Seonnongje (Kor. 선농제, Chin. 先農祭, agricultural rite) was a rite paying homage to the two agricultural gods who were derived from ancient Chinese mythology, Shennong (Kor. 신농, Chin. 神農) and Houji (Kor. 후직, Chin. 后稷). The ritual was aimed at ensuring a good farming year and was conducted on an official governmental level. Seonnongje also was referred to as gyeongjeongnye (Kor. 경적례, Chin. 耕籍禮, lit. ceremony of cultivating the royal field) or jeokjeonnye (Kor. 적전례, Chin. 籍田禮, lit. ceremony at the royal field) because after the worship ritual, the king performed another ritual at the royal house’s private farmland called jeokjeon (Kor. 적전, Chin. 籍田). This second ritual, referred to as ochurye (Kor. 오추례, Chin. 五推禮), was meant to set an example for the agrarian nation with the king personally attending to the rice paddies.
Agricultural rites date far back in the history of Korea or China, as they were a policy instrument for Confucian monarchs to encourage farming among their people. Although there is no record indicating exactly at what point of the year the agricultural rite was held during the Three Kingdoms period (BCE 1st century - CE 668), it is known that during the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), it was observed on an auspicious Pig Day in the month of Maengchun (Kor. 맹춘, Chin. 孟春, the first lunar month). During the Joseon period (1392-1910), however, the timing of seonnongje was moved to an auspicious Pig Day after Gyeongchip (Kor. 경칩, Chin, 驚蟄, Day of Awakening from Hibernation), as the first lunar month was too cold and early for sowing.
The word seonnong (Kor. 선농, Chin. 先農) literally means “early farming”. This term implies that there was a distinction between early, mid-season and late farming. In the “Samguk Sagi” (Kor. 삼국사기, Chin. 三國史記, History of the Three Kingdoms, 1145), one reads that in Silla (57-935), the early farming period began on a Pig Day after Ipchun (Kor. 입춘, Chin. 立春, Beginning of Spring); the mid-season farming period, on a Pig Day after Ipha (Kor. 입하, Chin. 立夏, Beginning of Summer); and the late farming period, on Pig Day after Ipchu (Kor. 입추, Chin. 立秋, Beginning of Fall). The records also state that during the Goryeo dynasty, in the second year of King Munjong’s reign (1048), the mid-season farming period began in the fifth month, while in the 12th year of King Jeongjong’s reign (1046), the rite for the late farming period was held in the fourth month. These examples suggest that during this period rituals dedicated to the agricultural gods Shennong and Houji were held three times, and the words “mid-season” and “late” farming seasons were used to refer to the agricultural terms following those ceremonies. The distinction was maintained until the early Joseon dynasty. Starting from the 14th year of Taejong’s reign (1414), the mid-season and late farming rites were no longer observed and only seonnongje remained.
Agriculture accounted for most of the production activities in the traditional society and the economic stability of farming households meant the stability of the dynastic rule. For this reason, national rites were extensively linked to farming. Starting from the Goryeo dynasty during which monarchic rule based on Confucianism became the state ideology, ritual for the royal ancestors and the agricultural rite seonnongje became the two main institutional tools to promote economic stability and encourage the practice of agriculture among commoners. Seonnongje is particularly significant because the value of farming was celebrated during this rite, not just through symbolic means, but also by the king personally tilling the soil.