THE SOLAR TERMS AND
THE CHINESE CALENDAR

Chinese astronomy divides the year into twenty-four parts ("fortnights"), based on the longitude of the sun on the ecliptic. These are called the "Solar Terms," or the , the "Twenty-Four Periods of Ch'i" (where ch'i, , is the "breath" or vital energy of the body, but also simply air, steam, or weather). As recounted in "Groundhog Day and Chinese Astronomy", the Chinese seasons begin at the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes, not at the solstices and equinoxes themselves. The Chinese New Year, according to the rule of the T'ai-ch'u Era (104 BC) of the Emperor Wu Ti of the Former Han Dynasty, is the Second New Moon after the Winter Solstice, which amounts, roughly, to the Closest New Moon to the Solar Term "Spring Begins" (February 3/4). In 2013, the Chinese New Year falls on February 10th, seven days after Spring Begins on February 3 (and, as luck would have it, two days before Mardi Gras). The twelve parts of the year corresponding to the signs of the Zodiac each consists of two Solar Terms, but four Zodiacal periods overlap two seasons. The seasons are of different lengths because, according to Kepler's Second Law, the Earth travels faster the closer it is to the Sun. Between January 2 and 4, the Earth reaches Perihelion, its closest approach to the sun, and travels the fastest. Thus, Chinese winter is only 89 days long, while Summer is (roughly) 94 days long.

The Chinese New Year is often called the "lunar" new year, but it is no more "lunar" than the Babylonian, Jewish, or Islamic new years, which are also based on lunar months. Like the Babylonian and Jewish calendars, the Chinese is "luni-solar," with lunar months adjusted with intercalations for the solar year. The Vietnamese new year, Tet, is often also identified as "the lunar new year," but it is, indeed, just the Chinese New Year. The Chinese calendar was similarly used in Korea, Japan, and Mongolia [note]. Another confusion about the Chinese New Year is the phrase gung hay fat choi, which is often said to be "Happy New Year!" in Chinese. In 2004 I have actually seen a news report that this was the right phrase in Mandarin Chinese. But it is not. It is in one of the other Chinese languages (or "dialects"), or Cantonese, which is spoken in Guandong Province and Hong Kong. Cantonese syllables can end in m, t, p, or k, while Mandarin syllables cannot. The word fat thus shows that the phrase cannot be Mandarin. Its currency is probably due to the circumstance that most Chinese immigrants to the United States before World War II were from Guandong Province, with Hong Kong itself contributing its influence (especially with a large movie industry) since then.

THE SOLAR TERMSPrin-
cipal
Terms
ChineseJapaneseLengthDateZodiac
1. Spring BeginsRisshun15d91dFebruary 4Aquarius
2. Rain WaterP-1Usui15dFebruary 19Pisces
3. Excited InsectsKeichitsu15dMarch 6
4. Vernal EquinoxP-2Shumbun15dMarch 21Aries
5. Clear & BrightSeimei15dApril 5
6. Grain RainsP-3Kokuu16dApril 20Taurus
7. Summer BeginsRikka15d94dMay 6
8. Grains FillsP-4Shôman16dMay 21Gemini
9. Grain in EarBôshoû15dJune 6
10. Summer SolsticeP-5Geji16dJune 21Cancer
11. Slight HeatShôsho16dJuly 7
12. Great HeatP-6Daisho16dJuly 23Leo
13. Autumn BeginsRisshû15d91dAugust 8
14. Limit of HeatP-7Shosho16dAugust 23Virgo
15. White DewHakuro15dSeptember 8
16. Autumn EquinoxP-8Shûbun15dSeptember 23Libra
17. Cold DewKanro15dOctober 8
18. Frost DescendsP-9Sôkô15dOctober 23Scorpius
19. Winter BeginsRittô15d89dNovember 7
20. Little SnowP-10Shôsetsu15dNovember 22Sagittarius
21. Great SnowDaisetsu15dDecember 7
22. Winter SolsticeP-11Tôji15dDecember 22Capricorn
23. Little ColdShôkan14dJanuary 6
24. Great ColdP-12Daikan15dJanuary 20Aquarius

Ch'ing Ming, , "Clear and Bright," contains a major spring festival, used to visit the family tombs, to clean them up, venerate the ancestors, and have a picnic. These also happen to be the names of the last two Chinese Imperial Dynasties, the Ming (1368-1644) and the Ch'ing (1644-1912), chosen for their auspicious associations.

The term "White Dew," , whose Japanese on reading (i.e. with the words borrowed from Chinese) is Hakuro, also figures in its kun reading (i.e. with Japanese words), Shiratsuyu, as the name of a Japanese World War II destroyer.

Since length of all terms may vary slightly from year to year, all dates may occur a day earlier.

The terms given "P" numbers are called "principal terms," , "ch'i centers" to Joseph Needham [Science & Civilisation in China, Volume III, p.404]. They correspond to the beginning of Zodiacal periods and are used to determine the numbering of the lunar months. The terms that are not prinicpal terms are , "sectional terms" ("ch'i-nodes" to Needham), though it will be noted that this is also the term for all the solar terms also. Five rules determine the numbering of the months and the occurrence of intercalary months:

  1. The first day of the month is the day on which the New Moon occurs.
  2. Calculations of New Moons are based on the meridian 120o East.
  3. An ordinary year has twelve lunar months; an intercalary year has thirteen lunar months.
  4. The Winter Solstice (term P-11) always falls in the 11th Month.
  5. In an intercalary year, a month in which there is no Principal Term is the intercalary month. It is assigned the number of the preceding month, with the further designation of intercalary. If two months contain no Principal Term, only the first such month after the Winter Solstice is considered intercalary.

These rules, which may be found in the Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac [prepared by The Nautical Almanac Office, U.S. Naval Observatory, edited by P. Kenneth Seidelmann, University Science Books, Mill Valley, California, 1992, p.596], do not provide a simple means for amateurs to construct a Chinese calendar. This was always done by Court Astronomers and still calls for precise astronomical data and special calculations, though it should be reliable enough to use the data for New Moons and for the ecliptic longitude of of the sun in The Astronomical Almanac for the year in question [U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, and Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London]. A table with the Chinese characters for all the Solar Terms may be found in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972], p. 1178. My original information about the Chinese calendar was from O.L. Harvey's pamphlet, "The Chinese Calendar and the Julian Day Number" [1977], which was based on Chronological Tables of Chinese History, by Tung Tso-pin [Hong Kong University Press, 1960], a rare work that I have never examined independently. The locus classicus for Chinese astronomy may be Joseph Needham, Science & Civilisation in China, Volume III, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth [Cambridge U. Press, 1959, 2005].

Curiously, the history of the Chinese calendar at one point becomes mixed with that of the Western astronomy. This was because Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), a student of Christopher Clavius (1537-1612) -- the Papal astronomer responsible for the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582 -- was sent to China by the Jesuit Order in that very year. Ricci was permitted to travel to Peking in 1596, and then in 1601 presented a mechanical clock to the Emperor and was allowed to appear at Court. Ricci, who soon became impressively learned in the Chinese language and literature, was able to introduce Western theoretical and technical astronomy to China. This was, unfortunately, Ptolemaic rather than Copernican astronomy, but it nevertheless included methods that were better than had been used in China. This created a position of influence for the Jesuits at the Imperial Court that lasted from the Ming into the 19th century, with a steady stream of inventions like the telescope and even Copernican ideas following in their wake. Indeed, in 1611, the Jesuits were charged with reforming the calendar. There was considerable resistance to this from the Chinese astronomers and matters were delayed, but the Imperial order was renewed in 1629. This Jesuit influence was continued into the Manchu Ch'ing Dynasty. The political opposition to this perhaps reached a peak in the time of Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666), who was given charge of the Jesuit mission in 1630. In 1644, Schall and the other Jesuits were arrested for treason and imprisoned. In 1665 Schall was condemned to death. However, this judgment was soon revoked and the position of Schall (soon to pass away naturally) and the Jesuits restored. In 1669, in the time of Father Ferdinand Verbiest (16231688), the Manchu K'ang-Hsi Emperor again renewed the charge of the Jesuits with reforming the calendar and even ordered a belated official funeral, with an Imperial Inscription, for Father Schall. Even when Christianity was prohibited in China in 1724, the Jesuits were retained at Court. Thus, as noted, since the Chinese calendar is governed, not by the simple rules of the Julian or Gregorian calendars, but by the astronomical determination of New Moons, this process came under the influence of the Jesuits and of Western astronomy. This influence may be said to have continued until today, since Western astronomy has grown into the modern international science.

The Occurrence of the Solar Terms 1995-2013

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Copyright (c) 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2013 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


The Solar Terms and The Chinese Calendar, Note


I have had one Mongolian correspondent claiming that Chinese astronomy, attested from antiquity, was derived from the Mongols. Since the Mongols adopted writing only in the time of Chinggiz Khan, I don't think there is much doubt, from the historical evidence, that Chinese astronomy originated in China.

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THE CHINESE 60 YEAR
CALENDAR CYCLE

The Earthly Branches
ChinaJapanViet-
nam
Mongoliaassociations
1.shinequlughana2008
Rat
11 AMAries
2.chuushi. uüker2009
Ox
1 PMTaurus
3.intorad'ânbars2010
Tiger
3 PMGemini
4.boumãotaulai2011
Rabbit
5 PMCancer
5.shintatsuthìnluu2000
2012
Dragon
7 PMLeo
6.shimitymoghai2001
2013
Snake
9 PMVirgo
7.goumango.morin2002
2014
Horse
11 PMLibra
8.bihitsujimùiqonin2003
Sheep
1 AMScorpio
9.shinsaruthânbechin2004
Monkey
3 AMSagittarius
10.yutoridâ.utakiya2005
Chicken
5 AMCapricorn
11.jutsuinutuâ'tnoqai2006
Dog
7 AMAquarius
12.gaiiho: ighaqai2007
Pig
9 AMPisces
Chinese years are classified according to 10 "Heavenly Stems" and 12 "Earthly Branches." The succession of Stems and Branches produces a sixty year calendar cycle. The Earthly Branches are more familiar, since one association is with 12 Zodiacal animals, which in Buddhist tradition are supposed to be the animals that responded when the Buddha called to them, like
St. Francis, to hear him preach the Dharma. Most people hear about the Chinese New Year and know, for a while, that a year like 2000 is the "Year of the Dragon." The Chinese names, in Pinyin, are not the names of animals, but the proper names of the "Branches." The Japanese list gives the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese name followed by the Japanese name of the corresponding animal. The Vietnamese names are the Vietnamese pronuncation of the Chinese names. The Mongolian names are the animal names.

The primary association of the Heavenly Stems is with the five elements. These are divided into yang or "elder brother" and yin or "younger brother" forms. The Chinese names are not the element names, but the proper names of the "Stems." Note that these figure as the second element in the names of the Kings of the Shang Dynasty. The Japanese and Mongolian lists give their pronunciation of the Chinese names followed by the elder/younger version of the element names. The Vietnamese list is just the pronunciation of the Chinese names.

The Heavenly Stems
ChinaJapanViet-
nam
Mongoliaassociations
1.koki-no-egiápgaere modun2004
2014
yangwood
fir
Jupiter
blue/
green
2.otsuki-no-toâ'tyieme modun2005yinbamboo
3.heihi-no-ebínhbingere ghal2006yangfire
burning wood
Mars
red
4.teihi-no-toðinhdingeme ghal2007yinlamp flame
5.botsuchi- no-emâ.uuere shiroi2008yangearth
hill
Saturn
yellow
6.kitsuchi- no-togieme shiroi2009yinplain
7.ka-no-ecanhgingere temür2000
2010
yangmetal
weapons
Venus
white
8.shinka-no-totânsineme temür2001
2011
yinkettle
9.jinmizu- no-enhâmshimere usun2002
2012
yangwater
waves
Mercury
black
10.kimizu- no-toquígüieme usun2003
2013
yinbrooks

A table with the Chinese characters for all the Earthy Branches and Celestial Stems may be found in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972], p. 1176. Treatments of the Japanese Branches and Stems, and other calendar features, may be found in the Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan, E. Papinot [Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1910, 1972], p. 836, and in The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature, Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell [Princeton University Press, 1985], p. 399. The Vietnamese names here are taken from Nguyên Ðình-Hoà's Vietnamese-English Dictionary [Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1966, 1991], under listings for chi (the Earthly Branches, p. 62) and can (the Heavenly Stems, p. 31). Vietnamese diacritics cannot be rendered precisely in HTML.

The Occurrence of the Solar Terms 1995-2013

History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of Science, Calendars

Philosophy of Science

Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1997, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved