Chinese calendars

Before it officially adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912, China had two calendars, one lunisolar and one solar.

The Chinese lunisolar calendar

The civil calendar, used in official records since at least the 10th century bce, was lunisolar, and consisted of 12 months each of 29 or 30 days. Each month began on a new moon. To make up the difference between 12 lunations (of about 29½ days each) and the (about) 365¼ day solar year, an extra month (runyue) was added 22 times in every 60-year cycle (the 60-year cycle is explained below).  The various early calendars differed mainly in the day on which the year began.  By 104 bce it had been settled that the year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice (it always falls between January 21 and February 20 in the Gregorian calendar.)

Various rules determine when an intercalary month may be added and their application, like every other aspect of the calendar, was a prerogative of the court.

It cannot be placed so that the sun enters a new sign of the zodiac.

The intercalary month cannot be added after the first, eleventh, or twelfth month.

The spring equinox must occur in the second month, the autumnal equinox in the eighth, and the winter solstice in the eleventh.

Names of the years: the 60 year cycle

Every year is named using a system which is at least 2,000 years old. The system is based on two series, one with ten items and one with twelve. Each year is assigned a character from each list, in order. Sixty years being the least common multiple of 10 and 12, each name will recur every 60 years.

the Ten Celestial Stems,
shi tiangan
    associated with
1 jia wood
2 yi wood
3 bing fire
4 ding fire
5 wu earth
6 ji earth
7 geng metal
8 xin metal
9 ren water
10 gui water

 

the Twelve Hourly Branches,
shier dizhi
    Japan corresponding
animal,
shengxiao
1 zi ne shu, rat
2 chou ushi niu, ox
3 yin tora hu, tiger
4 mao u tu, hare
5 chen tatsu long, dragon
6 si mi she, snake
7 wu uma ma, horse
8 wei hitsuji yang, sheep
9 shen saru hou, monkey
10 you tori ji, cock
11 xu inu quan, dog
12 hai i zhu, pig

 

60-Year Cycle, Ganzhi
Number
in cycle
Name of
year
Celestial
Stem
Hourly
Branch
Western
Years*
1 jiazi jia zi 1924, 1984
2 yichou yi chou 1925, 1985
3 bingyin bing yin 1926, 1986
4 dingmao ding mao 1927, 1987
5 wuchen wu chen 1928, 1988
6 jisi ji si 1929, 1989
7 gengwu geng wu 1930, 1990
8 xinwei xin wei 1931, 1991
9 renshen ren shen 1932, 1992
10 guiyou gui you 1933, 1993
11 jiaxu jia xu 1934, 1994
12 yihai yi hai 1935, 1995
13 bingzi bing zi 1936, 1996
14 dingchou ding chou 1937, 1997
15 wuyin wu yin 1938, 1998
16 jimao ji mao 1939, 1999
17 gengchen geng chen 1940, 2000
18 xinsi xin si 1941, 2001
19 renwu ren wu 1942, 2002
20 guiwei gui wei 1943, 2003
21 jiashen jia shen 1944, 2004
22 yiyou yi you 1945, 2005
23 bingxu bing xu 1946, 2006
24 dinghai ding hai 1947, 2007
25 wuzi wu zi 1948, 2008
26 jichou ji chou 1949, 2009
27 gengyin geng yin 1950, 2010
28 xinmao xin mao 1951, 2011
29 renchen ren chen 1952, 2012
30 guisi gui si 1953, 2013
31 jiawu jia wu 1954, 2014
32 yiwei yi wei 1955, 2015
33 bingshen bing shen 1956, 2016
34 dingyou ding you 1957, 2017
35 wuxu wu xu 1958, 2018
36 jihai ji hai 1959, 2019
37 gengzi geng zi 1960, 2020
38 xinchou xin chou 1961, 2021
39 renyin ren yin 1962. 2022
40 guimao gui mao 1963, 2023
41 jiachen jia chen 1964, 2024
42 yisi yi si 1965, 2025
43 bingwu bing wu 1966, 2026
44 dingwei ding wei 1967, 2027
45 wushen wu shen 1968, 2028
46 jiyou ji you 1969, 2029
47 gengxu geng xu 1970, 2030
48 xinhai xin hai 1971, 2031
49 renzi ren zi 1972, 2032
50 guichou gui chou 1973, 2033
51 jiayin jia yin 1974, 2034
52 yimao yi mao 1975, 2035
53 bingchen bing chen 1976, 2036
54 dingsi ding si 1977, 2037
55 wuwu wu wu 1978, 2038
56 jiwei ji wei 1979, 2039
57 gengshen geng shen 1980, 2040
58 xinyou xin you 1981, 2041
59 renxu ren xu 1982, 2042
60 guihai gui hai 1983, 2043

*Remember that the Chinese year begins later than the Gregorian year does. Someone born in January before the 21st was definitely born in the preceding Chinese year.

Divisions of the year

In addition to the months, already mentioned, and four seasons based on the solstices and equinoxes, the year was also divided into 24 periods of 15 days, called qi. The qi at the beginnings and ends of seasons, shown in green, were known as bajie.

The 24 Qi
  Jieqi Translation In Gregorian
calendar, begins on
1 Dongzhi Winter solstice 22 or 23 Dec.
2 Xiaohan Slight cold 6 or 7 Jan.
3 Dahan Great cold 21 or 22 Jan.
4 Lichun Start of spring 4 or 5 Feb.
5 Yushui Rain water 19 or 20 Mar.
6 Jingzhe Waking of insects 6 or 7 MAr.
7 Chunfen Spring equinox 21 or 22 Mar.
8 Qingming Pure brightness 5 or 6 Apr.
9 Guyu Grain rain 20 or 21 Apr.
10 Lixia Start of summer 6 or 7 May
11 Xiaoman Forming of grain 21 or 22 May
12 Manhzhong Grain in ear 6 or 7 June
13 Xiazhi Summer solstice 22 or 23 June
14 Xiaoshu Slight heat 7 or 8 July
15 Dashu Great heat 23 or 24 July
16 Liqui Start of autumn 8 or 9 Aug.
17 Chushu Limit if heat 23 or 24 Aug.
18 Bailu White dew 8 or 9 Sept.
19 Qiufen Autumn equinox 23 or 24 Sept.
20 Hanlu Cold dew 9 or 10 Oct.
21 Shuangjiang Frost's descent 24 or 25 Oct.
22 Lidong Start of winter 8 or 9 Nov.
23 Xiaoxue Slight snow 23 or 24 Nov.
24 Daxue Great snow 7 or 8 Dec.

 

Names of the months

The first month was called zhengyue, "correct month," among other names over the millenia. All the others' names are simply numbers.

Months were also referred to by their place in the season: mengchun being the first month of a season, then zhongchun and jichun.

Divisions of the month

The month was divided into 3 sanxun, each of ten days: shangxun, zhongxun, and xiaxun.

Names of the days

Days were also named using the same 60 day cycle used for years; one cycle made two months.

Solar year calendar

In addition to the civil calendar, both China and Japan had a calendar based on the solar year and used largely by farmers. It divided the solar year into 12 parts, each about 30.44 days long.

For Further Reading

Gaimusho Bunshoka.
Nihon gaikō bunsho: Kindai in'yōreki taishō hyō.
(1951?)

Gives the corresponding Western date for every day in the Chinese and Japanese lunar calendars between ad 1700 and 1911.

home| time index| search| to contact Sizes drawing of envelope| acknowledgements| help|

privacy

terms of use