Chinese (Mandarin) - The Old Chinese Calendar

You certainly know that China has been around for a while, and you also now that China has been keeping time well before the Gregorian calendar reached them. While these days, Chinese society uses the same calendar that we are all familiar with, it has not stopped the use of its traditional calendar. It is kept around because it is useful in Chinese antiquity and archaeological study. In addition, it is also vital to Chinese celebrations, since pretty much all of China's holidays revolve around the traditional Chinese calendar.

This article is three parts, the first being on the Chinese 60-year cycle, the second being on the division of individual months, and the third being the division of the time of the day. These all share roots in the Ten Heavenly Stems/Twelve Earthly Branches System we will discuss shortly.

Development of the Early Calendar

As with other ancient societies, the Chinese were able to conceptualize ideas of months and years by nature of the moon and the sun. The earliest traces of this particular system date back to the Shang Dynasty in the 1500s BC. Along the way, it was eventually decided upon to divide the years into a total of 60 unique periods based on pre-existing traditions and their culture. This particular choice comes from a combination of beliefs about Ying/Yang, the five Chinese directions and elements, and the associated lunar animals. This led to the creation and standardization of a type of early numbers, which are known in Chinese as the "Ten Heavenly Stems" (十天干) and the "Twelve Earthly Branches" (十二地支). These could be further subdivided into those containing "Yang", and those containing "Yin", as well as into other concepts like an associated animal or direction. This gave them a variety, but also allowed division of time in certain ways.

Yin and Yang, Even for Years

Let's get back to the idea of years. The Chinese calendar runs on a 60-year cycle, and each year within this cycle has a unique name. Each year's name consists of two characters, with the first being a heavenly stem and the second being an earthly branch. Those of you mathematicians may have deduced that from a pool of 10 of something and 12 of another thing, there is a total of 120 combinations of the two possible characters that can be used, yet only 60 are used. The reason? Well, while there are 120 possible combinations, they are divided into 60 containing "Yin" and 60 containing "Yang". While the Ying/Yang theory is a whole nother animal altogether, basically the time periods designated as having "Ying" can't match with those containing "Yang". So, we can only have 30 possible years for the "Yang" years, and 30 possible years for the "Yin" years. They alternate on a yearly basis, so one year will be a "Yang" year, and the next will be a "Yin" year, the next a "Yang" year, and so on. The order in which they do so is well established.

Ten Heavenly Stems
甲 (jiǎ)Yang
乙 (yǐ)Yin
Twelve Earthly Stems

Years Start on Different Dates

Because of the fact that this calendar is also based on the moon and doesn't count days the exact same way as we do, it doesn't match up perfectly with the Gregorian calendar we use today. The main problem is that the "start" to the new year according to the Chinese calendar occurs later than January 1st, usually between late January to early March. So, there is a bit of a discrepency. But, because it's only a month difference usually, we can still attribute a corresponding year to a Chinese year using the Gregorian calendar.

The Process of Naming Years

To take this a bit further, let's talk about the 60-year cycle we, as the world, are currently in. The current 60-year cycle relevant to us right now started around Feburary of 1984, which in the 60-year cycle is known as 甲子 (jiǎzǐ). Using the established order, this is a combination of the first of the "Yang" heavenly stems, 甲 (jiǎ), and the first of the "Yang" earthly branches, 子 (zǐ). The next year will be the first of the "Yin" heavenly stems, 乙 (yǐ), and the first of the "Yin" earthly stems, 丑 (chǒu). Then, the following year, the next heavenly stem 丙 (bǐng) is used, followed by the next earthly stem 寅 (yín), so we have bǐngyín. Keep in mind that the years alternate between the "Yang" years and the "Yin" years.

How Years Advance

As you can see from above, both the heavenly and earthly stem both "move up" one position for the next year of its type (i.e. the next Yang year or the next Yin year). When the five heavenly stems are all used, the cycle starts over again with the first of the five heavenly stems, and when the six "earthly" are all used, they start over again with the first of the six "earthly" stems. But notice that this doesn't always occur at the same time. So, they do not exhaust the first of the five heavenly stems and then move on to the second, but rather work in a more varied way. Interesting, no?

What Year Is It?

When we last updated this page, in early 2016, we were on the verge of a year switch. This past Chinese year, from mid-February of 2015 to early February 2016, is known as 乙未 (yǐwèi) in the Chinese calendar. This was a "Yin" year. This next coming Chinese year, starting on February 8 of 2016, and going through late January of 2017, will be 丙申 (bǐngshēn). This will be a "Yang" year. The last year of the current 60-year cycle will be 癸亥 (guǐhài), will occur in 2042. So long as you were born between 1924, you can use the linked table below to look up your birth year, or any year of interest between 1924-2042. By the way, most people don't bother trying to memorize all of the names, but rather, refer to such charts when necessary.
For a bit more history, there's more to the story about the 乙未 (yǐwèi) year,which you can read here. The new version, regarding the coming year of 丙申 (bǐngshēn), will be up shortly, in time for Chinese New Year!

A Quick and Easy Table

Check out a convenient table listing the last 60-year cycle, this 60-year cycle, and the next 60-year cycle.