Here comes the Korean Dano Festival…

Tomorrow (i.e., 18 June 2018) is Dano Festival in South Korea and this is one of the important traditional festivals for Koreans. Let’s talk about the Korean Dano Festival in this blog post.

What is Dano (단오) Festival? 

“Dan” (단) literally means “first” and “O” (오) literally means “five”, so “Dano” (단오) means “first fifth” – this festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar.  It is at the end of the sowing season and in the traditional Korean agricultural society, it was a festival for people to pray for a good harvest, peace and prosperity, and to develop communal spirit by enjoying music, dance and games together.

As Dano is believed to be the day with abundant “yang energy” (i.e., positive energy of the sun), it is believed that amulets made on this day are especially powerful in driving away evil spirits and bad luck.  So, in the traditional Korean society, the Koreans went to the temples to acquire amulets on Dano and hung them above the door or on the kitchen wall.  The Koreans also collected and dried various herbs such as mugwort for this purpose as they believed that mugwort had the magical power to expel evil spirits and bad luck.  For example, they put mugwort against the gates of their houses.  On the other hand, women washed their hair with the extract of Korean iris called changpo (창포 – acorus calamus) which they believed would make their hair dark and shiny and prevent hair loss. Women also wore hairpins carved with the changpo root and painted in red colour to ward off evil spirits.

In South Korea, Dano is also called “surit-nal” (수릿날) and there are different sayings about its origin. It is said that on Dano, Koreans make and eat surichwi-tteok (수리취떡), which are green-coloured rice cakes made from mugwort or surichwi (수리취 – a type of herb) stamped with a pattern like the wheel of a cart.  As “cart” is “수레” (pronounced as “su-re”) in Korean, the Koreans modified the pronunciation a bit and changed it to “surit-nal” (수릿날).  Another saying is that the Dano day (i.e., the fifth day of fifth month) has the meaning of “the day of god” or “the highest god”, which is the same as “surit-nal” (수릿날).

Koreans also play traditional games during the Dano Festival.  For example, one of the most popular outdoor games played by young women is the geune ttwigi (그네뛰기 – playing on a traditional Korean swing).  A traditional Korean swing is made by suspending a wooden plank by ropes from a high tree or a wooden frame.  Young men compete in the traditional Korean wrestling game called ssireum (씨름).  In a ssireum game, each wrestler grabs the cloth band wrapped around the waist and thigh of the opponent and wins if he can force the opponent to the ground.  In the past, the champion would also be given an ox as the prize.

In the traditional Korean society, women were not allowed to go outside freely but on Dano, they might go outside to play.  In fact, in the famous Korean folk tale, Chunhyangjeon (춘향전 – The Story of Chunhyang), which is the love story of Chunhyang and Yi Mong-yong, Yi Mong-yong first saw Chunhyang on the Dano day when Chunhyang was playing the geune ttwigi outdoor.

Gangneung Danoje (강릉단오제 – Gangneung Dano Festival)

Different places within South Korea hold their own events and ceremonies to celebrate the Dano Festival – the most famous one should be the Gangneung Danoje (강릉단오제 – Gangneung Dano Festival) which has been proclaimed by the UNESCO as a “Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” since 2005.

The Gangneung Danoje is in fact more a religious ritual to pay homage to the mountain spirits of Daegwlllyeong Mountain Pass.  This festival includes many different elements including shamanistic rituals, traditional pastimes such as mask dance-drama, wrestling, swinging, music and dance, and traditional food.  You can watch this video for snapshots of the key activities of the Gangneung Danoje. Below is the brief description of some of the key activities:

On the fifth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, sacred liquor, which will be used in the ceremonies of the Gangneung Danoje, is brewed.

On the fifteenth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, shamanistic rituals are performed to pay homage to the mountain god (who was believed to be a great general of the Silla Kingdom called Kim Yu-sin) and the male and female tutelary deities in their respective shrines in Daegwallyeong Mountain Pass, hoping to bring peace and prosperity to all residents and to keep the region unaffected by natural disasters.

On the third day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, a welcoming ritual is held with the welcoming procession heading to the marketplace where the shamans erect the sacred tree, symbolizing the opening of the shaman ritual with the tutelary deities in attendance.  The festival activities including music, dance, mask dance-drama, food and various folk pastimes are held in the marketplace.

One of the key performances is the Gwanno Mask Dance-Drama, in which masked players present a story without words, using only dance moves and body movements. In the traditional Korean society, the mask dance-drama was acted by gwanno (관노 – government slaves).   The drama comprises 5 episodes and is about the love between the Aristocrat Clown and Lady Little Shaman.  Their love is challenged by meddlers who trick the man into becoming skeptical about the woman’s fidelity.  However, the story has a happy ending as the woman manages to prove her fidelity by attempting to commit suicide. You can watch this video for the Gangneung Gwanno Mask Dance-Drama.

On the seventh day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (which is the last day of the festival), a shamanistic ritual is held to send the tutelary deities back to their shrines in Daegwallyeong Mountain Pass.

There are also public events held in Gangneung around the Dano day for both Koreans and foreigners to participate in the annual Gangneung Danoje.  This year, it is held from 14 to 21 June 2018.  You can participate in, for example, folk games (e.g., geune ttwigi, ssireum, etc.), Dano customs experiential events (e.g., making rice cakes and liquor, washing your hair with changpo water, etc.), concerts, performances (e.g., mask drama) and traditional parade.  For details of the public events of the 2018 Gangneung Dano Festival, you can visit this webpage of the Korea Tourism Organization.

If you are in South Korea during the Dano Festival, don’t forget to visit Gangneung to join the Gangneung Danoje.  Even if you are not in South Korea, you may wash your hair with changpo water on the Dano day to keep your hair dark and shiny!  🙂




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Arirang TV, “Dano“, 100 Icons of Korean Culture, 2013-08-27

金惠媛 著 , 《 中韓文化談》 , 北京市 : 北京大學出版社 , 2013 年版, 9-13

Jingi Cheon (ed.), Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs, Seoul: The National Folk Museum of Korea, 2010-06-30, pp. 160-171

Yoon Seo-seok, Festive occasions: the customs of Korea, Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press, 2008, pp. 93-95

扈貞煥著,《韓國的民俗與文化》,台北市 : 臺灣商務印書館股份有限公司,2006年版, 85-90

UNESCO, Gangneung Danoje Festival, 2005

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