Wedding and Marriage in Joseon Part 3: Royal Style

We have taken a glimpse into the basic steps of wedding ceremony which took place in Joseon Dynasty in the previous part, and this part will be focusing on the wedding ceremony of the royal family of Joseon. The occasion itself was considered a joyous one for it to be referred to as garye (가례), although the term garye was once used to also include a king’s coronation ceremony. Aside from garye, the term gukhon (국혼) – literally meaning the national wedding – was also used frequently. The scale of the royal nuptials depended on one’s status in the royal family; marriages of the direct line of succession, for instance the King, the Crown Prince, and the Young Crown Prince (aka the Crown Grandson/Grand Heir) were considered the major occasions among the royal marriages, which called for nationwide celebration and months of preparation.

[Read Part 1: History of Marriage Practice in Ancient Korea]
[Read Part 2: Wedding Ceremony in Joseon Dynasty, Influenced by Confucianism]

Part 3: Wedding Customs of Joseon’s Royal Family

If you thought that the basic steps were already lengthy enough, then consider yourself warned for the royal edition of Joseon wedding ceremony: touted as a lengthy, complicated, and extremely taxing process, a royal marriage was full of customs and lengthy rites, with some of them taking months in between two rites. It was a joint work of many, many people, to the point of having a special office erected for the occasion alone.

The Royal Wedding Secretariats, Garye Dogam and Garyecheong

The special office, known as Garye Dogam (가례도감) or Royal Wedding Directorate, was tasked with everything related to the ceremony from the beginning until the end, which included the process of documentation of the royal wedding. To put it simply, it was an organizing committee overseeing a major event for the nation. This office, however, was reserved only for the King and the Crown Prince’s wedding; the Young Crown Prince and the other royal children’s wedding would be overseen by a much smaller Garyecheong (가례청) or Office of Royal Wedding. Those in the line of succession would have their wedding immortalized in a document called Uigwe (의궤) or Royal Protocols, detailing everything about the ceremony down to the smallest bit. As for other royal family members such as the prince or princess, their wedding would be included in a record called Garye Deungrok (가례등록) or Records of Royal Wedding, which would leave out the detailed drawings but still retain the important details which has proven to be valuable for research purposes. In practice, both major royal wedding (for those in the line of succession) and minor royal wedding (for ordinary prince and princess) would first have the details jotted down in garye deungrok; then, the record for the major one would be developed into uigwe

Members of the directorate would be chosen among the court officials, with a Supreme Commissioner Dojejo (도제조) chosen among the High State Councillors Samuijeong (삼의정). The commissioner would act as an advisor for the office, supervising and monitoring the work progress. The head of the directorate, Commissioner or Jejo (제조), would be either the Minister of Rites Yejo Panseo (예조 판서) or the Minister of Taxation Hojo Panseo (호조 판서). For the wedding of the Young Crown Prince, there would be no Supervisor but two Commissioners assigned to the directorate. It is worth mentioning that King Jeongjo was the only royal of Joseon who had his wedding when he was a Young Crown Prince, and it was carried out when his grandfather King Yeongjo was preventing the excessive use of luxury and extravagance in rituals; hence, the ceremony adapted to the concept of frugality and was comparably smaller than the King or the Crown Prince’s wedding ceremony.

The Royal Wedding Directorate was important because a major wedding ceremony would take about two to six months, beginning from the selection process to the documentation work. They would also oversee a special construction unit called Byeolgongjak (별공작), functioning as the body responsible for building new structures and equipment for the occasion, and also a repair office Suriso (수리소), responsible for renovation works around the palace. Since members of the directorate had to work hard to prepare everything for the big occasion, they would be compensated accordingly with rewards when the task was completed successfully, and the temporary institution would be disbanded.  

The complexity of royal wedding lied in the process itself. Unlike the compressed four steps adapted by regular weddings, a major royal wedding retained the Six Rites or Yukrye (육례) in practice, with some modifications made to suit the needs of the royal family. In addition, there were two steps – one prior to and another after the Six Rites – added to the whole process, becoming integral parts of the ceremony. According to Annals of King Sejong (Sejong Sillok) and The Five Rites of Nation (Gukjeoryeui), the basic six rituals were:

  1. Napchae (납채, 納采) – sending formal proposal letter and the royal groom’s four pillars to Detached Palace
  2. Napjing (납징, 納徵) – sending wedding gifts to the Detached Palace
  3. Gogi (고기, 告期) – choosing date and alerting the Detached Palace of the chosen date for the wedding
  4. Chaekbi (책비, 冊嬪)/Chaekbin (책빈, 冊嬪) – coronation ceremony for the Queen or investiture ceremony for the Crown Princess
  5. Chinyeong (친영, 親迎) – the royal groom’s procession to the Detached Palace to greet the royal bride
  6. Dongroe (동뢰, 同牢) – the royal bride would enter the palace on that day and exchange bows, drinks, and food with the royal groom before completing the first night ritual.

As for the minor royal wedding ceremony for the prince and princess, the third and fourth rituals were excluded, leaving four rituals or Sarye (사례) for the ceremony. Distant royal relatives would follow the normal wedding course, eliminating the final ritual and leaving only three official rituals or Samrye (삼례) for their wedding.

Although the rites listed above were the crucial parts of the ceremony, they were rarely portrayed in historical dramas, possibly due to the long, complicated steps, not to mention the number of props which will be needed to cover the scenes. Although the wedding procession and the first night ritual do make multiple appearances on dramas and movies, the most frequently seen part of the royal wedding in the modern works is actually the grand prelude to the marriage itself, gantaek (간택, 揀擇).

The Royal Selection Process, Gantaek

The selection process or gantaek was an exclusive step included in the course of royal marriage. Normal marriage would be carried out with the help of matchmakers, but there was probably no better matchmaker than the royal family members themselves when it comes to the task of finding a suitable candidate to become the latest addition to the royal family, bearing the reputation and responsibility of a royal for one’s entire life after the marriage. Just like how the name suggested, the process aimed to choose a suitable candidate to become the potential spouse of a royal family member. Technically, all potential royal consorts would have to undergo a selection process, but the selection for the consorts of the King, the Crown Prince, and the Young Crown Prince would be more rigorous and stringent, as the chosen candidate would become the future Queen. The basic requirements for the candidates for royal children’s spouses would be:

  1. Not from the Jeonju Yi clan, which was the royal family’s clan
  2. Not from the same surname Yi
  3. Not within the 8-chon degree of kinship with the elders of the palace, the Dowagers
  4. Not an orphan
  5. Not an illegitimate issue of his family (child borne by a concubine)

When a royal child reached the age to get married, or when the late King’s 3-year mourning period had ended, the highest ranked person in the royal family, usually a Dowager, would suggest the suitable age of the potential consort. Royal family got married earlier than the commoners in most cases – sometimes as early as 9 years old – so the age of the future consort would vary around 8 to 15 years old. The candidates for female consort were usually one or two years older than the future royal groom but for a new queen or gyebi (계비), who would be chosen after the first queen or jeongbi (정비) passed away, the age was set at 15 max, although there were instances where the chosen Queen would be 16, 17, and even 19 years old.

Next, a decree of marriage ban, geumhonryeong (금혼령, 禁婚令), would be issued by Ministry of Rites, along with the royal order for the details submission or bongdanryeong (봉단령, 捧單令) to the qualified families. The Royal Wedding Directorate would also be set up around this time, gearing up for the upcoming royal wedding. The marriage ban was carried out to prevent the loss of potential consorts through other marriage, securing the best potential matches for the intended royal marriage, especially those with prospective background. The ban was not only applicable for the potential candidates, as in the noble class, but also included the entire nation. The age for the potential candidates would also be highlighted in this stage.

In reality, many sadaebu families did not think that the selection of royal consorts, particularly for the position of Queen and Crown Princess, was a happy occasion; aside from having to live one’s entire life locked inside the deep palace forever with restricted freedom behind the nine gates and numerous walls of the palace, not to mention having to part one’s way with the parents literally for life, the chosen one would have to commit to a restrained life as the Mother of Nation, but that did not guarantee free pass of escaping the potential bloodbath and becoming sacrificial lamb should there be a conflict, especially in the Inner Court. That was not the only reason, as the family would have to spend a lot for the appropriate clothes and palanquin for the selection stages alone. Of course, these were the concern of the grown-ups, while the young ladies and bachelors who would be the candidates might view the chance as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter the palace and see it for themselves. If they were lucky enough, they might advance to the next stages and receive gifts.

Relevant candidates for the selection – maidens for Queen and Crown Princess, bachelors for Prince Consort – would be required to submit their danja (단자, 單子) or personal details, detailing one’s paternal ancestors and their official ranks (if any); the parents’ names and clan, and the birth date, day, and hour of the candidate. This document would be set to the administrative office of one’s city. The provincial administrative officer would then gather the submission to be sent to the Ministry of Rites in the capital for initial screening. In reality, this was just like some sort of formality for the paperwork, as the application sent would not exceed 30, plus the prospective candidates with strong family background were mostly residing in the capital. The exception was made to the close relatives of the royal family or those from the Jeonju Yi clan, but they were still required to adhere to the marriage ban.

After the initial screening, the selection process would take place. In general, the selection process was divided into three stages: preliminary stage chogantaek (초간택), intermediate stage jaegantaek (재간택), and the third or final stage samgantaek (삼간택). The shortlisted candidates would be summoned to the palace for a personal review. Just like how the dramas depicted them, they would be riding the palanquins and donning appropriate clothes to enter the palace. You might have noticed the scene where the candidates would be stepping on something as they entered the palace. It was a pot lid, and the custom held some significance to it: since the chosen consort would become a new family member, it was believed that this gesture would allow the household to inform the Kitchen God about a new lady of the house. It also symbolized harmonious marriage life if the lid did not move, as well as being a Joseon era weight scale.

The number of candidates varied for each ceremony, depending on the requirement set prior to the selection process. The first stage chogantaek would require the candidates to forego their makeup and extravagant accessories, as the senior female royal relatives and palace matrons evaluate their physical appearance. They would be gathered in a large open space pavilion, where they would be required to write their father’s name and served light refreshments as a part of their evaluation in basic etiquette and manners. Around 6 or 7 candidates (sometimes up to 10) would advance to the second stage and they would receive gifts from the royal family. The marriage ban for the whole country, as well as for the eliminated candidates would be lifted once the first stage was completed.

Jaegantaek was held one to two weeks after the first stage, and the candidates would be allowed to wear makeup and accessories while attending the second session. From this one, 3 to 4 candidates would be chosen to attend the final review. Most of the time, the final stage would have 3 final candidates. Samgantaek or the final selection stage would be held 15 to 20 days after jaegantaek, and the final three candidates would be wearing a ceremonial topcoat dangui as they had an audience – which was more like an appraisal – in front of the royal elders like the Queen or the Dowager. Their wit and intelligence would be tested in this round, and only one would be chosen at the end of the stage. The future royal consort would receive the treatment befitting his/her status as a future member of the royal family. For the consorts of the King, the Crown Prince, and the Young Crown Prince, they would have an audience with the queen and the dowagers to greet the elders as new members of the Inner Court.

The soon-to-be royal bride would leave the palace but she was not going to return to her natal house; instead, she would be heading straight to her temporary residence before the marriage called Detached Palace or byeolgung (별궁). The royal bride-to-be would not be addressed using her royal title yet since she had to go through the formal investiture ceremony first; instead, she would be addressed using the terms Bi-ssi (비씨, literally Madam Queen), Bin-ssi (빈씨, Madam Crown Princess) or simply Buin (Madam), hence the alternate name of the Detached Palace was the Wife’s Palace or Buingung (부인궁).

How about those who did not make it? Except for the final candidates, the rest would have the marriage ban lifted once they were disqualified from advancing to the next stage. The failed candidates of the final round were already considered the King/Crown Prince’s women, so they were prohibited to remarry even after they failed to make it through the selection. They either had to live as widows forever, or in some cases of better luck, received the royal family’s approval to be made royal concubines. They would receive punishment should they failed to abide the prohibition to remarry, but they were lots of instances in which these women received special consent to remarry. Usually, the ladies who made it to the final round were no regular candidates, as they came from noble families and were worthy bride materials. On top of that, they were not just the regular noble ladies but precious daughters of prestigious families, so there would many complaints coming from the families and the royal household might have been pressured to give in to their plea.

The Temporary Residence for the Future Queen, Byeolgung

Byeolgung or the Detached Palace was a temporary outer palace where the future royal consort would prepare herself for the marriage through various means, such as studying classic texts, for instance Elementary Learning or Sohak (소학, 小學) by Zhu Xi; learning about court rules and etiquette from the court matrons to get used to life inside the palace; and also practicing the rites and lengthy ceremonial procedures, especially the most important step for her that was Chinyeong. The Detached Palace started off simply as a place where the future queen would be spending her time away from her natal home prior to entering the palace, in a way to strengthen her authority as the future member of royal family. Over time, the function of the Detached Palace evolved into the place where education of queen’s etiquettes took place, focusing on the wedding ceremony itself. During her stay there, the future consort would be groomed into a refined and dignified lady, befitting her status as the future Queen. Although Joseon’s traditional custom observed the wedding ceremony to be carried out at the bride’s house, it was actually against the Confucian teaching. Hence, in order to satisfy both the original and Confucian customs, the Detached Palace acted as her house.

Having a temporary residence for the future royal consort had many advantages for both the royal bride and the royal groom’s side. Royal nuptial was a type of union which included two people of different status: a noble family’s daughter and a royal family’s son. Hence, it was deemed appropriate to have a place which could symbolize that the royal bride was on a transition to become member of the royal family. When the future Queen was formally selected, she was already considered a part of the royalty; thus, her stay at the temporary residence was not only for her own preparation, but also for the nation to see that they were going to have a new Queen soon. Plus, the Detached Palace also functioned to lessen the burden for the bride’s natal home to receive their king as the son-in-law. The King, after all, was someone of the highest status in the whole country, so there was no doubt that the bride’s family would be pressured to prepare the best to accommodate the King and his retinues. Having a proper place to house the future Queen on her ‘transit’ between her two status would surely refrain her natal family from straining themselves for the union.

The Detached Palace did not only symbolize the future Queen’s transition, but it also helped in maintaining the King’s authority when carrying out the step of Chinyeong, or the wedding procession (more on that later). Instead of having the King sending a representative to fetch the royal bride from her natal home, the King himself could make himself present at the Detached Palace to see his consort on that day. Plus having the palace situated nearer to the main palace made it easier for planning and execution of the ceremony; byeolgung would see a number of important steps in the ceremony being carried out there as the future Queen’s residence.  Taepyeonggwan (a place used to house the Ming envoys prior to Imjin War), Eoigung Palace (the place Injo grew up before he became the king), Unhyeonggung Palace, and Angukdong Detached Palace were among the usual places used in Joseon for this purpose.

The King and the Crown Prince’s Six Rites of Wedding Ceremony, Yukrye

Once the future royal consort was decided, the next step was to carry out the Six Rites or Yukrye. The time spent by a future royal bride in the Detached Palace would be more than 50 days from the time of the final selection until Chinyeong took place, although there were instances where the ceremony would be carried out faster, thus shortening the period of stay there. Most of the Six Rites would also take place there. Just like what the names suggested, some of the rituals bore resemblance to the ordinary wedding rituals, if not more elaborate. There were also lots (I mean, LOTS!) of bowings and formalities included, so I try not to dwell too much into the repetitive details. The steps for a King’s wedding was also called Napbieui (납비의, 納妃儀) while the Crown Prince’s wedding would be referred to as Napbineui (납빈의, 納嬪儀).

The first ritual, formally referred to as Napchaeui (납채의, 納采儀), involved the King or the Crown Prince as the royal groom-to-be sending formal proposal letter and the king’s four pillars from the royal palace to the Detached Palace, acting as the future queen’s natal home. This would be similar to the ordinary napchae. The king would be wearing his major ceremonial attire as he received the bows from the courtiers and the messenger, all wearing jobok and the crown yanggwan. The messenger, known as saja (사자,使者), would be dispatched to send the letter to the detached palace riding a horse and escorted by a procession on the following day. He would also bring with him the wooden goose gireogi (기러기), which was also an important symbol in wedding in general. The official reply from the royal bride’s side would be sent to the palace in the ritual of Sunapchaeui (수납채의, 受納采儀). After meeting the bride’s representative called juin (주인, 主人), the king’s messenger would return to the palace and report to the king on the completion of the ritual.

Next, the palace would send wedding gifts to the Detached Palace in the ritual of Napjingeui (납징의, 納徵儀). This would be the royal wedding version of nappye, where the gifts symbolized that the marriage would be happening. A messenger would be sent with the task to the Detached Palace and bringing back the confirmation of the royal bride accepting the gifts, Sunapjingeui (수납징의, 受納徵儀). Napjing would be similar to napchae in terms of formality, except that it was considered a smaller ceremony compared to the first one; the king would be wearing his minor ceremony robe during the second ritual.

While the date setting in ordinary wedding involved the bride’s saju being sent to the groom’s house during matchmaking or returning the proposal, in royal wedding’s instance, the saju or four pillars of the future queen was already acquired early on during the selection process. Hence, the process of selecting the auspicious date and time for the actual wedding day, or the Chinyeong ritual, was carried out by the Office of Astronomy or Gwansanggam and the royal bride’s side would be alerted of the chosen date through the ritual of Gogi (고기, 告期).

The coronation ceremony for the Queen, chaekbi (책비, 冊妃) or investiture ceremony for the Crown Princess, chaekbin (책빈, 冊嬪) was one of the rituals which set the royal wedding apart from ordinary ceremony. During this step, the king would formally proclaim the royal bride as the Queen (or Crown Princess) and the newly crowned royal consort would be bestowed with the royal regalia symbolizing her status, including the royal edict for the investiture gyomyeong (교명, 敎命), royal investiture book chaekmun (책문, 冊文), royal seal boin (보인, 寶印), and formal robe myeongbok (명복, 命服). These also set the royal bride apart from the royal concubine in terms of her status in marriage realm as the primary consort of the king. The messenger would be delivering these regalia in their respective carriages (since they symbolized the queen herself) to the Detached Palace. The procession escorting the messenger would still be a sight not to be missed, despite missing the main characters of the ceremony. This coronation ceremony was also the one where the bride would be directly participating in at the Detached Palace, donning her major ceremonial attire jeokui and receiving the regalia herself before bowing towards the Royal Palace’s direction. From the time the Detached Palace received the messenger, the royal bride would be formally treated as the Queen.  

The Highlight of the Six Steps Wedding Ceremony, Chinyeong

On the day of the wedding procession or Chinyeong, there would be an extra step for the Crown Prince, where he would be greeting his father the King before embarking on his way to the Detached Palace in a ritual called Imheonchogye (임헌초계, 臨軒醮戒). The court would also be in attendance, witnessing the beginning of the historical moment in the Crown Prince’s life. Both donning the major ceremonial attire myeonbok for the purpose, the Crown Prince would be performing a series of bows in front of the King, and the King would formally instruct his son to fetch his royal consort and continue the tradition of their ancestors. The King would also bestow a cup of wine to the Crown Prince. Then, the wedding procession would officially begin.

The royal groom (the King/Crown Prince) would be riding a royal palanquin to the Detached Palace for the wedding procession. The practice of Chinyeong actually underwent changes throughout the dynasty. As the wedding ceremony could be regarded as a custom inherited from one generation to another, it was difficult to change the practice to follow that of Confucian teaching, especially when it came to the practice of chinyeong. There were different types of chinyeong according to the days between the journey to and from the Detached Palace, but there were also types according to how the royal bride fetching step was carried out and the place used as her natal home.

Myeongsabongyeong (명사봉영, 命使奉迎) was the step adapted by the Kings in early Joseon in fetching the future Queen. Since the king could not go to the bride’s house himself due to his status, an official would be selected to be the king’s representative to fetch the bride in the king’s stead. During this era, the bride stayed at her natal home until the wedding procession took place.

Kagwanchinyeong (가관친영, 假館親迎) was later used in mid-Joseon during Jungjong’s reign. In this practice, the king would still select a representative to fetch the future queen but instead of bringing her straight to the palace, the representative would escort the bride to a government office close to the palace and the king would meet the future queen there. Taepyeonggwan, formerly used to house the Ming envoys during their stay in Joseon, was chosen to become the rendezvous point for this purpose. The practice continued until Seonjo’s reign. However, after the building was destroyed during Manchu Invasion, the practice was changed again under the guise of difficulties cost-wise in restoring Taepyeonggwan post-war.

Byeolgungchinyeong (별궁친영, 別宮親迎) later came into practice during Injo’s wedding to his second consort, and Queen Jangryeol. A new type of Chinyeong was adapted after the invasion during Injo’s reign, where the king would be meeting the queen himself at the Detached Palace, byeolgung. The most frequent site used as the Detached Palace was Eouigung Palace, which used to be Injo’s childhood house. Having a Detached Palace as a temporary residence for the future queen prior to the wedding ceremony had many benefits; aside for ‘saving the king’s face’ for holding chinyeong at a palace in order to match his status as the nation’s king, this practice of having chinyeong conducted there would be the closest to the true spirit of Jin-Chinyeong (진친영, 眞親迎) aka the original concept of Chinyeong as stated in Jujagarye.

For simplicity purpose, this post will just focus on the byeolgungchinyeong, which would be the one described for the step of chinyeong. The King’s procession to the Detached Palace would be a grand one, since it would be a sight to behold for the common people. This would also be the chance for them to catch a glimpse of the King (or the Crown Prince) and the long, long lines following after and escorting him. The Royal Protocols or uigwe would be documenting the whole procession to the smallest detail, through a documentary painting called Banchado (반차도, 班次圖). The vivid painting would list out every single participant in the procession, together with their roles, attires, and accessories they had on them. However, there was something peculiar about the banchado, because both the stars of the wedding procession – namely the King and the Queen – would not be included in the painting and had their seats left empty. Why was that? It was a deliberate move not to draw the royal couple’s faces in these documents, because looking at their faces directly was considered a high degree of irreverence against them. Hence, the royal palanquins alone were deemed enough to dictate that the King and the Queen were parts of the procession.

As the royal groom reached the Detached Palace, he would be alighting from the palanquin. The bride’s representative juin would be reporting the event to the family shrine, proclaiming that the daughter of so-and-so would be marrying into the royal family. At the same time, the royal bride would be ready in her ceremonial attire, being alerted of the groom’s journey when he departed from the royal palace. Her parents would also be present in their official attire, offering to their daughter a cup of wine in a symbolic ritual called Jakyerye (작예례, 酌醴禮) held in a room as they formally instructed her to obey her husband and such. Then, she would be moving to another room for Jeonanrye (전안례, 奠雁礼), where the royal groom would be offering a live goose to the royal bride’s parents, who were also his parents-in-law from that moment. It would also be the first time the Queen would be facing the King officially as husband and wife. Bows would be performed and drinks exchanged before the Queen changed into minor ceremonial attire noeui for her journey to the royal palace. As she walked to her palanquin, her parents would be showering her with final advice and instructions, ending it with an apologetic statement that they had nothing to say anymore, since they could not teach her well while she was staying with them. This would also be the start of the Queen’s parents having to treat her as their superior, since she was deemed the King’s consort, member of the royal family, and no longer their daughter. Unlike what is being portrayed onscreen, these would all take place at the Detached Palace and not at the royal palace.

The procession back to the royal palace would also be escorted with numerous personnel, this time with the Queen’s retinue included. More people would be turning out to see their new Queen (or Crown Princess) and witness for themselves the extravagance in the royal procession. Next, the step Dongroe (also called Dongroeyeon (동뢰연, 同牢宴) would take place, where the royal newlyweds would be exchanging bows, drinks, and food with each other in a ritual known as Gyobaerye (교배례, 交拜禮). Held in the King’s (or Crown Prince’s) quarters, the ritual was actually a private one, held behind closed doors and not for public viewing. It would take place after dawn around dinner time, where both the King and the Queen would bow to each other few times before they actually entered the nuptial room.

The royal groom would sit on the East side of the room facing the West, while the royal bride would be sitting on the West while facing the East side. They would bow at each other again after sitting across each other and then exchanging cups of wine to be drank together. After they had their meals and the ritual completed, the groom would be excusing himself to change into basic attire for the night. The bride would also do the same, changing out of her ceremonial robe. As they went behind the curtains to complete the first night ritual, the attendants would be clearing out the food and drinks. If the newlyweds were still young to complete the first night ritual, then the day would be concluded with the exchange of food and drinks, and the ritual would later be carried out after both the young couple were of age and completed their capping or coming-of-age ceremony, gwallye (관례).

The Aftermath of the Six Steps

Although the six steps of the wedding ceremony had been concluded with the completion of dongroe, the actual ceremony was far from being completed. On the very next morning after the big day, the new bride still had rounds to make in order to pay respects to the elders in the palace. Dressed in major ceremonial robes, she would be greeting the elders through the ritual called Johyeonrye (조현례, 朝見禮). Also known as Hyeongugorye 현구고례(見舅姑禮), it was first put into practice during Jungjong’s reign, at the time of his wedding to his third consort, Queen Munjeong. The term was also generally used for the act of receiving greetings from consorts and concubines of someone of lower status than that person. The session was referred to as Bijohyeon (비조현, 妃朝見) for the Queen and Binjohyeon (빈조현, 嬪朝見) for the Crown Princess.

The elders would a be dressed in their major ceremonial robes as well to celebrate the joyous occasion of the royal family. Starting from the Grand Royal Queen Dowager’s quarters, a series of four bows would be performed and then, the new royal daughter-in-law would be offering the female elders gifts in the form of dried long beef meat called dansupo (단수포, 腶脩脯). In return, the female elders would be bestowing a cup of wine to the new royal bride in a small ritual, chorye (초례, 醮禮) and instructed her through the ritual seongburye (성부례, 成婦禮), symbolizing of the passing of greatness from one to another.

While a Queen could only offer greetings to the female elders, namely the Dowagers, the Crown Princess also had to greet her royal parents-in-law, the King and the Queen. Hence, she would offer the dried beef to the Queen. As for the King, he would be receiving joyul (조율, 棗栗) which were chestnut and jujube, from his new daughter-in-law. The choice of gifts was based on the concept of yin and yang. Females, who were considered yin, was given meat since it was considered food that warms the body, while the males, who were yang by nature, was given the jujube and chestnut as a way to nourish the receivers. In a way, it demonstrated the balance of yin and yang (or eum and yang in Korean) that was shown through marriage, which was a unification of the two elements.

There was another addition to the post-wedding ritual for the Crown Prince, called Myohyeonrye (묘현례, 廟見禮), The Crown Princess, in her major ceremonial attire, would be ushered to the Royal Ancestral Shrine or Jongmyo to pay respects to the shrine. It was also to inform the late kings and queens’ spirits of the new addition to the royal family, as well as consolidating the status of the newly invested Crown Princess. This was added to the ritual by Sukjong during the wedding of Crown Prince (later Gyeongjong) and the Crown Princess (later Queen Danui) in 1696.

A banquet for the officials or Baekgwan Hweui (백관회의, 百官會儀), combining the celebration for wedding rites and military rites, was introduced by Jeongjo as a way to celebrate the joyous and happy occasion for the nation. But then, there was no record of it actually taking place during the latter kings’ wedding ceremony. During Heonjong’s marriage to his second consort Queen Hyojeong in 1844, there was a record of Jinharye (진하례, 陳賀禮), an event where the ministers would be offering their greetings and congratulating the King for his marriage. Held two days after the wedding had been completed, the officials gathered together as they were bestowed with a banquet by the King himself.

The Royal Concubines

How about the royal concubines, then? Since Joseon Dynasty stressed on the concept of Ilbuilcheo (일부일처 – literally ‘one husband, one wife’), women other than the primary wife of a man would be considered the concubines. This concept was also applied in the royal household, where the primary consort of the King, the Queen, was the only legal wife, while the other royal concubines were considered the secondary wives of the King. There were two ways one could become a royal concubine: receiving the grace of the King or the Crown Prince and/or giving birth to a royal child, or through a formal selection process held for royal concubines.

Throughout the dynasty, there were many reasons for the kings to officially select royal concubines, with the procreation of the royal family being the top priority. It could also be a way of officially bringing someone who was considered precious to the royal family into the palace, and it could be beneficial for the king himself to gain the political support of an illustrious family by making a daughter of the family his concubine. Although the practice of choosing royal concubines through official selection sustained itself fairly well until late Joseon, the popular culture in the form of dramas and movies tends to put the highlight on those concubines who received the favour from the kings while they worked as a palace maids. There were actually more instances where the officially selected concubines rose to become Queens Consort in history.

The selection process for a royal concubine more or less resembled that of a Queen Consort’s; there would be marriage ban and three stages selection for concubines or hugung gantaek going on, but there were more standards applied for the look: high forehead, narrow gap between eyebrows, red lips and not grey, wide hips which would aid in giving birth, and not taller than the King/Crown Prince. The standards were the determining points for positions which were aimed to help in producing more royal offspring. After the chosen concubines were determined, they would be returning to their respective homes and entered the Detached Palace at a later time that was closer to the actual wedding date, and the steps would be carried out as the representatives of the King went back and forth between the royal palace and the detached palace.

Although there were mentions of wedding ceremony held for the selected royal concubines before, the records pertaining the ceremony before Injo’s reign were all gone. When Sukjong was finding suitable resource as a reference for Lady Kim sukui‘s wedding, the only references were through senior court matrons and a personal diary that was written about Injo’s concubine, Lady Jang sukui (later Jang gwiin). It was noted that Jang’s wedding included Dokroeyeon, and she made the journey to enter the palace by herself from the Detached Palace. Although there were discussions on whether the gift sending ritual or Nappye was appropriate or not, it was decided that the ritual was considered an important part of the ceremony. Although the concubine’s wedding was not considered a proper royal wedding ritual or Bingrye (빙례, 聘禮), the act of carrying sending out the royal edict through the ritual Chaekrye (책례, 冊禮) made the installation ceremony valid. Still, the incomplete ceremony with lack of the involvement of the King in the steps showed that the union was not of equal status. After looking at the examples, Sukjong ordered for Lady Kim sukui‘s wedding to be carried out only with the three steps below:

  • Byeolgung Dokroeyeon (별궁독뢰연, 別宮獨牢宴) – solo journey from the Detached Palace
  • Daejeon Johyeonrye (대전 조현례, 大殿朝見禮) – greeting the King
  • Johyeonrye (조현례, 朝見禮) – greeting the elders and the Queen

It was not until Heonjong’s era when the actual steps for a concubine’s wedding ceremony were written in detail, through the installation of Lady Kim Gyeongbin as his royal concubine. In Records of Royal Wedding for Lady Gyeongbin or Gyeongbin Garye Deungrok (경빈가례등록, 慶嬪嘉禮謄錄), the steps highlighted were:

  • Napchae (납채, 納采) – sending formal proposal and setting the date
  • Nappye (납폐, 納幣) – sending gifts for the bride
  • Seon Gyomyeong (선교명, 宣敎命) – sending the royal edict installing the bride as royal concubine
  • Johyeon Daejeon (조현대전, 朝見大殿) – greeting the King through an audience after entering the palace
  • Dongroeyeon (동뢰연, 同牢宴) – exchanging bows and drinks

Notice that the steps had the official coronation left out and ritual of chinyeong or greeting the bride omitted. Even for the steps included, there were details which set apart the royal concubine’s wedding and the Queen’s wedding: while greeting the King after her entrance to the palace by herself, the royal concubine would be bowing four times to the King, as the King received her like how he would accept a subject’s greetings. As for the royal concubine’s dongroeyeon, the King would be present, but the place where the royal concubine and him sat already showed their inequality in status; the King would be sitting on the North side facing the South (just like how he sat on the throne in the Throne Hall), as the royal concubine sat on the South, facing to the direction of North while offering her four bows.

There was no coronation ceremony for a selected royal concubine, but she would be given a royal edict or gyomyeong as a token of her being installed as a part of the royal family. Although the document was usually used in the investiture and coronation ceremonies, it was also awarded to selected royal concubines, symbolizing their high status in the royal household. Still, the royal concubine awarded with the highest title Bin at the time of her installation was the only one allowed to carry out dongroeyeon with the King. For the concubine whose designated title was sukui at the time of her marriage to the King, she would have to complete a different ritual by herself called Dokroeyeon (독뢰연, 獨牢宴), which involved the bride bowing by herself facing towards the North, symbolizing the King’s direction.

After completing the wedding ceremony, a royal concubine would still have to pay respects and offer her greetings to the elders of the palace according to their positions, from the most senior to the most junior, who was the Queen. The names of the ritual depended on where it was held: Johyeon Daewangdaebijeon (조현대왕대비전, 朝見大王大妃殿) at the Grand Royal Queen Dowager’s residence; Johyeon Wangdaebijeon (조현왕대비전, 朝見王大妃殿) at the Royal Queen Dowager’s residence; and Johyeon Junggungjeon (조현중궁전, 朝見中宮殿) at the Central Palace where the Queen resided.

Another difference between a Queen and a royal concubines wedding was the approval from the Chinese Dynasties; after a Queen was formally invested in the formal investiture ceremony, Joseon would notify Ming or Qing and later receive a formal approval from the Emperor, but that would not be the case for a concubine. The formality only involved formal greetings to the senior members of the royal household aka the Dowagers to make it official. Thus, it might suffice to say that the imperfect ceremony and the omitted rites were to highlight how different their ranks and their status were in royal marriage realm.

The Minor Royal Wedding Ceremony

The wedding of the King’s children other than the Crown Prince was considered minor royal wedding. The term Gillye (길례, 吉禮) was once used to refer to the minor royal wedding held by the Grand Prince, Prince, Royal Princess, and Princess; but then, the term Garye was later used to refer to royal wedding in general. Even for the Records of Royal Wedding for Princes and Princesses, the term used was Garye Deungrok. Despite the common term used, the steps and rites were slightly lesser than the major royal wedding, with the steps of date setting and coronation ceremony omitted for the consorts of the princes and princesses. Other than that, the main steps were more or less the same with those of the major wedding ceremony: Napchae, Nappye, Chinyeong, and Dongroe; collectively, these steps adapted for the minor royal wedding ceremony was also known as Four Steps or Sarye (사례).

Just like what I said before, the selection process or gantaek was the exclusive step for royal wedding, so it was also included for the minor royal wedding. The earliest record of selection for Princess Consort was from the Veritable Records of King Sejong, but the oldest surviving record of the wedding itself was from Injo’s era. Although the selection process in general was just a formality since there were few candidates who were already identified as the most eligible ones for the spot, the selection for the consorts of the princes and princesses sometimes involved the King and the Queen themselves appearing in person to oversee how the candidates of their future children-in-law would fare during the process.

After the selection was concluded and the future royal son/daughter-in-law was picked, the next step would be for the future Princess Consort to move into a detached palace called the Wife’s Palace or Buingung for this purpose of housing the Prince’s wife. As for the Prince Consort’s wedding to the Princess, there would be two detached palaces chosen to play the parts of the Prince’s palace and the Prince Consort’s home, respectively. The residence picked to be regarded as the Princess’ natal home, known as Wangnyeogung, usually belonged to the relative of the Princess’ mother, while the Prince Consort’s temporary house was chosen among the royal relative’s residence. This was also another way to lessen the burden on the Prince Consort’s family when they had to carry out the ritual steps later.

The Prince Consort would have to complete a rite of passage called the coming-of-age or capping ceremony, Gwallye (관례, 冠禮) after he passed the final stage of the selection. Unlike the Princes who completed their capping ceremony before the selection for their consorts kicked off, the Prince Consort’s capping ceremony or Buma Gwallye (부마관례) was a necessary ritual right after the selection but before the actual steps for the wedding ceremony started. The ceremony symbolized a person’s transition into adulthood by putting his hair into a topknot and wearing a proper headgear for an adult.

There was another step unique to the minor wedding ceremony called Myeongboknaechul (명복내출, 命服內出). Held right before the wedding procession and after the letter and gift sending steps, it was a ritual where the royal palace would be bestowing formal robes to the latest member of the royal family and the new son/daughter-in-law. Unlike the Queen and the Crown Princess who had a special coronation ceremony, the Princess Consort and the Prince Consort would only receive their rank and title through a decree; hence, bestowing the robes through a special ceremony was a way to display their status as a royal relative and set them apart from the ordinary nobles.

On the day of the wedding itself, the Prince’s procession would be heading towards the Wife’s Palace to fetch his bride, the Princess Consort. The rituals would be completed there before the Princess Consort made her journey to enter the royal palace together with the Prince. Their first night ritual would also be held in the palace. As for the Prince Consort, he would have to enter the palace to perform a series of bows towards the direction of the king’s Throne Hall before returning to the temporary home to change into his wedding robe and receive formal instructions from his father (or most senior member of his family acting as the person presiding the wedding on the groom’s side, juhon). Only after that, he would depart to the Princess’ temporary palace to fetch the bride and bring her back to his temporary home to carry out dongroe.

After the four steps of wedding were completed, the newlyweds would be greeting their in-laws in a series of greetings sessions. The Princess Consort would be going to the Throne Hall first to greet her royal father-in-law the King, offering him the gifts of chestnut jujube after performing bows in front of him. Then, she would be going to the Queen’s residence to offer her greetings to her royal mother-in-law. The gift of dried beef meat would be given to the Queen. These two sessions were collectively referred to as Buin Johyeon (부인 조현, 夫人朝見). As for the Princess, she would be paying her respects to her parents-in-law and offering them gifts in the ritual of Hyeongugo (현구고, 見舅姑).

Three days after the wedding, the Princess would then be escorted to the shrine of her in-law’s family, with the intention of introducing her to the ancestors and also reporting her addition to the family. This ritual of Hyeonsadang (현사당, 婦見祠堂), however, was not there for the Princess Consort, who married into the royal family and became one of the daughters-in-law. There was no ritual of introducing her to the Royal Ancestral Shrine or Jongmyo, because her status was not someone who would be eventually be enshrined there. Hence, the ritual was excluded for her.

Next, it would be the grooms’ turn to greet their in-laws four days after the wedding. The Prince would be visiting his parents-in-law in the ritual of Hyeonbuin Jibumo (현부인 지부모, 見夫人之父母). The Prince’s Consort would be entering the palace in his official attire, performing a series of bows in front of the palaces of residence before meeting the owner of the residence through the ritual Seojohyeon (서조현, 壻朝見).

These King’s children, who were not in the line of succession, would have to live outside the palace once they became of age and/or completed their wedding ceremony, and they would soon live among the noblemen despite their status as royalties. The procession of the Prince and Princess leaving the royal palace to live in their private residences was called Chulhap (출합, 出閤). Although it was done after the royal wedding ceremony was completed, sometimes it took years between the wedding and them leaving the royal palace, because of reasons like the construction of the residence and the young age of the Prince or the Princess.

That’s a wrap for the wedding customs practiced by Joseon’s royal family! The steps are aplenty, and the details are much more complicated, so I have tried my best to summarize whatever information I have gathered about the royal nuptials carried out in Joseon. Hopefully it has been an enjoyable read for you, and please wait for part 4 to be out…sometime later.

Sources | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 |

[Read Part 1: History of Marriage Practice in Ancient Korea]
[Read Part 2: Wedding Ceremony in Joseon Dynasty, Influenced by Confucianism]

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