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The Chinese Lunar Calendar Explained

Our guide to the venerable Chinese lunar calendar

07·08·2014

The Chinese Lunar Calendar Explained

Our guide to the venerable Chinese lunar calendar

07·08·2014

The Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, adopted the Gregorian Calendar a little more than a century ago in 1912, when they were still fighting it out with the warlords. It became the ‘official’ calendar for all of China with the KMT’s final victory in 1928. Needless to say, the Communists carried on with it after 1949.

Prior to this, the Chinese lunar calendar, or 阴历, ‘Moon calendar’ had been in use for centuries. Going by many names, this system was, in its first distinct iteration, the 太初历, or ‘Genesis Calendar’, introduced in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), although various precedents were known to have existed in preceding centuries. Despite the reforms of 1912, the lunar calendar was never fully dropped from popular usage, and for good reason.

I won’t try and explain the fine divisions of moon phases, angles of the sun and other clever mathematical and scientific sounding things because, to be quite honest, I don’t really know. The basics, however, are quite easy to grasp. The traditional Chinese calendar and its use of ‘solar terms’, or 节气, are crucial to agrarian societies. And China was, and to a large extent still is, agrarian. It’s a great system, and still remarkably accurate. Well, it’d have to be, wouldn’t it? The lives of millions of farmers used to depend on it.

I say lunar calendar, but it incorporates aspects of both the solar and lunar calendars. The concept of solar months is present in the Chinese calendar, with each pair of solar terms falling under a solar month. The first Solar term in a month is termed the ‘Sectional Solar Month’ and the second is the ‘Primary Solar Month’. Each Sectional Solar month is associated with a sign of the Chinese zodiac. Understanding these divisions is important in understanding why each of the traditional Chinese holidays fall on the days that they do. There is also sometimes a 13-month year to keep pace with the astronomical year, and are interleaved with the 12-month year outlined below:

1. 娵訾 (jūzī)

 The Beginning of Spring (立春 lìchūn)

This is when Spring Festival is celebrated, and is better known as Chinese New Year. You know, with the firecrackers and little red packets and all that stuff. The fifteenth of lichun is also when the Lantern Festival is celebrated. This involves lanterns, surprisingly enough, as well as the glutinous rice balls with fillings which are called 汤圆.

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Image courtesy of Joe Mabel [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rain Water (雨水 yǔshuǐ)

Literally meaning ‘rain’, this is used to indicate the fact that rain begins to take precedence over snow.

2. 降娄 (jiànglóu)

 Wakening Insects (惊蛰 jīngzhé)

This Solar term indicates that light rain gives way to thunderstorms, thereby awakening the insects. This is also the time when the festival of ‘Longtaitou‘ (龙抬头), or ‘ the Dragon raises its head’ is celebrated, with the Dragon King being believed to be responsible for bringing the rains. This festival therefore incorporates elements of worship by way of asking for a smooth year’s crop cultivation.

Vernal Equinox (春分 chūnfēn)

It has a rather plain title, and yet the pentads (five-day groups) which make it up are rather dramatically called ‘Dark Birds arrive’, ‘Thunder sounds’ and ‘Lightning begins’.

3. 大梁 (dàliáng)

Bright and Clear (清明 qīngmíng)

Again rather self explanatory, this Solar Term consists of the Pentads: ‘The Paulonia blooms’, ‘Voles and Quails’ and ‘Rainbows appear’. This is when the Qingming Festival (清明) is celebrated. Traditions during this time include 踏青, literally ‘Stepping on the Green’, meaning to generally go outside and enjoy the Springtime weather, as well as 扫墓, Tomb Sweeping.

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Grain Rain (谷雨 gǔyǔ)

Contrary to what you might expect, this does not describe a ‘shower of grain’-it’s still rather too early for that. Instead, it refers to the rains which help the grain to grow.

4. 实沈 (shíshěn)

 Summer Starts (立夏 lìxià)

According to the Chinese method of calculation, summer officially starts with this solar term. So it begins.

 Grain is Full (小满 xiǎomǎn)

A rather agriculturally specific one, this.

5. 鹑首 (chúnshǒu)

 Grain in Ear (芒种 mángzhòng)

The Dragon Boat Festival usually falls in this Solar term, although it has on occasion occurred in ‘Summer Extreme’ (see below), or ‘Grain is full’, the preceding solar term. 粽子(sticky rice, red dates and various concoctions wrapped in bamboo leaves) and Dragon boat racing are staples of this festival.

Summer Extreme (夏至 xiàzhì)

Tthe astrological and ‘scientific’ summit of summer according to the Chinese method of calculation–not its hottest point though.

6. 鹑火 (chúnhuǒ)

Little Heat (小暑 xiǎoshǔ)

The beginning of the colossal sticky, sweaty heatwave which persists relentlessly for a full two months.

 Big Heat (大暑 dàshǔ)

The peak of the heatwave, the third and last pentad of this solar term being the absolute hottest it gets all year.

7. 鹑尾 (chúnwěi )

 The Start of Autumn (立秋 lìqiū)

Pretty self-explanatory, really. A rather sizeable festival which falls on this day is ‘Ghost Day‘ 鬼节, in which the realms of the dead are believed to be open to the world of the living.

Limit of Heat (处暑 chǔshǔ)

Marks the end of the heatwave. Hurray.

8. 寿星 (shòuxīng)

 White Dew (白露 báilù)

Kicks off an avian-themed trio of pentads. 1. The Wild Geese come 2. The Dark Birds return 3. Birds hoard their stocks. This is also the time of the Mid-autumn festival, the one which prominently features lanterns and, more famously, moon cakes.

Image By Shizhao (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

 The Equinox of Autumn (秋分 qiūfēn)

The calculated peak of the autumnal season

9. 大火 (dàhuǒ)

 Cold Dew (寒露 hánlù)

Kicks off a Solar term that sounds like it should be some sort of carbonated beverage. This is when the Double Ninth Festival 重阳节 is celebrated. Much like the Qingming festival earlier in the year, there is a tradition of tomb-sweeping at this time.

 Frost descends (霜降 shuāngjiàng)

Again, pretty self explanatory

10. 析木 (xīmù)

 Winter Begins (立冬 lìdōng)

Winter begins, according to the Chinese method of calculation

 Minor Snow (小雪 xiǎoxuě)

Winter is really supposed to kick-off at this point as snow is said to begin on this date.

11. 星纪 (xīngjì)

 Major Snow (大雪 dàxuě)

Fun fun fun.

 The Winter Solstice (冬至 dōngzhì)

This is when Winter Extreme begins. Having been celebrated as an end-of-harvest festival for centuries, this is now also celebrated by many urban Chinese who chow down on tangyuan again in a show of familial unity and harmony.

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12. 玄枵 (xuánxiāo)

 Small Cold (小寒 xiǎohán)

The chill begins to set in.

 Great Cold (大寒 dàhán)

The Year comes full circle with its coldest Solar term.

Cover Image courtesy of Flickr User Simon Bergmann. Used and edited under a Creative Commons license.