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Korea’s lantern festival becomes UNESCO intangible cultural heritage

Source: The Korea Times

Yeondeunghoe, the Lotus Lantern Festival, held every year to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday, was listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, Wednesday, becoming Korea’s 21st intangible cultural heritage recognized by UNESCO.

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA), the lantern festival was included on the list during the 15th session of the Intergovernmental Committee of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage, the same day. The event was held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris as well as online due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is with great pleasure that the evaluation body highly commends Yeondeunghoe for its function in encouraging dialogue among communities and cultures, which lead sto enhancing the visibility of intangible cultural heritages in general,” Chung Jae-suk, an administrator of the CHA, said.

“I do anticipate that the spirit of dialogue of Yeondeunghoe will be widely shared, offering inspiration in addressing conflicts between countries.”

The Lotus Lantern Festival is held around Buddha’s birthday, which falls on the eighth day of the fourth month on the lunar calendar. The festival, which consists of a Buddhist ceremony, a lantern procession and memorial service, symbolizes lighting up the world to make it an abundant and fair place for everyone.

The history of Yeondeunghoe dates back some 1,200 years, first appearing in the “Samguk Sagi” (History of the Three Kingdoms). In the book, under the reign of the 668-935 Unified Silla Kingdom, King Gyeongmun and Queen Jinseong visited the Hwangnyong Temple to observe lanterns on the occasion of the first full moon of the year in 866 and 890, respectively.

The tradition of lantern lighting continued in the 918―1392 Goryeo Kingdom, when Buddhism flourished. Directions for hosting Yeondeunghoe were included in “Hunyosipjo” (The 10 Injunctions) compiled by Goryeo’s first King Taejo for his successors. In the early Goryeo era, the lantern festival was held to observe the full moon of the first or second month in the lunar calendar and was later moved to the fourth day of the fourth month, to commemorate Buddha’s birthday.

The Lotus Lantern Festivals of Silla and Goryeo were primarily a Buddhist event, but the event became a folk event during the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom. As the authorities discontinued the official Buddhist lantern festival, the tradition continued as Gwandeung-nori, or the lantern celebration, in the Joseon era.

In the modern day parade, participants hold lanterns symbolizing Buddha’s wisdom. The shape and size of the lanterns varies, with each design symbolizing different cultural meanings ― a turtle shaped lantern symbolizes longevity, while fruit represents prosperity and fecundity.

Yeondeunghoe was designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage no. 122 in 2012 and the Yeondeunghoe Safeguarding Association is in charge of transmitting and passing down the tradition.

“Yeondeunghoe began as a Buddhist event, but it evolved into a spring festival anyone can participate in. People regardless of faith, age and gender take part in the Lantern Lighting Festival now and such traits correspond to the UNESCO’s guidelines for the Intangible Cultural Heritage list emphasizing community involvement,” an official of the CHA said.

This year’s Yeondeunghoe was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Next year’s event is scheduled from April to May, with the main lantern parade on May 15.

The CHA first nominated Yeondeunghoe for the UNESCO list in 2018 and amended it in 2019. It received a recommendation for inclusion on the list from the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in November.

Other Korean intangible cultural heritages recognized by UNESCO include ssireum (traditional Korean wrestling), Jeju haenyeo (women divers), nongak (community band music), kimjang (the making and sharing of kimchi) and the folk song Arirang as well as Jongmyojerye (royal ancestral rituals in the Jongmyo shrine and its music) and pansori (musical storytelling).

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