The rulers of Joseon sought to rule by virtue. As part of ruling by virtue, the royal court held banquets called jin’yeon or jinchan. These events included wine, food, and music to celebrate joyous occasions with the people. Occasions worth celebrating with royal banquets included royal family members’ birthdays—sasun (40th birthday), mang’o (41st birthday), osun (50th birthday), mang’yuk (51st birthday), and hoegap (60th birthday)—as well as special occasions such as the offering of a eulogistic posthumous title to the king, entry to the giroso (chamber of elders), installation of a crown prince, wedding ceremonies, and receptions of foreign envoys. Costing upwards of 980,000 nyang (hundreds of thousands of US dollars in today’s money), the banquets were grandiose affairs showing the authority of the ruler while maintaining a sense of dignity.
Uigwe (royal protocol documents) describes the preparation and procedures of royal banquets in such great detail that they are highly valuable historical resources, enabling us to perfectly recreate banquets held centuries ago.
To hold a royal banquet, a dogam is set up several months prior as a temporary authority in charge of organizing the event. The dogam is responsible for purchasing necessary items and equipment and organizing the proceedings of the banquet rituals as well as selecting and preparing the dances, songs, and menu. Several banquets are held over the course of three to five days in typical celebrations, and the host, guests, and menus change depending on the nature of the banquet. The table plan is laid out in a document called chan’an (meal plan). The chan’an details everything from the tableware to the names of the table setting and even decorative flowers.
A three-day banquet began with the oijinchan (outer banquet) on the first day. Mostly for males, in attendance were the crown prince, literary and military officials, and royal relatives. At this all-day event, which started at six in the morning, the king was presented with wine nine times, and music and dance performances by mudong (boy dancers) were held between each service. On the second day was a daytime banquet for women called the naejinchan (inner banquet). The king and queen, crown prince and crown princess, and female royal relatives attended and were entertained by yeoryeong (female entertainers). In the evening of the second day was a yajinchan (night banquet) for the crown prince and princess together with other officials. The third day was for daytime and nighttime banquets for all the remaining participants.
The food presented at the banquets was of the highest caliber and took up about 80 percent of the budget. Presentation was also of the utmost importance with table settings composed of a variety of dishes, some of which were highly elaborate with food piled high up forming decorative towers. Table settings with rice cakes or desserts, meat, and other dishes to wine were called go’imsang or gobaesang (highly stacked table). These elaborate table-setting formats gained in popularity with noble families and were passed down to the present. Even today, go’imsang with high stacks of food are prepared for 60th birthday, 70th birthday, and 80th birthday parties to show the household’s prosperity and filial piety of the descendants.
Today, reenactments of nineteenth century royal banquets take place in Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul. These reenactments continue to pique our interest because such banquets and the context of the royal culture are not completely removed from our lives. The royal banquets area great opportunities to further increase public interest in and understanding of our shared cultural heritage.
Reenactment of a Joseon dynasty royal banquet © Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine