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Most people, including the Koreans and Chinese themselves, refer to the traditional calendar as "the lunar calendar" because each month runs from the new moon to the day before the next new moon. Although it's short and convenient to call the calendar simply "lunar," it's not really accurate.

The calendar also incorporates seasonal divisions which run simultaneously with the lunar months. They are based not on the phases of the moon but on the earth's position along its orbit around the sun.

These divisions are called the Twenty-Four Solar Terms, or 'Ishipsa Cholgi' in Korean, and each one lasts about 15 days, representing the passage of the earth through 15 degrees of the 360 degrees it takes to make its one-year trip all the way around.

If the Korean calendar were simply a lunar one with 12 months in a year, like the Muslim calendar, the months would gradually drift backwards through the seasons. It would be like having January one year in winter, a few years later in the fall, and a few years after that in summer, and so on.

This may be okay in the Arabian desert, but in an agricultural society like Korea, such a retrogression of the months would not be acceptable at all. The calendar is adjusted to keep it in time with the seasons by inserting a "leap" month about seven times every nineteen years. Koreans call these intercalary months 'yundal.'

In principle, each month should contain the starting date of two Solar Terms. If a month contains only one, an intercalary month is added immediately afterwards unless it violates 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 eleventh. A leap month must never be inserted after the eleventh, twelfth, or first months.

The Solar Terms are used not only to keep the calendar in step with the seasons but also to calculate when certain holidays and other special days fall and when certain rites are to be carried out. Fortune-tellers use them in doing horoscopes, and farmers refer to them as agricultural guidelines for planting, transplanting, harvesting, and other farming activities.

Here is a list of the Solar Terms, giving their Korean names, English names, and the Gregorian dates on which they begin this year, based on Korean Standard time. These dates may vary by one day from year to year, and they may also be a day off for you if you live in a different time zone.

Although this combination lunar-cum-solar calendar was officially replaced by the Gregorian one in 1895, many calendars sold in Korea indicate the lunar dates and the Solar Terms as well as the Gregorian date.

Besides reckoning the dates of traditional functions by the old calendar, many people still celebrate their birthday by it, too. If you want to know your lunar birthday, you can find out by consulting a perpetual calendar converter, called manseryok, available in all Korean bookstores.

  Ipchun (Spring Begins): February 4
  Usu (Rain Water): February 18
  Kyongchip(Startled Hibernators): March 5
  Chunbun (Vernal Equinox): March 20
  Chongmyong (Clear and Bright): April 5
  Kogu (Grain Rain): April 20
  Ipha (Summer Begins): May 5
  Soman (Filling Out): May 21
  Mangjong (Grain in the Ear): June 5
  Haji (Midsummer): June 21
  Soso (Lesser Heat): July 7
  Taeso (Great Heat): July 23
  Ipchu (Fall Begins): August 7
  Choso (Heat Ceases): August 23
  Paengno (White Dew): September 7
  Chubun (Autumnal Equinox): September 23
  Hallo (Cold Dew): October 8
  Sanggang (Frost Descends): October 23
  Iptong (Winter Begins): November 7
  Sosol (Lesser Snow): November 22
  Taesol (Great Snow): December 7
  Tongji (Midwinter): December 22
  Sohan (Lesser Cold): January 5, 2002
  Taehan (Great Cold): January 20, 2002
(In courtesy of the Korea Herald)