Thursday, March 21, 2019, is Chunbun (춘분, 春分), the halfway point between the winter and summer solstices. It’s the 15th day of the second lunar month, it’s the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, and it marks the vernal equinox that technically fell on March 20 at 21:58 (GMT). Chunbun literally means “spring point of division,” and on this day the lengths of daytime and nighttime are equal. Chunbun also marks the beginning of the fourth of 24 solar terms that span the year.
One of our primary sources that tells us what people did on these traditional holy days is a 1766 agricultural treatise (농업서) called “Revised and Augmented Forestry Economy” (증보산림경제, 增補山林經濟). The 15th volume of this 16-volume 12-book text has a whole section about Chunbun, the vernal equinox.
As the lengths of the day and the night are equal, our ancient ancestors believed that on this day there were exactly equal amounts of positive yang energy to the east (양, 陽) and negative yin energy to the west (음, 陰).
During both Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1876), and even during the pre-modern days of the Early Colonial Period (1876-1910), the Korean royal household would hold a special worship ceremony on the spring equinox to pray to the God of the North, or Hyeonmyeongssi (현명씨, 玄冥氏), who represented the winter.
Around the city of Gyeongju (경주, 慶州) in the southeast, people would visit the tombs of the three ancient king-clans Park (박, 朴), Seok (석, 昔) and Kim (김, 金). Those were the families that founded Silla (57 B.C.-A.D. 935), it is said, and that sired the three main family clans of Gyeongju.
Finally, the weather on the vernal equinox was always particularly important. Like all traditional societies, Joseon was rural and agricultural; taxes were based on agricultural output and land, and the weather was seen as a leading indicator of future economic growth. (There were no other leading indicators or forward looking statistics.) The weather was a predictor for the autumn harvest and of any flood or drought that might lie ahead. The vernal equinox was normally neither hot nor cold, so the farmers could prepare their fields for the year’s harvest, and everyone watched the weather for omens.
According to the 1766 agricultural treatise mentioned above, the occurrence of rain on Chunbun was seen as a portent for a disease-free year. If bluish clouds were seen due north at sunrise, it was a harbinger of a great farming year for barley. An overcast sky was a positive indicator, while a clear day without any clouds in sight was considered to be a bad omen. It predicted poor growth of vegetables, a weakness of livestock, and frequent heat-related illnesses.
The colors of the clouds and the direction of the wind were also important, and they were all assigned meanings. Blue clouds predicted damage from insects. Red clouds, drought. Black, a flood. Yellow, abundant crops. Winds from the east forecast low prices and an abundant harvest of barley. A westerly wind was a sign that barley would be scarce in the year ahead. A southerly wind indicated a lot of rain before the fifth lunar month and dry conditions afterward, while a northerly wind meant that rice would be scarce this year.
Many primary documents from across East Asia are made up of long lists like this. These were formal, royal documents, official documents, written by educated civil servant scholars. A lot of state assets and tax revenue went into official sightings and reading these omens, into producing these official royal statements and documents, and into recording it all for posterity. On the surface, these texts can be a little dry to read today. However, they reveal volumes! They show great care and interest, attesting to what the upper classes of our ancient societies considered to be important. On a broader scale, though, these East Asian primary document lists attest to humanity’s desire for knowledge and understanding of our surroundings. In short, they sure wish they had science. 🙂
All the information above has been gleefully pilfered from the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Culture, as was the photo, though that last broad-sweeping theory about East Asian primary documents is entirely my own.