Saturday, February 07, 2015

Leap Month is Bad for Business

Dear Korean,

I recently read an article that stated the S. Korean economy only expanded 0.4 percent in 4th quarter 2014. This was the slowest growth in more than two years. The article attributed this slow down to leap month and Korean superstition. What exactly is leap month? And what are the Korean superstitions surrounding it?

Kirston

Traditionally, Korea has used a luni-solar calendar. In a lunar calendar, one moon cycle equals a month. Because each moon cycle is between 29 and 30 days, one lunar year is 354 days rather than 365 days in a solar calendar. Islamic calendar, for example, uses what might be considered a "pure" lunar calendar--that is, there is no adjustment made with the lunar calendar to make it fit with the seasons. Thus, in the Islamic calendar, over time, each month does not strictly correspond with the seasons.   

(source)
Not so with Korea's traditional calendar, which is luni-solar. Traditional Korean calendar also uses the moon cycle to measure a month--but it also makes adjustments such that the calendar does not drift away from the seasons. Compared to the solar calendar, lunar calendar is short by 11 days every year. To make up for the difference, a "leap month" (called 윤달 in Korea) is inserted every so often. (There are seven leap months in every 19 years.) That is to say: in traditional Korean calendar, a year with a leap month has 13 months, not 12 months.

Because the 13th month is considered an extra, superstitions developed around it. Koreans traditionally believed that good and evil spirits were present all around the world, helping or hampering the people's affairs. In a leap month, however, Koreans believed that the spirits could not affect the real world--because it is an extra month that the spirits were not aware of. And the presence of spirits was a big deal when it comes to the big events of the family, like weddings and funerals. The superstition goes that in a leap month, it is best not to get married, because there are no good spirits in the world to look after the newlywed. On the other hand, leap year is a good time to have either a funeral, or a moving of a tomb, because the evil spirits were not around to harm the dead as s/he was passing to the netherworld.

(One might ask: couldn't it be the other way around also? Wouldn't it be good to marry in a leap month because there are no evil spirits, and bad to have a funeral because there are no good spirits? If you are thinking this, you are thinking too hard. There is a reason why this is called a superstition.)

Did the leap year superstition hurt Korea's economy in Q4 2014? Maybe a little. In 2014, the leap month fell in September in the solar calendar--a prime wedding month. There is enough data to indicate that not-insignificant number of people consciously avoided getting married in September, such that all the related industries--wedding halls, jewelry, honeymoon travel, etc.-- suffered from reduced demand.

But make no mistake: it is not as if the wedding industry is one of the major drivers of Korean economy. The leap month superstition may have played a role, but not a big one in the context of the overall economy. Korea is in fact suffering from a long-term decline of domestic consumer demand--which is a much more serious problem that deserves more attention than the silly idea that superstition caused the slowdown in economic growth.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

2 comments:

  1. Wow, the Korean calendar sound remarkably similar to the Hebrew calendar (lunisolar, 7 leap months in a 19 year period). No particular significance, just found it interesting that two very distinct cultures happened to develop very similar calendars. As far as I know there are very real, astrophysical reasons for the 19 year period, so it is not exactly a coincidence, but still, fascinating.

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  2. Jewish person here. Reading this was pretty interesting, since it sounds almost the same as our calendar, since we also don't have a true lunar calendar like the Muslims in order to keep our holidays around the same seasons.

    I think one thing we do that might keep a similar superstition from developing for us is that we don't insert the month at the end. Instead, we add it to the sixth month, Adar. Adar has a feeling of happiness, which may help it. I am not sure how Korea determines which month is the leap month, or if it's set like ours. Also, and I think this might be the big one, is that we have the holidays that would normally occur in normal Adar to "Adar Bet" (as in Adar II). Maybe this balances out the second-class citizen status a bit. I'm not sure, but I don't think we have the same aversion TK seems to have indicated is the case in Korea.

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