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The Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, incorporating elements of a lunar calendar with those of a solar calendar. In China today, the Gregorian calendar is used for most day to day activities, but the Chinese calendar is still used for marking traditional Chinese holidays such as Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), Duan Wu festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival, and in astrology, such as choosing the most auspicious date for a wedding or the opening of a building. Because each month follows one cycle of the moon, it is also used to determine the phases of the moon.

In China, the traditional calendar is known as the "agricultural calendar" (Simplified Chinese: 农历, pinyin: nónglì) while the Gregorian calendar is known as the "common calendar" (公历, gōnglì) or "Common calendar" . Another name for the Chinese calendar is the "Yin Calendar" (阴历, yīnlì) in reference to the lunar aspect of the calendar, whereas the Gregorian calendar is the "Yang Calendar" (阳历, yánglì) in reference to its solar properties. The Chinese calendar was also called the "old calendar" (旧历, Traditional Chinese: 舊曆, jìulì) after the "new calendar" (新历, 新曆, xīnlì), i.e. the Gregorian calendar, was adopted as the official calendar. The traditional calendar is also often referred to as "the Xia Calendar", following a comment in the Shiji which states that under Xia Dynasty, the year began on the second moon after the winter solstice (just as in the modern calendar).

The current year in the Chinese calendar is 4704, the Year of the Fire Pig (year of Ding Hai, 丁亥). It lasts from 18 February 2007 to 6 February 2008.


Early historyEdit

The earliest evidence of the Chinese calendar is found on oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (late second millennium BC), which seem to describe a lunisolar year of twelve months, with a possible intercalary thirteenth, or even fourteenth, added empirically to prevent calendar drift. The Sexagenary cycle for recording days was already in use. Tradition holds that, in that era, the year began on the first new moon after the winter solstice.

Early Eastern Zhou texts, such as the Spring and Autumn Annals, provide better understanding of the calendars used in the Zhou dynasty. One year usually had 12 months, which were alternatively 29 and 30 days long (with an additional day added from time to time, to catch up with "drifts" between the calendar and the actual moon cycle), and intercalary months were added in an arbitrary fashion, at the end of the year.

These arbitrary rules on day and month intercalation caused the calendars of each State to be slightly different, at times. Thus, texts like the Annals will often state whether the calendar they use (the calendar of Lu) is in phase with the Royal calendar (used by the Zhou kings).

Although tradition holds that in the Zhou, the year began on the new moon which preceded the winter solstice, the Spring and Autumn Annals seem to indicate that (in Lu at least) the Yin calendar (the calendar used in Shang dynasty, with years beginning on the first new moon after the winter solstice) was in use until the middle of the 7th century, and that the beginning of the year was shifted back one month around 650 BC.

By the beginning of the Warring States, progress in astronomy and mathematics allowed the creation of calculated calendars (where intercalary months and days are set by a rule, and not arbitrarily). The sìfēn 四分 (quarter remainder) calendar, which began about 484 BC, was the first calculated Chinese calendar, so named because it used a solar year of 365¼ days, along with a 19-year (235-month) Rule Cycle, known in the West as the Metonic cycle. The year began on the new moon preceding the winter solstice, and intercalary months were inserted at the end of the year.

In 256 BC, as the last Zhou king ceded his territory to Qin, a new calendar (the Qin calendar) began to be used. It followed the same principles as the Sifen calendar, except the year began one month before (the second new moon before the winter solstice, which now fell in the second month of the year). The Qin calendar was used during the Qin dynasty, and in the beginning of the Western Han dynasty.

The Taichu calendarEdit

The Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty introduced reforms that have governed the Chinese calendar ever since. His Tàichū 太初 (Grand Inception) calendar of 104 BC had a year with the winter solstice in the eleventh month and designated as intercalary any calendar month (a month of 29 or 30 whole days) during which the sun does not pass a principal term (that is, remained within the same sign of the zodiac throughout). Because the sun's mean motion was used to calculate the jiéqì (節氣/节气) (or seasonal markings) until 1645, this intercalary month was equally likely to occur after any month of the year. The conjunction of the sun and moon (the astronomical new moon) was calculated using the mean motions of both the sun and moon until 619, the second year of the Tang dynasty, when chronologists began to use true motions modeled using two offset opposing parabolas (with small linear and cubic components). Unfortunately, the parabolas did not meet smoothly at the mean motion, but met with a discontinuity or jump.

The true sun and moonEdit

With the introduction of Western astronomy into China via the Jesuits, the motions of both the sun and moon began to be calculated with sinusoids in the 1645 Shíxiàn calendar (時憲書, Book of the Conformity of Time) of the Qing dynasty, made by the Jesuit Adam Schall. The true motion of the sun was now used to calculate the jiéqì, which caused the intercalary month to often occur after the second through the ninth months, but rarely after the tenth through first months. A few autumn-winter periods have one or two calendar months where the sun enters two signs of the zodiac, interspersed with two or three calendar months where the sun stays within one sign.

The weekEdit

Commonly, the days of the week are given numbers and are known by them; Monday is day one of the week, Tuesday is day 2, Wednesday is day 3, Thursday is day 4, Friday is day 5, and Saturday is day 6. Sunday, however, is the day of the Sun and is thus the only day which does not continue with the pattern of the days of the week. The day numbers from Monday to Saturday are the same as in ISO 8601. Since nowadays most Chinese citizens have a day off on Sunday each week, having Monday as day one of the week corresponds to the common industrial and commercial practices, although many Chinese calendars show Sunday as the first day of a week.

The Gregorian Reform and the 1929 time changeEdit

The Gregorian calendar was adopted by the nascent Republic of China effective January 1, 1912 for official business, but the general populace continued to use the traditional calendar. The status of the Gregorian calendar was unclear between 1916 and 1921 while China was controlled by several competing warlords each supported by foreign colonial powers. From about 1921 until 1928 warlords continued to fight over northern China, but the Kuomintang or Nationalist government controlled southern China and used the Gregorian calendar. After the Kuomintang reconstituted the Republic of China October 10, 1928, the Gregorian calendar was officially adopted, effective 1 January, 1929. Along with this, the time zone for the whole country was adjusted to the coastal time zone that had been used in European treaty ports along the Chinese coast since 1904. This changed the beginning of each calendar day, for both the traditional and Gregorian calendars, by plus 14 minutes and 26 seconds from Beijing midnight to midnight at the longitude 120° east of Greenwich.

This caused some discrepancies, such as with the 1978 Mid-Autumn Festival. There was a new moon on September 3, 1978, at 00:07, Chinese Standard Time [1]. Using the old Beijing timezone, the New Moon occurred at 23:53 on the 2nd, so the eighth month began on a different day in the calendars. Thus people in Hong Kong (using the traditional calendar) celebrated the Festival on 16 September, but those in the mainland celebrated on 17 September. [2] (see page 18)

Calendar rulesEdit

The following rules outline the Chinese calendar since c.104 BC. Note that the rules allow either mean or true motions of the Sun and Moon to be used, depending on the historical period.

  1. The months are lunar months. This means the first day of each month beginning at midnight is the day of the astronomical new moon. (Note, however, that a "day" in the Chinese calendar begins at 11 p.m. and not at midnight)
  2. Each year has 12 regular months, which are numbered in sequence (1 to 12) and have alternative names. Every second or third year has an intercalary month (閏月 rùnyuè), which may come after any regular month. It has the same number as the preceding regular month, but is designated intercalary.
  3. Every other jiéqì of the Chinese solar year is equivalent to an entry of the sun into a sign of the tropical zodiac (a principal term or cusp).
  4. The sun always passes the winter solstice (enters Capricorn) during month 11.
  5. If there are 12 months between two successive occurrences of month 11, at least one of these 12 months must be a month during which the sun remains within the same zodiac sign throughout (no principal term or chusp occurs within it). If only one such month occurs, it is designated intercalary, but if two such months occur, only the first is designated intercalary.
  6. The times of the astronomical new moons and the sun entering a zodiac sign are determined in the Chinese Time Zone by the Purple Mountain Observatory (紫金山天文台 Zǐjīnshān Tiānwéntái) outside Nanjing using modern astronomical equations. Chinese Americans use Nanjing Calendar instead of defining a local one. To them, the new Moon can occur on the last day of the previous month according to their local USA time. For example, A new Moon occurred on May 16, 2007 by USA time. But Chinese Americans still regard May 17, 2007 as the first day of a new month. Further, they define the boundaries of the day according to a USA local time zone. Thus rule number 1 is not followed in this case,.

The zodiac sign which the sun enters during the month and the ecliptic longitude of that entry point usually determine the number of a regular month. Month 1, zhēngyuè, literally means principal month. All other months are literally numbered, second month, third month, etc.

# Chinese name Long. Zodiac sign
11 十一月 shíyīyuè 270° Capricornus
12 十二月 shí'èryuè 300° Aquarius
1 正月 zhēngyuè 330° Pisces
2 二月 èryuè Aries
3 三月 sānyuè 30° Taurus
4 四月 sìyuè 60° Gemini
5 五月 wǔyuè 90° Cancer
6 六月 liùyuè 120° Leo
7 七月 qīyuè 150° Virgo
8 八月 bāyuè 180° Libra
9 九月 jiǔyuè 210° Scorpius
10 十月 shíyuè 240° Sagittarius

Some believe the above correspondence to be always true, but there are exceptions, which, for example, prevent Chinese New Year from always being the second new moon after the winter solstice, or that cause the holiday to occur after the Rain Water jieqi. An exception will occur in 2033-2034, when the winter solstice is the second solar term in the eleventh month. The next month is a no-entry month and so is intercalary, and a twelfth month follows which contains both the Aquarius and Pisces solar terms (deep cold and rain water). The Year of the Tiger thus begins on the third new moon following the Winter Solstice, and also occurs after the Pisces (rain water) jieqi, on February 19.

Another occurrence was in 1984-85, after the sun had entered both Capricorn at 270° and Aquarius at 300° in month 11, and then entered Pisces at 330° during the next month, which should have caused it to be month 1. The sun did not enter any sign during the next month. In order to keep the winter solstice in month 11, the month which should have been month 1 became month 12, and the month thereafter became month 1, causing Chinese New Year to occur on 20 February 1985 after the sun had already passed into Pisces at 330° during the previous month, rather than during the month beginning on that day.

On those occasions when a dual-entry month does occur, it always occurs somewhere between two months that do not have any entry (non-entry months). It usually occurs alone and either includes the winter solstice or is nearby, thus placing the winter solstice in month 11 (rule 4) chooses which of the two non-entry months becomes the intercalary month. In 1984-85, the month immediately before the dual-entry month 11 was a non-entry month which was designated as an intercalary month 10. All months from the dual-entry month to the non-entry month that is not to be intercalary are sequentially numbered with the nearby regular months (rule 2). The last phrase of rule 5, choosing the first of two non-entry months between months 11, has not been required since the last calendar reform, and will not be necessary until the 2033-34 occasion, when two dual-entry months will be interspersed among three non-entry months, two of which will be on one side of month 11. The leap eleventh month produced is a very rare occasion. See [3] for details.

Exceptions such as these are rare. Fully 96.6% of all months contain only one entry into a zodiacal sign (have one principal term or cusp), all obeying the numbering rules of the jiéqì table, and 3.0% of all months are intercalary months (always non-entry months between principal terms or cusps). Only 0.4% of all months either are dual-entry months (have two principal terms or cusps) or are neighboring months that are renumbered.

It is only after the 1645 reform that this situation arose. Then it became necessary to fix one month to always contain its principal term and allow any other to occasionally not contain its principal term. Month 11 was chosen, because its principal term (the winter solstice) forms the start of the Chinese Solar year (the sui).

The Chinese lunar calendar and the Gregorian Calendar often sync up every 19 years (Metonic cycle). Most Chinese people notice that their Chinese and Western birthdays often fall on the same day on their 19th, 38th birthday etc. However, a 19-year cycle with a certain set of intercalary months is only an approximation, so an almost identical pattern of intercalary months in subsequent cycles will eventually change after some multiple of 19 years to a quite different 19-year cycle.

The Chinese zodiac (see Nomenclature and Twelve Animals sections) is only used in naming years—it is not used in the actual calculation of the calendar. In fact, the Chinese have a very different constellation system.

The twelve months are closely connected with agriculture, so they are alternatively named after plants:

  1. Primens (first month) 正月: Latin "primus mensis".
  2. Apricomens (apricot month) 杏月: apricot blossoms.
  3. Peacimens (peach month) 桃月: peach blossoms.
  4. Plumens (plum month) 梅月: mei ripens.
  5. Guavamens (guava month) 榴月: pomegranate blossoms.
  6. Lotumens (lotus month) 荷月: lotus blossoms.
  7. Orchimens (orchid month) 蘭月: orchid blossoms.
  8. Osmanthumens (osmanthus month) 桂月: osmanthus blossoms.
  9. Chrysanthemens (chrysanthemum month) 菊月: chrysanthemum blossoms.
  10. Benimens (good month) 良月: good month.
  11. Hiemens (hiemal month) 冬月: hiemal month.
  12. Lamens (last month) 臘月: last month.

Year markingsEdit

Regnal yearsEdit

Traditional Chinese years were not continuously numbered in the way that the BC/AD system is. More commonly, official year counting always used some form of a regnal year. This system began in 841 BC during the Zhou dynasty. Prior to this, years were not marked at all, and historical events cannot be dated exactly.

In 841 BC, the Li King Hu of Zhou (周厲王胡) was ousted by a civilian uprising (國人暴動), and the country was governed for the next fourteen years by a council of senior ministers, a period known as the Regency (共和行政). In this period, years were marked as First (second, third, etc) Year of the Regency.

Subsequently, years were marked as regnal years, e.g. the year 825 BC was marked as the 3rd Year of the Xuan King Jing of Zhou (周宣王三年). This system was used until early in the Han dynasty, when the Wen Emperor of Han (漢文帝劉恒) instituted regnal names. After this, most emperors used one or more regnal names to mark their reign. Usually, the emperor would institute a new name upon accession to the throne, and then change to new names to mark significant events, or to end a perceived cycle of bad luck. In the Ming dynasty, however, each emperor usually used only one regnal name for their reign. In Qing dynasty, each emperor used only one regnal name for their reign.

This system continued until the Republic of China, which counted years as Years of the Republic, beginning in 1912. Thus, 1912 is the 1st Year of the Republic, and 1949 the 38th. This system is still used for official purposes in Taiwan. For the rest of China, in 1949 the People's Republic of China chose to use the Common Era system (equivalently, AD/BC system), in line with international standards.

The stem-branch cycleEdit

The other system by which years are marked historically in China was by the stem-branch or sexagenary cycle. This system is based on two forms of counting: a cycle of 10 Heavenly Stems and a cycle of 12 Earthly Branches. Each year is named by a pair of one stem and one branch called a Stem-Branch (干支 gānzhī). The Heavenly Stems are associated with Yin Yang and the Five Elements. Recent 10-year periods began in 1984, 1994, and 2004. The Earthly Branches are associated with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Each Earthly Branch is also associated with an animal, collectively known as the Twelve Animals. Recent 12-year periods began in 1984 and 1996.

Since the numbers 10 (Heavenly Stems) and 12 (Earthly Branches) have a common factor of 2, only 1/2 of the 120 possible stem-branch combinations actually occur. The resulting 60-year (or sexagesimal) cycle takes the name jiǎzǐ (甲子) after the first year in the cycle, being the Heavenly Stem of "jiǎ" and Earthly Branch of "zǐ". The term "jiǎzǐ" is used figuratively to mean "a full lifespan"—one who has lived more than a jiǎzǐ is obviously blessed. (Compare the Biblical "three-score years and ten.")

At first, this system was used to mark days, not years. The earliest evidence of this were found on oracle bones dated c.1350 BC in Shang Dynasty. This system of date marking continues to this day, and can still be found on Chinese calendars today. Although a stem-branch cannot be used to deduce the actual day in historical events, it can assist in converting Chinese dates to other calendars more accurately.

Around the Han Dynasty, the stem-branch cycle also began to be used to mark years. The 60-year system cycles continuously, and determines the animal or sign under which a person is born (see Chinese Zodiac). These cycles were not named, and were used in conjunction with regnal names declared by the Emperor. For example: 康熙壬寅 (Kāngxī rényín) (1662 AD) is the first 壬寅 (rényín) year during the reign of 康熙 (Kāngxī), regnal name of an emperor of the Qing Dynasty

The months and hours can also be denoted using Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, though they are commonly addressed using Chinese numerals instead. In Chinese astrology, four Stem-Branch pairs form the Eight Characters (八字 bāzì).

Continuously-numbered yearsEdit

There is no universally agreed upon "epoch" or starting point for the Chinese calendar. Tradition holds that the calendar was invented by Huang Di (黄帝) in the 61st year of his reign in what is now known under the proleptic Gregorian calendar as 2637 BCE. Many have used this date as the epoch, i.e. the first year of the first sixty-year (sexagesimal) cycle, of the Chinese calendar, but others have used the date of the beginning of his reign in 2697 BCE as the epoch. Since these dates are exactly sixty years apart, it does not matter which is used to determine the stem/branch sequence or the astrological sign for any succeeding year. That is, 2006 is a bingxu year and the Year of the Dog regardless of whether years are counted from 2637 BCE or 2697 BCE. Despite the traditional identification of 2637 BCE as the epoch of the calendar, most references today favor 2697 BCE.

For the most part, the imposition of a continuous numbering system on the Chinese calendar was of interest mostly to Jesuit missionaries and other Westerners who assumed that calendars obviously had to be continuous. However, in the early 20th century, some Chinese Republicans began to advocate widespread use of continuously numbered stem-branch cycles, so that year markings could be independent of the Emperor's regnal name. (This was part of their attempt to delegitimise the Qing Dynasty.) To this end, Sun Yat-sen identified 2698 BCE as the origin of the Chinese calendar, and this choice was adopted by many overseas Chinese communities outside Southeast Asia such as San Francisco's Chinatown. However, 2698 BCE was a mistake for the following reason: The current sexagesimal cycle began with 1984, a jiazi (甲子) year. With this datum, computation shows that both 2637 BCE (being 4620=77x60 years apart from 1984 CE) and 2697 BCE (being 4680=78x60 years apart from 1984 CE) are jiazi years; whereas 2698 BCE is not, and should therefore not be taken as the epoch. The error likely results from overlooking the fact that 1 CE follows directly from 1 BCE, without a "year zero" in between. Nonetheless, some reference works in English, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica Almanac 2006, adopt 2698 BCE as the epoch.

If 2637 BCE is used as the epoch, 2007 is the 4644th year. If 2697 BCE is used as the epoch, 2007 CE is the 4704th year. However, to the modern Chinese, years are identified by the Common Era reckoning alone. The year 2007 CE is never referred to as Year 4644 or 4704.

Correspondence between systemsEdit

The following link provides conversion of Chinese calendar dates to Western calendar dates: This table shows the stem/branch year names, correspondences to the Western (Gregorian) calendar, and other related information for the current decade. (These years are all part of the 79th sexagenary cycle, or the 78th if an epoch of 2637 BCE is accepted.) Or see this larger table of the full 60-year cycle.

Jiǎzǐ (甲子) sequence Stem/ branch Gānzhī (干支) Year of the... [Note 1] Continuous [Note 2] Gregorian [Note 3] New Year's Day (chūnjié, 春節)
155/3wùyín (戊寅)Earth Tiger46951998January 28
166/4jǐmăo (己卯)Earth Rabbit46961999February 16
177/5gēngchén (庚辰)Metal Dragon46972000February 5
188/6xīnsì (辛巳)Metal Snake46982001January 24
199/7rénwǔ (壬午)Water Horse46992002February 12
2010/8guǐwèi (癸未)Water Sheep47002003February 1
211/9jiǎshēn (甲申)Wood Monkey47012004January 22
222/10yǐyǒu (乙酉)Wood Rooster47022005February 9
233/11bǐngxū (丙戌)Fire Dog47032006January 29
244/12dīnghài (丁亥)Fire Pig47042007February 18
255/1wùzǐ (戊子)Earth Rat47052008February 7
266/2jǐchǒu (己丑)Earth Ox47062009January 26
277/3gēngyín (庚寅)Metal Tiger47072010February 14
288/4xīnmăo (辛卯)Metal Rabbit47082011February 3

[Note 1: The beginning of each zodiac year should correspond to the first day of the lunar year.

[Note 2: As discussed above, there is considerable difficulty in establishing a basis for the chronology of the continuous year numbers. The numbers listed here are too high by 60 if an epoch of 2637 BCE is accepted. They may be too low by 1 if an epoch of 2698 BCE is accepted. That is, according to some sources, Gregorian 2006 could alternatively correspond to 4643, or perhaps 4704.]

[Note 3: In any case, the correspondence between a lunisolar Chinese year and a solar Gregorian year is of course not exact. The first few months of each Gregorian year—those preceding Chinese New Year—belong to the previous Chinese year. For example, January 1 – January 28 of 2006 correspond to yǐyǒu or 4702. Thus, it might be more precise to state that Gregorian 2006 corresponds to 4702–4703, or that continuous Chinese 4703 corresponds to 2006–2007.]

Solar year versus lunar yearEdit

There is a distinction between a solar year and a lunar year in the Chinese calendar because the calendar is lunisolar. A lunar year (年 nián) is from one Chinese new year to the next. A solar year (歲 suì) is either the period between one Spring Equinox and the next or the period between two winter solstices (see Jiéqì section). A lunar year is exclusively used for dates, whereas a solar year, especially that between winter solstices, is used to number the months.

Hours of the dayEdit

Under the traditional system of hour-marking, each day is divided into 12 units (時辰). Each of these units is equivalent to two hours of international time. Each is named after one of the twelve Earthly Branches. The first unit, Hour of Zi (子時), begins at 11 p.m. of the previous day and ends at 1 a.m. Traditionally, executions of condemned prisoners occur at the midpoint of Hour of Wu (正午時), i.e. noon.

A second system subdivided the day into 100 equal parts, ke, each of which equalling 14.4 minutes or a familiar rough quarter of a standard Western hour. This was valid for centuries, making the Chinese first to apply decimal time - long before the French revolution. However, because 100 could not be divided equally into the 12 "hours", the system was changed to variously 96, 108, and 120 ke in a day. During the Qing Dynasty, the number was officially settled at 96, making each ke exactly a quarter of a Western hour. Today, ke is often used to refer to a quarter of an hour.

The Chinese zodiacEdit

The Twelve animals (十二生肖 shí'èr shēngxiào, or colloquially 十二屬相 shí'èr shǔxiàng) representing the twelve Earthly Branches are, in order, the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep (or goat), monkey, rooster, dog, and pig (or boar).

A legend explains the sequence in which the animals were assigned. Supposedly, the twelve animals fought over the precedence of the animals in the cycle of years in the calendar, so the Chinese gods held a contest to determine the order. All the animals lined up on the bank of a river and were given the task of getting to the opposite shore. Their order in the calendar would be set by the order in which the animals managed to reach the other side. The cat wondered how he would get across if he was afraid of water. At the same time, the ox wondered how he would cross with his poor eyesight. The calculating rat suggested that he and the cat jump onto the ox's back and guide him across. The ox was steady and hard-working so that he did not notice a commotion on his back. In the meanwhile, the rat snuck up behind the unsuspecting cat and shoved him into the water. Just as the ox came ashore, the rat jumped off and finished the race first. The lazy pig came to the far shore in twelfth place. And so the rat got the first year named after him, the ox got the second year, and the pig ended up as the last year in the cycle. The cat finished too late to win any place in the calendar, and vowed to be the enemy of the rat forevermore.

Solar termEdit

Chinese months follow the phases of the moon. As a result, they do not accurately follow the seasons of the solar year. To assist farmers to decide when to plant or harvest crops, the drafters of the calendar put in 24 seasonal markers, which follow the solar year, and are called jiéqì 節氣.

The term Jiéqì is usually translated as "Solar Terms" (lit. Nodes of Weather). Each node is the instant when the sun reaches one of twenty-four equally spaced points along the ecliptic, including the solstices and equinoxes, positioned at fifteen degree intervals. Because the calculation is solar-based, these jiéqì fall around the same date every year in solar calendars (e.g. the Gregorian Calendar), but do not form any obvious pattern in the Chinese calendar. The dates below are approximate and may vary slightly from year to year due to the intercalary rules (i.e. system of leap years) of the Gregorian calendar. Jiéqì are published each year in farmers' almanacs. Chinese New Year is usually the new moon closest to lìchūn.

In the table below, these measures are given in the standard astronomical convention of ecliptic longitude, zero degrees being positioned at the vernal equinox point. Each calendar month under the heading "M" contains the designated jiéqì called a principal term, which is an entry into a sign of the zodiac, also known as a cusp. Here term has the archaic meaning of a limit, not a duration. In Chinese astronomy, seasons are centered on the solstices and equinoxes, whereas in the standard Western definition, they begin at the solstices and equinoxes. Thus the term Beginning of Spring and the related Spring Festival fall in February, when it is still very chilly in temperate latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere.

Chinese Name Gregorian
Date (approx.)
315° 立春 lìchūn February 4 start of spring spring starts here according to the Chinese definition of a season, see also Cross-quarter day
330° 雨水 yǔshuǐ February 19 rain water starting at this point, the temperature makes rain more likely than snow
345° 啓蟄 qǐzhé
(驚蟄 jīngzhé)
March 5 awakening of insects when hibernating insects awake
春分 chūnfēn March 21 vernal equinox lit. the central divide of spring (referring to the Chinese seasonal definition)
15° 清明 qīngmíng April 5 clear and bright a Chinese festival where, traditionally, ancestral graves are tended
30° 穀雨 gǔyǔ or gǔyù April 20 grain rains rain helps grain grow
45° 立夏 lìxià May 6 start of summer refers to the Chinese seasonal definition
60° 小滿 xiǎomǎn May 21 grain full grains are plump
75° 芒種 mángzhòng or mángzhǒng June 6 grain in ear lit. awns (beard of grain) grow
90° 夏至 xiàzhì June 21 summer solstice lit. summer extreme (of sun's height)
105° 小暑 xiǎoshǔ July 7 minor heat when heat starts to get unbearable
120° 大暑 dàshǔ July 23 major heat the hottest time of the year
135° 立秋 lìqiū August 7 start of autumn uses the Chinese seasonal definition
150° 處暑 chùshǔ August 23 limit of heat lit. dwell in heat
165° 白露 báilù September 8 white dew condensed moisture makes dew white; a sign of autumn
180° 秋分 qiūfēn September 23 autumnal equinox lit. central divide of autumn (refers to the Chinese seasonal definition)
195° 寒露 hánlù October 8 cold dew dew starts turning into frost
210° 霜降 shuāngjiàng October 23 descent of frost appearance of frost and descent of temperature
225° 立冬 lìdōng November 7 start of winter refers to the Chinese seasonal definition
240° 小雪 xiǎoxuě November 22 minor snow snow starts falling
255° 大雪 dàxuě December 7 major snow season of snowstorms in full swing
270° 冬至 dōngzhì December 22 winter solstice lit. winter extreme (of sun's height)
285° 小寒 xiǎohán January 6 minor cold cold starts to become unbearable
300° 大寒 dàhán January 20 major cold coldest time of year

Note: The third jiéqì was originally called 啓蟄 (qǐzhé) but renamed to 驚蟄 (jīngzhé) in the era of the Emperor Jing of Han (漢景帝) to avoid writing his given name 啓 (also written as 啟, a variant of 啓).

The "Song of Solar Terms" (節氣歌; pinyin: jiéqìgē) is used to ease the memorization of jiéqì:

春雨驚春清穀天 chūn yǔ jīng chūn qīng gǔ tiān,
夏滿芒夏暑相連 xià mǎn máng xià shǔ xiāng lián,
秋處露秋寒霜降 qiū chù lù qiū hán shuāng jiàng,
冬雪雪冬小大寒 dōng xuě xuě dōng xiǎo dà hán.
每月兩節不變更 měi yuè liǎng jié bù biàn gēng,
最多相差一兩天 zùi duō xiāng chā yī liǎng tiān
上半年來六、廿一 shàng bàn nián lái liù, niàn yī
下半年是八、廿三 xià bàn nián shì bā, niàn sān


The Chinese calendar year has nine main festivals, seven determined by the lunisolar calendar, and the other two derived from the solar agricultural calendar. (Note that the farmers actually used a solar calendar, and its twenty-four terms, to determine when to plant crops, due to the inaccuracy of the lunisolar traditional calendar. However, the traditional calendar has also come to be known as the agricultural calendar.)

The two special holidays are the Tomb-Sweeping Festival (Qingming Festival and the Winter Solstice Festival, falling upon the respective solar terms, the former occurring at ecliptic longitude 15 degrees, the latter at 270 degrees. As for all other calendrical calculations, the calculations use civil time in China, eight hours ahead of UTC.

Date English Name Chinese Name Vietnamese Name Remarks 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
month 1
day 1
Chinese New Year,
lit. Spring Festival.
Tết Nguyên Đán Family gathering and major festivities for three days; traditionally 15 days Feb 1 Jan 22 Feb 9 Jan 29 Feb 18 Feb 7
month 1
day 15
Lantern Festival 元宵節(上元节)
Tết Thượng Nguyên Yuanxiao eating
and lanterns
Feb 15 Feb 5 Feb 23 Feb 12 Mar 4 Feb 21
month 3
day 3
Double Third Festival Tết Hàn Thực
Apr 4
or 5
Qingming Festival,
lit. Clear and Bright Festival.
Tết Thanh Minh A day for tomb sweeping Apr 5 Apr 4 Apr 5 Apr 5 Apr 5 Apr 4
month 5
day 5
Dragon Boat Festival. 端午節
Tết Đoan Ngọ Dragon boat racing
and zongzi eating
Jun 4 Jun 22 Jun 11 May 31 Jun 19 Jun 8
month 7
day 7
The Night of Sevens,
Ngày mưa Ngâu A festival for lovers, equivalent to Valentine's Day Aug 4 Aug 22 Aug 11 Jul 31 Aug 19 Aug 7
month 7
day 15
Hungry Ghost Festival
or Spirit Festival.
Tết Trung Nguyên A festival to offer tributes and respect to the deceased Aug 12 Aug 30 Aug 19 Aug 8 Aug 26 Aug 15
month 8
day 15
Mid-Autumn Festival
or Moon Festival.
Tết Trung Thu Family gathering
and moon cake eating
May be referred to as the Lantern Festival, similar in name to a different festival which falls on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year
Sep 11 Sep 28 Sep 18 Oct 6 Sep 25 Sep 14
month 9
day 9
Double Ninth Festival,
lit. Double Yang Festival.
Tết Trùng Cửu Mountain climbing
and flower shows
Oct 4 Oct 22 Oct 11 Oct 30 Oct 19 Oct 7
month 10
day 10
Double Tenth Festival Tết Trùng Thập
month 10
day 15
Xia Yuan Festival,
Tết Hạ Nguyên Pray for a peaceful year to the Water God
Nov 8 Nov 26 Nov 16 Dec 5 Nov 24 Nov 12
Dec 21
or 22
Winter Solstice Festival 冬至
Family gathering Dec 22 Dec 21 Dec 22 Dec 22 Dec 22 Dec 21
month 12
day 23
Kitchen God Festival. Tết Táo Quân

The Chinese New Year falls on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice, according to Taichu Calender established in Han Dynasty.

Purpose of the intercalary monthsEdit

Most people, upon using or studying the Chinese calendar, are perplexed by the intercalary month because of its seemingly unpredictable nature. As mentioned above, the intercalary month refers to additional months added to the calendar in some years to correct for its deviation from the astronomical year, a function similar to that of the extra day in February in leap years.

However, because of the complex astronomical knowledge required to calculate if and when an intercalary month needs to be inserted, to most people, it is simply a mystery. This has led to a superstition that intercalary months in certain times of the year bring bad luck.

The main purpose of the intercalary month is to correct for deviations of the calendrical year from the astronomical year. Because the Chinese calendar is mainly a lunar calendar, its standard year is 354 days, whereas the astronomical year is approximately 365¼ days. Without the intercalary month, this deviation would build up over time, and the Spring festival, for example, would no longer fall in Spring. Thus, the intercalary month serves a valuable purpose in ensuring that the year in the Chinese calendar remains approximately in line with the astronomical year.

The intercalary month is inserted whenever the Chinese calendar moves too far from the stage of progression of the earth in its orbit. Thus, for example, if the beginning of a certain month in the Chinese calendar deviates by a certain number of days from its equivalent in a solar calendar, an intercalary month needs to be inserted.

The practical benefit of this system is that the calendar is able to approximately keep in pace with the solar cycle, while at the same time retaining months that roughly correspond with lunar cycles. Hence the term lunisolar calendar. The latter is important because many traditional festivals correspond to significant events in the moon's cycle. For example, the mid-autumn festival is always on a day of the full moon.

The relevance of the calendar todayEdit

There have been calls for reform in recent years from experts in China, because of the increasing irrelevance of the Chinese calendar in modern life. They point to the example in Japan, where during the Meiji Restoration the nation adopted the Western calendar, and simply shifted all traditional festivities onto an equivalent date. However, the Chinese calendar remains important as an element of cultural tradition, and for certain cultural activities.

Practical uses Edit

The original practical relevance of the lunisolar calendar for date marking has largely disappeared. First, the Gregorian calendar is much easier to compute and more in line with both international standards and the astronomical year. Its adoption for official purposes has meant that the traditional calendar is rarely used for date marking. This, in turn, means that it is more convenient to remember significant events such as birth dates by the Gregorian rather than the Chinese calendar.

Second, the 24 solar terms were important to farmers who would not be able to plan agricultural activities without foreknowledge of these terms. However, the 24 solar terms (including the solstices and equinoxes) are more predictable on the Gregorian calendar than the lunisolar calendar since they are based on the solar cycle. It is easier for the average Chinese farmer to organise their planting and harvesting with the Gregorian calendar.

Cultural issues Edit

However, the Chinese calendar remains culturally essential. For example, most of the traditional festivals, such as Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, traditionally occur at new moon or full moon. Furthermore, the traditional Chinese calendar, as an element of traditional culture, is invested with much cultural and nationalistic sentiment.

The calendar is still used in the more traditional Chinese households around the world to pick 'lucky dates' for important events such as weddings, funerals, and business deals. A special calendar is used for this purpose, called Huang Li, literally "Imperial Calendar", which contains auspicious activities, times, and directions for each day. The calendar follows the Gregorian dates but has the corresponding Chinese dates. Every date would have a comprehensive listing of astrological measurements and fortune elements.

Thus, while the traditional calendar could be removed without much practical effect, its sentimental and cultural significance will probably see its retention for some time yet.


Other traditional East Asian calendars are very similar to if not identical to the Chinese calendar: the Korean calendar is identical; the Vietnamese calendar substitutes the cat for the rabbit in the Chinese zodiac; the Tibetan calendar differs slightly in animal names, and the traditional Japanese calendar uses a different method of calculation, resulting in disagreements between the calendars in some years.

The twelve year cycle, with the animal names translated into the vernacular, was adopted by the Göktürks (its use there is first attested 584), and spread subsequently among many if not most Turkic peoples, as well as the Mongols. It appears to have been used by the Bulgars, as attested in the Nominalia of the Bulgarian Khans and in some other documents.

Chinese-Uighur calendarEdit

In 1258, when both China and the Islamic world were part of the Mongol Empire, Hulagu Khan established an observatory in Maragheh for the astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi at which a few Chinese astronomers were present, resulting in the Chinese-Uighur calendar that al-Tusi describes in his Zij-i Ilkhani.[1] The twelve year cycle, including Turkish/Mongolian translations of the animal names (known as sanawat-e turki سنوات ترکی,) remained in use for chronology, historiography, and bureaucratic purposes in the Persian and Turkish speaking world from Asia Minor to India throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods. In Iran it remained common in agricultural records and tax assessments until a 1925 law deprecated its use.


  1. ^ van Dalen et al. 1997


  • van Dalen, Benno; Kennedy, E.S.; Saiyid, Mustafa K., «The Chinese-Uighur Calendar in Tusi's Zij-i Ilkhani», Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften 11 (1997) 111-151.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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