[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Figuring out the Korean calendar

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Figuring out the Korean calendar

From time to time in newspaper articles here in Korea I see references to "the lunar calendar" that are incorrect or misleading. Our own newspaper carried just such a reference earlier this month on malbok, the last of the dog days of summer, which also supposedly marks the end of the dog-eating season. At least that's what the headline said. In actuality dog-meat connoisseurs generally chow down year round at restaurants that advertise their specialty as sacheoltang, meaning "all-season soup."

The problem I wish to point out, however, is not when people eat or do not eat dog stew, but that the article was wrong in saying that the dog days, called sambok in Korean, are calculated by the lunar calendar. In fact, there are quite a number of traditional red-letter days commonly mentioned in the papers as belonging to the lunar calendar that have absolutely nothing to do with the phases of the moon.

The Korean calendar, which is the same as the Chinese calendar, is a highly sophisticated, complicated system that combines five different cycles. Two of these are the astronomical cycles of the phases of the moon and the sun's apparent annual path around the ecliptic.

The other three cycles simply repeat over and over again without any relationship to astronomical events or the seasons. They are the seven-day cycle of the days of the week; the 10-day cycle of cheongan, or "heavenly stems"; and the 12-day cycle of jiji, or "earthly branches."

Each month runs from the day of the new moon to the day before the next new moon. There can be 12 or 13 months in a year. In addition to the months, the calendar also divides the sun's yearly path into what are called the 24 solar terms, or isipsa jeolgi in Korean.

Each solar term lasts about 15 days and corresponds to the passage of the earth through 15 degrees of the 360 degrees it takes to make its one-year trip all the way around.

In order to keep the months from gradually slipping backwards, causing the calendar to get out of step with the seasons as happens with a true lunar calendar such as the Muslim one, the calendar is adjusted by inserting a leap month about seven times over a period of 19 years. (That's how long it takes for the lunar cycle and the solar terms to match up again.) Koreans call these intercalary months yundal.

In principle, each lunar month should contain the starting date of two solar terms. If a month contains only one, an intercalary month is added immediately afterward unless this would violate one of the following hard-and-fast rules. The vernal equinox must fall in the second month, the summer solstice in the fifth, the autumnal equinox in the eighth, and the winter solstice in the 11th. An intercalary month must never be inserted after the 11th, 12th or first months.

What does all this have to do with the dog days? The dates of the sambok are reckoned not by the moon but by a combination of solar terms and heavenly stems. It helps here to know that "sambok" literally means "three submissions" and the "bok" character depicts a dog next to a man. One of the heavenly stems, called gyeong, which is associated with metal, is used to calculate when the sambok falls, because metal becomes malleable (that is, submissive) when exposed to fire, which is associated with summer.

Chobok, the first dog day, and jungbok, the middle dog day, are always the third and fourth gyeong days after the summer solstice, and malbok, the last dog day, is the first gyeong day after the solar term that marks the beginning of fall (Aug. 8 this year).

By the way, don't get your hopes up for the return of cool weather yet. Although malbok is supposed to be the end of the worst of the summer heat, it actually continues until sometime during the following solar term, called heat ceases, which runs from Aug. 23 to Sept. 7.

So what is the poor writer or copy editor supposed to do to avoid misleading readers with incorrect references to "the lunar calendar"? Unless we're absolutely certain we're dealing with a lunar date, such as Lunar New Year's or Chuseok, it's probably best to go with a neutral term like "Korean calendar" or "traditional calendar."

That's what I'll be doing in this column.


The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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