What Is Sexagenary Cycle?- Chinese 60-year Cycle

Numeral systems are simply writing systems for expressing numbers. They are often structured procedures or methods for counting so as to determine the total units within a particular collection. One of the numeration systems in China is the Sexagenary Cycle, which we will extensively discuss in this article. Read on to find out more about it.

Sexagenary Meaning

In general, the word ‘sexagenary’ describes something/someone pertaining to the number 60 or something composed of or proceeding by 60s. The sexagenary cycle, which is otherwise known as Ganzhi in China, the 60-year cycle, or the Stems-and-Branches is described as a cycle of 60 terms. It is an ancient counting system which was frequently used to record time in China and other East Asian regions, and it is also referred to as the primary means of recording dates in ancient Chinese literary works.

Each term found in the sexagenary cycle is comprised of two Chinese characters. The first character is one of the ten Heavenly stems of the Shang-era week and the second character is one of the 12 Earthly branches that represent the various years of Jupiter’s cycle around its orbit. The first heavenly stem is paired with the first earthly branch, the second heavenly stem is paired with the second earthly branch, and so on and so forth. However, the last two characters in the 12 earthly braches are paired to the heavenly stems according to their yin and yang properties. Whenever one runs out of the stems and branches, they are to start from the beginning, just as one would when trying to read through time on a clock.

The first table below shows the ten Heavenly Stems and the twelve earthly branches as denoted by the sexagenary cycle.

Number Heavenly Stems Earthly Branches
OneJiǎ (甲)Zǐ (子)
TwoYǐ (乙)Chǒu (丑)
ThreeBǐng (丙)Yín (寅)
FourDīng (丁)Mǎo (卯)
FiveWù (戊)Chén (辰)
SixJǐ (己)Sì (巳)
SevenGēng (庚)Wǔ (午)
EightXīn (辛)Wèi (未) 
NineRén (壬)Shēn (申)
TenGuǐ (癸)Yǒu (酉)
ElevenXū (戌)
TwelveHài (亥)

The second table below highlights the 60 numbers which are found within the sexagenary cycle. If you look through the numbers, you will realize that some numbers have the same connotation, which explains how one has to start over from the beginning very time they run out of stems and branches.

Number ConnotationNumber ConnotationNumber ConnotationNumber Connotation
One Jiǎ zǐSixteen Jǐ sì Thirty-OneJiǎ zǐ Forty SixJǐ sì
TwoYǐ chǒuSeventeen Gēng wǔThirty Two Yǐ chǒuForty Seven Gēng wǔ
ThreeBǐng yínEighteen Xīn wèiThirty ThreeBǐng yínForty Eight Xīn wèi
FourDīng mǎoNineteen Rén shēnThirty Four Dīng mǎoForty Nine Rén shēn
FiveWù chénTwenty Guǐ yǒuThirty FiveWù chénFifty Guǐ yǒu
SixJǐ sìTwenty One Jiǎ zǐThirty Six Jǐ sìFifty One Jiǎ zǐ
SevenGēng wǔTwenty Two Yǐ chǒuThirty Seven Gēng wǔFifty TwoYǐ chǒu
Eight Xīn wèiTwenty ThreeBǐng yínThirty Eight Xīn wèiFifty ThreeBǐng yín
Nine Rén shēnTwenty Four Dīng mǎoThirty Nine Rén shēnFifty Four Dīng mǎo
Ten Guǐ yǒuTwenty Five Wù chénForty Guǐ yǒuFifty Five Wù chén
ElevenJiǎ zǐTwenty SixJǐ sìForty One Jiǎ zǐFifty SixJǐ sì
Twelve Yǐ chǒuTwenty Seven Gēng wǔForty Two Yǐ chǒuFifty Seven Gēng wǔ
Thirteen Bǐng yínTwenty Eight Xīn wèiForty ThreeBǐng yínFifty Eight Xīn wèi
Fourteen Dīng mǎoTwenty Nine Rén shēnForty Four Dīng mǎoFifty Nine Rén shēn
Fifteen Wù chénThirty Guǐ yǒuForty Five Wù chénSixty Guǐ yǒu

The Origin of the Sexagenary Cycle in China

The sexageary cycle dates back to 1100 BC, when it was used as a method of recording days from the ancient written records in China. Most oracle bone inscriptions found in China today include a date under the format given by the sexagenary cycle. The use of this cycle was mostly used during the Zhou dynasty and it also served as the main documentary method for dates throughout the Han Dynasty period. In addition to that, the dates present in the Spring and Autumn Annals (the period between 722 BC and 481 BC) combines regnal months and years to record dates. Using it to record years, however, is a slightly recent activity. However, the count of years has remained uninterrupted ever since its inception. Its use has become widespread and is seen in countries such as Japan and Korea, among other countries. According to historical records, there is a Korean and Japanese tradition that involves the celebration of the sixtieth birthday in line with the sexagenary cycle.

Sexagenary Cycle Calculator

stems and branches chart

The Chinese Bazi calculator is often based on the seagenary cycle as mentioned above. The calculator is comprised of four key components related to time, which are the hour, day, month and year. These four components are often referred to as the four pillars of time and they play a critical role in determining a person’s future within the 60-year cycle. The calculation process makes it easier for one to understand themselves better, understand their career path in order to make it more meaningful and even social relationships around them, to identify the functional ones and those which are not.

Ideally, each pillar out of the four has a Heavenly Stem and an Earthly Branch. The calculator/counting system combines the solar calendar, which includes the 24 solar terms and the sexagenary cycle. Despite its ancient roots, it remains the time-keeping system that is entirely unique to China and East Asia.


While this traditional method of numbering days, months and years doesn’t have a significant role in China’s current calendar or in modern Chinese time-keeping, it is still valued in China. It is often encountered when discussing the Korean Imjin War, the Chinese Xinhai Revolution, the Vietnamese Tet Mau Than, and the Japanese Boshin War. Additionally, it plays a critical role in fortune telling and Chinese atrology as well.

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