Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Lunar Calendar: Don't Believe the Hype

Just now I had a pleasant shock when I realized that I was a whole year younger than I had been thinking I was.

In Korea, age is calculated in a rather unconventional way.  A newborn baby is considered to be age 1 on the day of birth, and adds 1 on every New Year's Day afterwards. This means that a baby born on New Year's Eve is counted as being 2 years old before he has even lived 2 whole days! When I first heard about this tradition, I was skeptical. Sure, a little kid or teenager might play along with it for a while, but I couldn't believe a 39-year-old woman from any culture would ever say she was 40 before she absolutely had to. However, upon arriving in this country I quickly found that this system is in fact followed faithfully by Koreans of all ages, even those who had lived overseas for many years. When a Korean person tells you their age, you can generally subtract 1 or 2 years.

At first I rebelled and continued to use my mathematically accurate, non-Korean age. But at some point, unconsciously, I became assimilated and began to think in terms of Korean age. Lately, without thinking about what I'm doing, I've been automatically telling people that I'm 33, to the point that I started believing it myself. But I just realized I'm not 33, I'm still 32, praise the Lord! It's a pleasant surprise, like when you wake up early and realize you still have 30 minutes to sleep.

Actually, because my birthday falls between Solar and Lunar New Year, it may be that, strictly speaking, my Korean age is 34. I've been unable to get a consistent answer on this from my Korean friends - some say you add one on January 1st, others say it happens on Lunar New Year, which is usually sometime in February; if the latter is true, then I'm 34. But thinking of myself as 34 already is so appalling it creates a short-circuit in my brain, so I immediately push the idea far away and think of something else.

Koreans are still seriously trying to make the lunar calendar work. The other day I asked Unni when her birthday was, knowing it was coming up soon and wanting to be ready. She responded "Let me check," picked up a calendar, and appeared to do some mental calculations, counting forward from a certain day. After watching this for a moment, I hesitantly asked, "Don't you know?" She explained that her birtday is a different day every year; it's the 7th day of the 9th month of the lunar calendar, so she has to check to figure out what day it is in the real world.

I have to say I stand with the rest of the world on this one. Scientifically speaking, the concept of a year has always been based on the earth's rotation around the sun, not the moon's rotation around the earth. Even before people knew anything about modern astronomy, they knew that the seasons changed in a regular cycle, from cold to hot and back to cold again, and when they got through one full cycle that was a year. People tried to fit this year into a lunar calendar at first because, before modern scientific instruments, it was a lot easier to tell when the moon was full than when the earth had returned to a certain position relative to the sun. This is why many early civilizations - yes, even western ones - had lunar calendars. But the lunar cycle doesn't fit very well into the solar one. There are 12 lunar cycles plus an additional 11-12 days in one solar year. To prevent the calendar from drifting relative to the seasons, they must use a complicated system of "leap months." Or, in the case of the Islamic calendar, they allow New Year's Day to drift so that it comes back to the same position every 33 years (thanks, Wikipedia!).

Obviously, as science advanced and people began to learn more about what causes the seasons, most cultures switched to the solar calendar, only keeping certain religious holidays according to the old lunar system. I don't know of any other culture in which people still calculate their own birthdays according to the lunar calendar - though I'll have to check with my Chinese friends to see what they do. The fact that Koreans continue to adhere to the lunar calendar to such an extent, as well as their unflattering age-counting system, speaks to both the incredible patience and stubbornness of their culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment