Moon to Moon

by Woohyoung Tony Lee


[Sound of radio waves within earth atmosphere, which sounds strangely natural]

At the first sound of dry, rumbling thunder, people who live among the mountains of the Quiche Basin know that the rains will come in three months’ time. [1] [distant thunder] The work continues.

When you take the time between one winter solstice to next winter solstice, and divide it twenty- four ways, you get the Ershísì jiéqì (二十四节气).[2]  The first month of this calendar, Lichun (立春), marks the Sun returning to the northern hemisphere of the earth to begin a new solar year. You can tell Lichun has arrived when you feel the sunlight becoming brighter, and firmer. [frogs ribbiting] And then when the frogs start ribbiting, and worms start moving in the dirt beneath our feet, we know that it is beginning of summer, Lixia (立夏). [cicadas] And when leaves are at their most colorful, we know that the beginning of the end of fall, Shuangjiang(霜降), has arrived. [fall wind whoosh]

This might sound like a strange way to tell time, but telling time is a strange thing to begin with. Right now, it’s 12:09… that’s just the four digits I’m seeing on my cell phone. Try to imagine orienting yourself purely by numbers. Second by second. There are… thirty-one million, five-hundred thirty-six thousand seconds in a year. Multiply that by thirteen point eighty-two billion years or so it has been… [Sound of Star KIC7671081B] So, we’re at four-hundred thirty-five, followed by fifteen zeros. Plus, hundred and twenty seconds since I started talking.

No, I think it’s much easier to use the system we have. By things that we see, things that happen, and things we experience.

One of the few things I remember while growing up in Korea is how much I hated this one holiday. Boreum(보름), the first full moon of the lunar year. It was so boring, not at all like Christmas, with presents, cakes, and snowball fights. Boreum was about getting the family together and eating things healthy, but unpleasant, tasteless foods. Cooked barley, beans, sorghum, and fermented leaves and grass. I think the idea was to be healthy and strong for the next three hundred and fifty-five days, but all it did was make me dread having to eat this this again in a year. So much so that my memory of how much I hated Boreum is a tangible temporal memory that defines the length of those Lunar years. [3]

We order our lives around these different temporal cycles. But it is strange how disjointed they can be. For example, farmers and fishers have always counted the month by the moon. Since it’s easier to track the passing of the days because the moon looks different every day. The moon takes approximately twenty-nine and half days [4] to go from full moon to full moon. But it’s inconvenient to have the month end on a half day, so we switch between twenty-nine-day month to thirty-day month. Twelve months of that, and we have a year. But that’s three hundred fifty- four days, and the earth takes three hundred sixty-five and a quarter days [5] to go around the sun. [6]

That means that the days will shift further and further out and we’ll soon have the Chunjie (春节) in the middle of Shuangjiang. Ok, so we add a leap month to every three years or so, bringing the average of lunar years to match the movement of the sun. [7]  This system that bridges the sun and the moon is called Shixianli (時憲曆).

There are temporalities in everything we see and experience. And each possess temporalities in their own ways – they manifest it, they measure it, and they mark it. They exist together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in discord. We try to put them in order to make sense of our world and ourselves. And through this reckoning of time, we exchange these temporalities, and sometimes we embody them. And try as we might, these temporalities cannot be unified, standardized. Rather, we can only move between them. Be part of one, then another, then another, and live among this cacophony. And from time to time, we do things that tune our temporalities together, like getting together with family on New Year’s Day and watching the same things they play on TV, year after year. [sound clips from CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, Die Hard, and Irony of Fate] [8]

For a family in Quiche Basin, women count their year in two-hundred sixty days, the nine lunar months it takes to carry a child. Their daily work starts before the sun rises and continues well into the night – as long as the moon is visible, day and night. As for men, they rise with the sun, and till the fields until the sun retires. And their year is three hundred sixty-five days long- the time it takes to sow, harvest, and sow again.[9]

[three seconds of silence]

[rain starts, slowly]

[1] Earl, “The Metaphor of the Day in Quiche, Guatemala”, 79. A folk tale of the region has it that the mountain rain spirits work during this time to carry the water from the ground to the clouds. Thunders usually begin in late February; rain season starts in late April to early May. With the coming of this heavy rain, the new “young year” (alaj junab) begins.

[2] Lee, “정기”, Up to and including Datongli calendar of Ming, the 24 seasons were divided evenly according to the number of days: 15.22 days per month. Starting with Shixianli, seasons were decided according to the degree of the sun’s location. While more accurate in predicting celestial events and seasons, it makes calculating intercalary months extremely complicated. But the fact that the sun does not move (relative to earth) in equal speed throughout its orbit was known since Zhang Zishan of Northern Qi made that observation.

[3] I may have been experiencing a form of Lebenswelt, by understanding the duration of lunar year in visceral experiences of bad taste and boring group activities, among others. In this way, understanding of duration, or temporality, is formed through lived experiences in a social, collectives fashion – especially repeating, patterned interaction with our environments. See Iwaniszewski, “The Social Life of Celestial Bodies: “The Sky in Cultural Perspective”, 15.

[4] 29.53059 days, to be exact.

[5] 365.2422 mean days.

[6] Elman, “The Late Ming Calendar Crisis and Gregorian System”, 75. This incongruency between Lunar cycle and Solar cycle was the cause of these multiple complex calendarial systems.

[7] 235 lunations almost exactly equals 19 solar years.

[8] CCTV has claimed to that one billion people have watched the 2016 Spring Festival Gala show. Russians watch Irony of Fate (Ирония судьбы) year after year on New Year’s, as Americans do with Die Hard on Christmas. see Tatlow, “China Injects a Heavy Dose of Ideology”. Flintoff, “In Russia, A Soviet-Era Movie to Ring in The New Year”.

[9] Iwaniszewsku, 16.  Agrarian communities in mountainous Quiche Department area of modern- day Guatemala historically had a clear division of labor between genders. Adult women work continuously all day: rearing children, producing textiles, and maintaining household. Men work almost exclusively in the fields, while the sun is out.


Earl, D. M. 1986. The Metaphor of the Day in Quiche: Notes of the Nature of Everyday Life. In G.H. Gosen (ed.), Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community; Essays in Mesoamerican Ideas, 155-172, Albany NY, The University of Albany, State University of New York.

Elman, Benjamin A. On Their Own Terms Science in China, 1550-1900. Harvard University Press, 2005.

Flintoff, Corey. “In Russia, A Soviet-Era Movie to Ring In The New Year”, 31, Dec. 2013,

Lee Eunhee. “정기” 조선왕조실록사전 [Encyclopedia of The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty].

The Academic of Korean Studies,

Iwaniszewski, S. 2011, The social life of celestial bodies: The sky in cultural perspective. In Rappenglück, M.A., Rappenglück, B. & Campion, N. (eds), Astronomy and Power: How Worlds are Structured. Proceedings of the SEAC 2010 Meeting, Gilching, Germany, BAR International Series, Oxford (in press).

Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. “China Injects a Heavy Dose of Ideology into New Year’s Eve Gala.” New York Times, 10 Feb. 2016, “ lunar-new-year-gala.html”

Audio clips from NASA’s “Spooky Space ‘Sounds’

Title Image: “Young Boys and Girls in Traditional Customs in the Street of Lunar New Year”, c. 1904, Cornell University Library

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