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The Revered Chinese Calendar

大家好!(I feel great to be here again!) This is the second article on the Chinese New Year series. In the last article, we learned how to greet Chinese during the New Year and how to appreciate the Spring Couplets. Today we will look at the Chinese calendar, which is more in tune with the natural rhythm of the universe and the earth compared to the regular calendar. We will mainly talk about the Chinese numerals and the Solar terms, the 24 points in the Chinese calendar that match particular astronomical events and signify some natural phenomenon, followed by how the Chinese use the calendar as guidance for their agricultural activities and celebrations. We will have fun!

First, the Chinese calendar, or 农历/nóng lì/, is a lunar calendar which arranges the year, month and day numbers based upon the astronomical date. It is also called 旧历/jiù lì/ or 阴历/ yīn lì/. In the Chinese calendar, the months begin on the day with the dark moon and end on the day before the next dark moon. There are 29 or 30 days in a month. A Month with 30 days is referred to as a long month (大月), and a month with 29 days is referred to as a short month (小月). Surprisingly,the Chinese calendar is not the official calendar of China, but it is no less important than the regular calendar: it determines the date for the Chinese traditional holidays. It also decides other things such as when to get married,have a funeral, when to open a business, or when to relocate.

In the Chinese calendar, the dates are normalized to two characters. The basic Chinese numerals are:


yī ,   èr ,   sān , sì ,  wǔ ,  liù ,  qī ,  bā ,   jiǔ ,  shí .

The first 10 days in a month are: 初一、初二、初三、初四、初五、初六、初七、初八、初九、初十。初 /chū/ means the beginning. The first 10 days is also known as the fore xún (上旬).

The next 10 days in the month are: 十一、十二、十三、十四、十五、十六、十七、十八、十九、二十。Like arabic numerals, double digits are simply two numbers side by side with the tens digit on the left and the single unit digit on the right. 十一/shí yī/ represents the number 11. 二十/èr shí/ is the Chinese character for 20 and is often written as 廿 /niàn/ to make sure the numbers from 21 to 29 are still two characters. These middle 10 days is called the mid xún(中旬).

The last 10 days in the month are: 廿一、廿二、廿三、廿四、廿五、廿六、廿七、廿八、廿九、(三十)。三十 represents the number 30. These last 9 or 10 days is the back xún(下旬).

The solar terms, or 节气/jié qì/, are important components of the Chinese calendar. The solar terms are any of the 24 points in Chinese calendars that are spaced 15° apart along the ecliptic and are used to stay synchronized with the seasons. The solar terms are crucial for China which is traditionally an agrarian society. In the solar terms map below, the four seasons are marked clockwise with shades of green, red, yellow and blue:


                                                                        The List of Solar Terms

Longitude Translation Chinese Name Date Explanation
315° start of spring 立春 lì chūn Feb 4
330° rain water 雨水yǔ shuǐ Feb 19 more rain than snow
345° awakening of insects 惊蛰jīng zhé Mar 6 Hibernating insects start to waken from their winter sleep
vernal equinox 春分chūn fēn Mar 21 The day when daytime and night are of approximately equal duration
15° clear and bright 清明qīng míng Apr 5 The whole earth now welcomes the spring and it is also a time for tending graves
30° grain rain 谷雨gǔ yǔ Apr 20 More and more rain which helps grain grow
45° start of summer 立夏lì xià May 6
60° grain full 小满xiǎo mǎn May 21 Grains are plump
75° grain in ear 芒种máng zhòng Jun 6 Awns (beard of grain) grow
90° summer solstice 夏至xià zhì Jun 21 Summer extreme (of sun's height)
105° minor heat 小暑xiǎo shǔ Jul 7
120° major heat 大暑 dà shǔ Jul 23
135° start of autumn 立秋lì qiū Aug 8
150° limit of heat 处暑chǔ shǔ Aug 23 The end of the heat
165° white dew 白露 bái lù Sep 8 Condensed moisture makes dew white
180° antumnal equinox 秋分qiū fēn Sep 23 Autumn division (or center)
195° cold dew 寒露hán lù Oct 8
210° frost descent 霜降shuāng jiàng Oct 23 Appearance of frost and descent of temperature
225° start of winter 立冬lì dōng Nov 7
240° minor snow 小雪xiǎo xuě Nov 22
255° major snow 大雪dà xuě Dec 7
270° winter solstice 冬至dōng zhì Dec 22 Winter extreme (of sun's height)
285° minor cold 小寒xiǎo hán Jan 6
300° major cold 大寒dà hán Jan 20
Folks created the “the song of Solar Terms” for easy memory.

The first four sentences are the 24 solar terms connected in order, each represented by one word in their name. There are two solar terms in each month and the dates of these solar terms are generally consistent, with only 1 or 2 days of deviation at most. In the first half of the year, the dates of the solar terms fall on the sixth or the 21st day of the month; and in the latter half of the year, the dates of the solar terms fall on the eighth or the 23rd of the month.

On the Chinese calendar, when it is the date of a solar term or a traditional holiday, the Chinese numeral is replaced by the solar term or the holiday. For example, 立春 and 春节 in 2015 replace the regular numeral characters (marked with red rectangular in the image below).

 calendar 1

Okay, I hope you learned something about what actually governs the life rhythm of the Chinese people. We do believe in science and are a rational people, but if the calendar says it is no good to get married today, we may very likely obey the calendar and get married tomorrow. Next time, we will continue our Chinese New Year journey and look at what people do and eat in the most festive time of the year. 下次再见啦!


二十四节气表 http://www.zolsky.com/read/zhougongjiemeng/ershisijieqibiao/2013nian24jieqibiao.htm

Chinese Calendar: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_calendar

Solar Terms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_term

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