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The ‘Shingu-Gan’ Custom: A Unique Jeju Island Tradition
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승인 2024.03.21  16:02:23
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On Jeju Island, there is a unique seasonal custom not seen in mainland Korea, known as ‘Shingu-Gan (신구간, 新舊間).’ This tradition occurs between January 25 and 26 and February 1 and 2, according to the Gregorian calendar. It follows ‘Daehan,’ one of the 24 solar terms in East Asian lunisolar calendars, which typically signifies the coldest period of the year, and precedes ‘Ipchun,’ which marks the beginning of spring. During this time, it is customary to engage in activities like moving, home repairs, or lavatory renovations.

In Jeju’s folk culture, ‘Shingu-Gan’ is believed to be the time when the tenure of deities, who came down at the command of the Jade Emperor, ends. This period marks the transition between the old deities (舊官) and the new deities (新官). With the old deities ascended to heaven and the new yet to descend, it is thought that activities normally avoided for fear of offending the spirits can be carried out without consequences. This belief is based on the notion that during this deity-free period, actions typically restricted are permissible.

The origin of the ‘Shingu-Gan’ custom in Jeju Island is somewhat elusive. There are no records of this custom in the seasonal customs books published after the late Joseon Dynasty. Additionally, it is not mentioned in the local records written by the county magistrates (목사, 牧使) who were stationed in Jeju during the Joseon Dynasty, nor by scholars exiled to the island. Even the documents and records about Jeju left by Japanese scholars during the colonial period do not mention ‘Shingu-Gan.’

The first known record related to ‘Shingu-Gan’ dates back to an article in the ‘Jeju Shinbo’ newspaper on January 21, 1953. The report states, “Ahead of Shingu-Gan, the period when people traditionally move houses, some landlords are demanding exorbitant rents from refugees living in rented rooms.” However, this does not necessarily imply that the custom of ‘Shingu-Gan’ originated only after Korea’s liberation.

Folklorists generally trace the origins of the ‘Shingu-Gan’ custom to the concept of ‘Se-Gwan Gyo-Seung (세관교승, 歲官交承)’ from the book ‘Cheon Gi Dai Yo (천기대요, 天機大要),’ published in 1636 by Sung Ye-Hun. This term refers to the transition of duties between the old and new deities, a process believed to occur between five days after ‘Daehan’ and two days before ‘Ipchun.’

This implies that ‘Shingu-Gan’ represents a period for wrapping up the old season and preparing for the new one. It is suggested that although the books describing this concept were widely read throughout the country, the absence of the ‘Shingu-Gan’ concept in mainland Korea, with it being unique to Jeju Island, may be attributed to climatic factors.

In mainland Korea, the period corresponding to ‘Shingu-Gan’ is typically the coldest time of the year, making it impractical to consider it as a time for wrapping up the old season and preparing for the new. During this period, activities like moving or home repairs are hardly conceivable due to the extreme cold. Even as ‘Ipchun’ arrives, marking the onset of spring, the weather often remains below freezing, making it unsuitable for starting a new season.

From a meteorological perspective, spring is generally defined as the time when the average daily temperature consistently exceeds 5°C. In Korea, Jeju Island is unique in that it often achieves this temperature around ‘Ipchun.’ In other words, Jeju Island is the only place in the country where ‘Ipchun’ literally heralds the arrival of the new season. Consequently, Jeju Island is possibly the only region in Korea that can literally interpret ‘Se-Gwan Gyo-Seung’ (the transition of deities) as a period for concluding the old season and preparing for the new one.

‘Shingu-Gan’ in Jeju Island has traditionally been the only idle period in the agricultural calendar. Due to Jeju’s climate with heavy rainfall, yet prone to droughts and typhoons, locals had to dedicate themselves entirely to agriculture during the growing season. Thus, non-agricultural tasks such as house repairs and moving were typically reserved for the idle period of ‘Shingu-Gan.’ As ‘Ipchun’ arrives, marking the beginning of the farming season, ‘Shingu-Gan’ served as the ideal time for domestic tasks. In an agricultural society where labor was primarily devoted to farming, it was logical to use the idle period of ‘Shingu-Gan’ for house repairs and moving.

However, with industrialization, ‘Shingu-Gan’ gradually became limited to being just a moving season. Today, advancements in medicine and agricultural technology have freed people from diseases and the constraints of traditional farming seasons. Consequently, in our industrial society, it is worth reconsidering whether we should continue to adhere to the agricultural custom of ‘Shingu-Gan’ as it was traditionally practiced.

Seasons, whether in the past or present, continue to cycle. Therefore, even in modern society, there should be a period for wrapping up the old season and preparing for the new one to start anew energetically. Thus, transforming ‘Shingu-Gan’ into a period of freedom where one can do things that were otherwise postponed for various reasons and turning it into a unique festival period exclusive to Jeju might be a compelling idea. This approach could redefine ‘Shingu-Gan’ as a time to celebrate new beginnings and cultural heritage in a contemporary context.

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