rites of the typical Jesa (祭祀, 제사) celebrated at Korean family homes during special days might find the structure of the rite similar. The following is a description of the ceremony proceeding based on the summary in the booklets handed out:

  1. Jeonpyerye (奠幣禮, 전폐례) – The officiants (獻官, 헌관) wash their hands at a table just before the eastern door (盥洗位, 관세위). After entering the shrine, at the instruction of the master of ceremonies (唱笏, 창홀) who reads from the ceremonial text (笏記, 홀기), they light incense in front the memorial tablets (神位, 신위) and offer a cloth known as Pyebaek (幣帛, 폐백). Outside, the dancers (八佾舞, 팔일무) dance to the Yeolmun Dance (烈文之舞, 열문지무) and the musicians play the Myeong’an Tune (明安之樂, 명안지악). The standard (麾, 휘) is raised. (Throughout the entire ceremony, the master of ceremonies recited the instructions in Classical Chinese and a narrator with a microphone outside gave a translation.)
  2. Choheonrye (初獻禮, 초헌례) – The first officiant (初獻官, 초헌관) offers wine (奠爵, 전작) in front of the memorial tablets. Outside, the dancers continue to dance the Yeolmun Dance but the musicians play Seong’an Tune (成安之樂, 성안지악). Sometime later, the dancers change headgears and the musicians just outside the shrine start playing Seo’an Tune (舒安之樂, 서안지악). At the end, the standard is lowered and the music is stopped.
  3. Aheonrye (亞獻禮, 아헌례) – The second officiant (亞獻官, 아헌관) offers wine in front of the memorial tablets. Outside, dancers dance the Somu Dance (昭武之舞, 소무지무), but the musicians continue to play the Seong’an Tune.
  4. Jongheonrye (終獻禮, 종헌례) – The final officiant (終獻官, 종헌관) offers wine in front of the memorial tables. Outside, the standard is raised, the dancers continue to dance the Somu Dance, and the musicians continue to play Seong’an Tune. At the end, the standard is lowered and the music is stopped.
  5. Bunheonrye (分獻禮, 분헌례) – This occurs at the same time as the Jongheonrye. The distributor officiants (分獻官, 분헌관) pour wine at each of the memorial tablets.
  6. Eumboksujorye (飮福受胙禮, 음복수조례) – This occurs after the completion of the Bunheonrye. The first officiants consume some of the food and the wine offered. The wine is known as Eumbokju (飮福酒, 음복주).
  7. Cheolbyeondu (撤籩豆, 철변두) – The officiants and assistants place covers over the memorial tablets.
  8. Mangyerye (望瘞禮, 망예례) – At the end of the ceremony, a few of the officiants take the Pyebaek, come out of the shrine, and walk down the western stairs. At a designated location, they burn the Pyebaek and bury them.
  9. At the end, attendees were invited up to the stage in front of the shrine to burn incense and pay their respects to Confucius and the sages.


Seokjeondaeje 1

Musicians process in from the west.

Seokjeondaeje 4

Officiants process in from the east and onto the stage in front of the shrine.

Seokjeondaeje 5

Before entering the shrine, the officiants bow.

Seokjeondaeje 8

The master of ceremonies (唱笏, 창홀) is on the right of the main gate in blue in front of the microphone. The man in green is responsible for leading the musicians. The men in red are the musicians at the stage in front of the shrine (軒歌, 헌가).

Seokjeondaeje 10

Dancers (八佾舞, 팔일무).

Seokjeondaeje 11

Musicians outside the shrine.

Seokjeondaeje 13

Mangyerye (望瘞禮, 망예례).

Seokjeondaeje 14

Officiants bow after the end of the ceremony.

Seokjeondaeje 15

Utensils used for the hand-cleansing (盥洗, 관세).


Overall, even though I did not know what exactly was going on inside the shrine, I found the whole ceremony very interesting. Confucianism today is too often presented as something merely on paper: dead, cold, and academic. Previously, the only times when Confucianism explicitly “came alive” to me were at family ancestral rites (祭祀, 제사). During the Seokjeon, even as a passive attendee, I still felt not completely aloof, especially when the master of ceremonies recited, “Bae! (拜, 배),” followed by, “Heung! (興, 흥)” a number of times, instructing everyone to bow and then rise. I do hope that one day one of the Korean cultural centers in the US picks up this ceremony.

More Reading (in Korean):


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