What Is The Lunar Calendar In China And How Does It Work?

There are several calendar systems that exist and they can be quite complex because there is no fixed, regular number of days or lunar months to a specific year. Generally, all calendars are based on the astronomical cycles, that is, the rotation of the Earth (a day), the orbit of the moon around the earth (a month), and the Earth’s orbit around the sun (a year). In this write-up, we will extensively discuss the Chinese Lunar Calendar, which is based on observations of the astronomical cycles. Read on to learn more about its history, the Chinese Calendar Zodiac, and how the Chinese Lunar Calendar works.

What is the Chinese Lunar Calendar?

The traditional Chinese calendar, popularly known as the Agricultural calendar, Chinese Lunar Calendar, or the Yin Calendar, is a lunisolar calendar that clearly identifies days, months, and years according to astronomical phenomena. Modern China, like nearly all other countries in the world today, uses the Gregorian calendar to track time throughout the year. Even so, the traditional Chinese calendar/Chinese Lunar Calendar plays an important role in Chinese history and culture and it governs important holidays in China. Some of these holidays are the Chinese New Year and the Lantern Festival, which is based on the Lunar Calendar specifications in China and the rest of the world where dominant Chinese communities are present.

Along with that, the Lunar Calendar gives Chinese terminologies of dates within a year which the Chinese use to select favorable days for starting new businesses, weddings, moving houses, and funerals of their loved ones. Generally, according to the Chinese Lunar calendar, years start on the 2nd or third new moon after the winter solstice, months start on the day of the new moon, and days begin and end at midnight. Also, solar terms tend to govern the beginning and end of each lunar month.

Chinese Lunar Calendar History

According to historical records and several other Chinese literary works, the Chinese Lunar Calendar was developed between 771 BC and 476 BC, during the Spring and Autumn Season of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. Before then, only solar calendars, which were the 5-elemental calendars derived from the Wu Xing, were used. Also, other calendars such as the 4-quarters calendar and the balanced calendar were used before the discovery of the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

The Zhou calendar, which was introduced under the Zhou Dynasty, is considered the first lunisolar calendar to have ever existed. The calendar sets the beginning of a new year at the day of the new moon right before the winter solstice. At the time of the introduction of the calendar, several states were fighting Zhou control during the Warring States Period, and this saw the simultaneous introduction of competing for lunisolar calendars.  The state of Lu hand its own calendar, Jin issued its own Xia calendar, Qin issues the Zhuanxu calendar, and Song also had its own calendar. These calendars are referred to as the quarter-remainder calendars or the six ancient calendars. The months began on the day of the new month, and every year had about 12-13 months. An intercalary month, which was the 13th month, was added to the end of the year. As time went by, modern versions of the Zhuanxu calendar known as the Qiang and Dai calendars came up and were used by the mountain peoples.

After the powerful and influential emperor Qin Shi Huang successfully unified China under the authoritarian Qin dynasty in 221 BC, a new calendar was introduced. It was known as the Qin calendar and it followed nearly all the rules governing the Zhuangxu calendar. The main difference was that the year started on the 10th month and ended on the 9th.   13th month, that is the intercalary month, was placed at the end year, and this calendar was also used by the Han dynasty.

During the Han and Ming dynasties, the 24 solar terms, which divided the year into 24 equal parts was introduced, and this was known as the Taichu calendar. This calendar established a more organized framework for all traditional calendars and all other future calendars followed suit. During the Ling dynasty, the Daming calendar that was introduced by Zu Chongzi introduced the equinoxes. Later on, in the Tang dynasty’s Wuyin Yuan Calendar, the use of a syzygy to determine the lunar month was first seen. After, in the Yuan Dynasty, a calendar that had a similar format as the Gregorian calendar was introduced.

Despite the fact that the Chinese calendar lost its position as the country’s official calendar at the onset of the 20th century, it is still used up to date. During the late Ming dynasty, a new calendar based on Western astronomical arithmetic was introduced and it was used in the early Qing dynasty as a seasonal calendar. According to this Shíxiàn calendar, the solar terms are 15° each along the ecliptic and it is used as a solar calendar. The baseline however, it the Chinese Standard Time and astronomical data is used in the calendar. Several proposals have been made to optimize the Chinese calendars.

Who invented the Chinese Lunar Calendar?

The origin of the Chinese Lunar calendar can be traced back to the 14th century BC and according to a popular Chinese Legend,as it that Emperor Huangdi- the Yellow Emperor, invented the Lunar Calendar in 2637 BC. Just as we mentioned earlier, the Chinese calendar is based on exact/accurate astronomical observations of the sun’s longitude and the various phases of the moon. Based on that explanation, we can deduce that the principles of modern science have a huge impact on the Chinese calendar.

When is the Chinese New Year on the Lunar Calendar?

The calendar terminologies ‘Lunar New Year’ and ‘Chinese New Year’ mean the same thing and it not celebrated, as New Year’s is in many parts of the world. The Chinese New Year is also known as the Lunar New Year, because the dates of celebration follow through the phases of the moon. The specific date of the Chinese New Year is often determined by the Chinese Lunar Calendar and the date changes annually. The date is often between 21, January and 20, February. In other countries, the New Year begins on January 1st, but in China, the New Year is marked a little later in the year. In 2021, the Chinese New Year was celebrated on February 12, and in 2022, it will be celebrated on February 1.

The New Year celebrations go on for as long as sixteen days, but the specific days which are marked as public holidays are from the 31, January to the 6, February, which are 7 consecutive days. The Chinese take this time off work, rest and celebrate, and this week is commonly known as the Spring Festival. The widely celebrated Lantern Festival, which marks the final day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, takes place on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

How does the Chinese calendar work?

According to the Chinese, a new month begins every time the moon moves into a line with the earth and the sun. The first day of a lunar month is known as ‘Shuo Ri’ or ‘Chu Yi’. Immediately the full moon appears, the Chinese know that the middle of the month has arrived. Along with that, the time of a full moon circle is considered to be a little over 29 days, so, a month has about 29 or 30 days.

In addition to that, there are about 12 to 13 months in a lunar year. The first lunar month is ushered in by the first solar term, which is the Beginning of Spring. On the first day nearest to this solar term, the Spring Festival, which varies between 20th January and 20th February, is held.

Just like the Gregorian calendar has a leap year that actively compensates for the fact that earth doesn’t necessarily travel around the sun in an exact 365 days, the calendar is adjusted to ensure that there is a balance in the movement of the sun between the northern and southern tropics. This is where a leap month comes in. To decide when the leap month should be added to ensure that the lunar calendar is at par with the movement of the earth around the sun, the 24 solar terms come into consideration. In this case, most months may have more one than one solar term, but in instances where one lunar month has only one solar term, it is repeated with about 29 or 30 days as a normal month. This explains why there are 13 months in some years, but this only occurs after every two to three years.

How to read the Chinese Lunar Calendar

Each month within the Chinese calendar begins with the new moon. The first month of a New Year is referred to as Zhēng Yuè, and this marks the beginning of the new year cycle, and afterwards the New Year celebrations.

The calendar then ends with the final winter month, which is referred to as Là Yuè. Since the twelve Lunar months do not necessarily add up to a full solar year, the Chinese have added a leap month known as Rùn Yuè, that falls after very three years.

In terms of days, the days within a particular month are grouped into nine or ten-day weeks, which are referred to as Xún and every month is split into the first week (Shàng Xún), the second week (Zhōng Xún), and the third week.

How many months are there in the Chinese Lunar Calendar?

As mentioned earlier there are 12-13 months in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The table below highlights all the twelve months and gives a commentary for each month.

Month Chinese Identification English Terminology Commentary
First Month Zhēngyuè    Start MonthThis month starts the year
Second MonthXìngyuèApricot MonthDuring this month, the apricot trees blossom
Third MonthTáoyuèPeach MonthDuring this month, the peach trees greatly blossom
Forth MonthHuáiyuèLocust Tree MonthDuring this month, several locust trees blossom
Fifth MonthPúyuèSweet Sedge MonthThe fifth day of this month is when the Dragon Boat Festival is held
Sixth MonthHéyuèLotus MonthNotably, all lotus flowers in the region blossom
Seventh MonthQiǎoyuèSkill MonthOn the7th day of this month, Chinese Valentine’s Day is celebrated
Eighth MonthGuìyuèOsmanthus MonthDuring this month, several osmanthus flowers blossom
Ninth MonthJúyuèChrysanthemum MonthDuring this month, chrysanthemum flowers bloom
Tenth MonthYángyuèThe Yang MonthSupposedly, the Taoist Yang force us the strongest during this month
Eleventh MonthDōngyuèWinter MonthThe Winter Solstice is seen during this month
Twelfth MonthLàyuèPreserved MonthThe Chinese preserve meats of all kinds in preparation for the Spring Festival

What year is it in Chinese Calendar?

Compared to most other calendars that exist, the Chinese calendar does not count years in an infinite pattern. Instead, different years have names that are repeated after every sixty years. Back then, in ancient China, years were counted since the accession of a new emperor to the throne, but this general rule of thumb was abolished after the 1911 revolution. In that regard, each year is assigned a name consisting of two specific components within every 60-year cycle. The firs component I a celestial stem and the second one is a terrestrial branch (corresponding names of animals in the zodiac). This way of naming goes back 2,000 years ago and the first 60-year calendar started in 2637 BCE, when the calendar was issued.

The Celestial Stem’s are;

Number Celestial Stem Associated With
1JiaGrowing Wood
2YiCut Timber
3BingNatural Fire
4DingArtificial Fire
8XinProcessed Metal
9RenRunning Water
10GuiStill Water

The Terrestrial Branches are;

Number Chinese IdentificationEnglish Name of Animal

So, the current 60-year cycle is said to have started on 2 February 1984, and that date is referred to as ‘Bing-Yin’ and the first month of this year, was known as ‘Gui Choi”. 2021 is considered the year of the Ox and 2022 will be the year of the Tiger, then 2023, will be the year if the Rabbit, and so on.

Chinese Calendar Zodiac

The Chinese Zodiac is popularly known as Shu Xiang or Sheng Xiao. It consists of 12 animals that were first seen and heard of in the Zhan Guo period, during the 5th century BC. Reportedly, they were identified during the Han Dynasty but there are no records of the exact date when they were created. The Zodiac is calculated using a 60-year cycle, in which each of the 12 zodiac animals represents a different year.

Along with that, the Chinese zodiac is based on Chinese astrology and was the most formal way of counting hours, days, months, and years in the calendar. The Zodiac was formed from two specific components which we discussed earlier- the Terrestrial branch and the celestial stem. Each animal stands for every two hours in a 24-hour day, a day in the 12-day cycle, and a year in a 12-year cycle. Besides that, the zodiac is believed to influence people’s marriages, fortune, compatibility levels, personality, and personal career choices. So, people’s birth years actively determine their respective Chinese zodiac signs.

According to different Chinese literary works, there is a popular Chinese legend that states that the Jade Emperor had the option to select 12 animals to be his palace guards. He loved the Ox more, so he wanted it to be the first one as it was honest and diligent, but the rat went over the horses back and took the first place. The tiger then became the king of the forest and the dragon became the lord of the sea, and they both ranked behind the Ox. The rabbit became the victor in a race against the dragon and became forth. The snake, horse, sheep, monkey, and the rooster then came after. Because the dog bit the rabbit, he was supposed to be last. But, because the pig delayed to meet the Jade emperor, he had to take the last place.

Solar Terms in Chinese Calendar

The table below highlights the 24 Solar Terms of the Lunar Calendar China and outlines their meanings.

Season Solar Terms Identification in Chinese Specific Time Period when it falls (Month +Date)Commentary
Spring Season Start of SpringLìchūn February 3rd or 4thThe Spring Season commences in the South of China
Rain WaterYǔshuǐ   February 18/19thRainfall starts to increase from this date onwards
Awakening of InsectsJingZhe March 5thThunder begins during this time and the hibernating insects slowly start to awaken
The Spring Equinox(Vernal Equinox)Chūnfēn   March 20th/21stThe sun is directly above the equator and the days and nights are of equal lengths
Pure Brightness/ Clear and BrightQīngmíng  April 4thBegins when the sun reaches the celestial longitude of 15 degrees. The Qingming festival is celebrated during this time, the skies are often clear and bright and the temperatures are noticeably warmer
Grain RainGǔyǔ April 19th/20thThe last solar term in Spring where early crops slowly start showing their shoots. Also, temperatures rise rapidly and heavy rain occurs during this time. Farmers are reminded to control insect pests during this time
Summer Season Beginning of SummerLìxiàMay 5thSummer begins in the South of China
Small Grain/Grain BudsXiǎomǎnMay 20thDuring this time of the year, seeds of the summer crops start to plump, but they aren’t always ripe
Grain in EarMángzhǒngJune 5thWheat and other summer crops become completely ripe and the summer planting season begins in Southern China
Summer SolsticeXiàzhìJune 21stCharacterized by very long days and extremely short nights
Slight HeatXiǎoshǔJuly 6th/7thIt begins to become uncomfortably hot/ The hottest period of the year commences
Major HeatDàshǔJuly 22ndTemperatures are extremely hot, controlled by monsoons hence frequent showers and thunderstorms in Northern China, season of natural disasters,
Autumn Season Beginning of AutumnLìqiūAugust 7thThe Autumn season officially begins but the after heat effect is still felt. Also, this is when autumn harvesting crops ripen
Limit of HeatChùshǔAugust 23rdDuring this time, there is a transition of temperatures from hot to cool. This officially marks the end of the hot summer season
White DewBáilùSeptember 7thTemperatures are decreasing at this time; dew appears in the early morning on the grounds and the leaves.
The Autumnal EquinoxQiūfēnSeptember 22ndDay and night are equally long. During this time, farmers sow winter wheat and rice
Cold DewHánlùOctober 8thThe dew on the ground and on the leaves is colder and easily becomes frozen dew. There is less rain and the temperatures are much lower. During this time, farmers try to protect their crops  from freeze injury
Descent of FrostShuāngjiàngOctober 23rdThe weather becomes much colder and frost begins to fall (mostly in North China)
Winter Season Beginning of WinterLìdōngNovember 7thAnimals go into hibernation, crops harvested in autumn need to be stored up. (In this case, winter starts in Northern China, but comes later in Southern China)
Minor/Slight SnowXiǎoxuěNovember 22ndSudden temperature drops and it becomes much colder, a little snow is seen during this time
Great/Major SnowDàxuěDecember 7thIt begins to snow heavily and it marks the beginning of mid-winter. These are the coldest days for most parts of China. Chinese believe heavy snow during this time equals great harvest
The Winter SolsticeDōngzhìDecember 21stExtremely long nights and short days. During this time, the Chinese worship gods and the ancestors as they believe that the energy of heaven and earth is starting to grow stronger. People of North China eat spicy dumplings and people of south China eat sweet dumplings during this time
Slight/Minor ColdXiǎohánJanuary 6thThe coldest days of the year begin
Great/Major ColdDàhánJanuary 20thSevere cold

Chinese calendar vs gregorian calendar

The Gregorian calendar and the Chinese calendar are two of many calendar systems. Unlike the Chinese lunar calendar, which is primarily used in East Asia, the Gregorian solar calendar is in use all over the world.

Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian calendar in 1582; it is a solar calendar, meaning that the length of a year is calculated from the time it takes the Earth to complete one orbit around the sun. In a typical year, there are 365 days; in a leap year, there are 366. For civil purposes like planning events and holidays, the Gregorian calendar is widely used.

China, on the other hand, has been using a calendar based on the lunar cycle for more than four thousand years. Each of the 12 lunar months in the Chinese calendar begins on the first day of the new moon, as the calendar is based on lunar cycles. In the Chinese calendar, a year is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar because a lunar month is about 29.5 days long. Every few years, the Chinese calendar adds a leap month to compensate for this discrepancy.

The use of zodiac signs based on animals is a distinctive aspect of the Chinese calendar. Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig are the 12 animals that represent the years in the Chinese calendar. People’s personalities and futures are said to be shaped by the animal sign that corresponds to the year they were born.

Traditional Chinese festivals and holidays, such as the Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and the Dragon Boat Festival, are all based on specific dates that are calculated using the Chinese calendar. The dates of these festivals and holidays shift from year to year because they are based on the lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian one.

Final Thoughts

The traditional festivals, holidays, and celebrations in China are entirely determined by the Chinese Lunar Calendar. In as much as it is not popularly used today, it is an integral part of Chinas history and culture.

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