China’s 24 Solar Terms’ long road to UNESCO

By Li Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/8 19:33:39

Photo: IC

Photo: IC





Editor's Note

On November 30,  China's 24 Solar Terms were officially included on  the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during the 11th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. China currently has 39 different items on UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage lists. Since 2008, 31 items have been included on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.



Over the past eight years, China's Ministry of Culture has successfully applied for 31 items from the country's  rich intangible cultural heritage  to be included on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. However, the induction of China's 24 Solar Terms was probably the biggest challenge the ministry had ever faced.

In 2013, the Ministry of Culture and many other experts faced a difficult decision: choosing which of the country's intangible cultural heritages would make the best applicant to UNESCO.

From a list of 14 possible candidates, they finally settled on the 24 Solar Terms.

"The 24 Solar Terms are special because they are used by nearly every ethnic group in China," Ma Shengde, an official with the Ministry of Culture's Intangible Cultural Heritage Department, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

A tough road

The 24 Solar Terms involve the knowledge and practices developed in China through the observation of the sun's annual motion through the sky.

Ancient Chinese divided the Sun's movement through the sky into 24 segments, with each segment equaling one roughly two-week-long "solar term."

The names of all the solar terms were chosen based on changes in temperature, weather, precipitation and other natural phenomenon that occurred during the year in the region around the Yellow River basin.

They serve as an instruction manual of sorts for farmers, allowing them to know what conditions to expect or what agricultural activities to carry out during certain periods of the year. They are often called China's "fifth great invention" after papermaking, printing, gunpowder and the compass.

Besides its role as an almanac, many of these solar terms have over the centuries become associated with Chinese customs, such as honoring one's ancestors for Qingming (Bright and Clear) in April or eating dumplings for Lidong (The Start of Winter).

With this difficult choice behind them, the ministry committee soon discovered that the challenges had only just begun.

The process of preparing the materials for submission was far more complicated than anyone had expected due to the complex nature of the 24 Solar Terms.

"We had gathered experts from numerous fields, such as astronomy, literature, folk-customs and calendars, to discuss and revise the application over and over again," Luo Wei, executive director of China Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Network, said at a press conference held in Beijing on Tuesday.

Figuring out how to summarize the 24 Solar Terms was not easy as they were deeply tied to Chinese culture and history on many different levels.

"The process of preparing the submission was also a test of whether we truly understood our own culture," Luo said.

Translating the terms into English was also a big challenge. The names of the solar terms are quite literary, condensing depths of meaning into only two Chinese characters. Translating these properly also required a lot of discussion among experts from different fields.

For example the solar term Qingming, or Bright and Clear, is deeply tied to China's tradition of paying respects to one's ancestors and visiting the family tomb. For this reason, in English the Qingming Festival is often known as the Tomb-Sweeping Festival.

However, Bamo Qubumo, deputy director of the China Folklore Society, said that the team did not feel that translating Qingming as "Tomb-Sweeping" would be appropriate for the 24 Solar Terms.

"Tomb-sweeping is just one of the many customs that people carry out on Qingming," she told media after the press conference. In her opinion, "tomb-sweeping" doesn't help to explain other customs and meteorological changes.

Staking a claim

An increasing number of countries around the world are becoming very active when it comes to applying for UNESCO's lists. This has, on occasion, led to certain disputes between countries. For instance, South Korea applied for Dano, the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional Korean lunar calendar, to be recognized by UNESCO a few years ago. However, since this holiday originated in China - where it is known as Duanwu, or Dragon Boat Festival in English - and is still a major holiday today, this triggered numerous protests from Chinese. Worry that China's traditional culture would be seen as belonging to other countries, put pressure on organizations in China to work more quickly on attaining UNESCO recognition.

The Dragon Boat Festival is a traditional Chinese festival that originated during the Warring States Period (475BC-221BC) and was recognized by UNESCO in 2009. During the festival, it's tradition to eat Zongzi, pyramid-shaped snacks made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves, and hold dragon boat races.

Concerning the controversy with South Korea, Bamo Qubumo hopes people will leave this "comparing mindset" behind to be more "open-minded."

"We should think about the mobility of culture. Our culture had spread to other countries and was localized. Therefore this holiday has developed characteristics unique to those other countries," she said.

Bamo Qubumo also pointed out that South Korea has kept alive more of the original customs related to Duanwu, whereas many Chinese nowadays only think of it as the "Zongzi eating festival."

She emphasized that this is something Chinese should reflect on.

"It's called the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which means this heritage belongs to humankind. It's important to be more inclusive," she told the Global Times.


Newspaper headline: The race for recognition


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