Introduction to the Chinese Lunar Calendar
and Origin of the Zodiac Animals
Happy Year of the Monkey!
How many times have you heard that phrase over the past week? Here in China, monkeys are everywhere ~ on windows, doors, car windows, shop windows, table settings, phone covers. You name it, it has a monkey on it.
It’s actually a really fun part of traditional Chinese culture! One of the things you quickly get used to while teaching in China is students asking you which animal you belong to. Or they like to tell you what animal they are as part of their self-introduction. For example, one of my girls wrote in her introduction that she was a quiet girl because she was a rabbit.
It’s kind of hard to explain to foreigners the role the zodiac plays in China today. Perhaps the best comparison is America’s superstitions about the number 13 or black cats or opening umbrellas inside. While most people aren’t desperate to avoid ladders and cracks on the road, we don’t exactly rush over to break mirrors or get married on Friday 13. And we certainly like to get the number 7 or find a four leaf clover. On the other hand, there are the Americans who really are super superstitious and do try to abide by all the rules.
The Chinese treat their zodiac kind of like that. While the animals are probably not nearly as influential in modern culture as foreigners think, they do still have an effect on the culture. Many people still use the animal-date connection to pick lucky days or years to get married or start a company. Sort of a just in case type of thing. It’s the same reason why they avoid the number 4 (the word for 4 sounds like the word for death) and don’t give clocks at weddings (it suggests that your days in marriage are numbered). While they don’t really, truly believe in the zodiac myths, they’d rather not tempt fate by picking a date that’s unlucky or bad in the zodiac either.
At the same time, there are still quite a few people who do adhere to the old zodiac ideas. They choose spouses based upon compatibility and arrange to open businesses on days that fit their animal’s lucky numbers. For example, 2012 was the dragon, a very lucky and dynamic animal. So a lot of prospective parents arranged to have kids that year so their kids would be more likely to grow up confident and with leadership skills.
One of the main reasons why the zodiac still has such importance in China is because the Chinese still measure their years by the ancient zodiac calendar. This really is the beginning of their new year, not just something they celebrate for the fun of it. According to the Chinese, the year has only now begun.
This adherence to the old calendar effects a lot of stuff here in China. For example, age is calculated by the lunar year. Thus, students always have to think through how old they are or their birthday in western terms because it is different for them. It affects holidays ~ we go to school on January 1 like its any other day, but for three weeks in February everything is closed. Contract dates, meetings, everything has the possibility of being done in terms of the Chinese calendar rather than the western calendar. It’s their way of living, they don’t really care about our Julys or Augusts when they have their own months to use.
What is the Lunar Calendar?
No one is exactly sure when the Chinese calendar was invented, but myths say that the Yellow Emperor (born in my town of Xinzheng 🙂 ) invented it, making the calendar almost as old as China itself!
You have to realize that the Chinese love patterns. Feng Shui, taoism, dualism ~ they all come out of a fascination with finding the unique patterns and repetitions in the world. They believe that acknowledging and working with these patterns is a very important part of living life properly. It is thus unsurprising that the patterns of time had such a great influence on their traditions.
The Chinese have recorded the longest-kept calendar in history. Unlike the west, the Chinese traditionally had a lunar calendar, meaning that dates are based upon phases of the moon. Western calendars are solar and based upon the time it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun (365 days). This means the calendars aren’t lined up the same. While the Chinese also have 12 months, Chinese calendars only had 355 days in the year (12 cycles of the moon). If you want more details on the calendar itself, please check out The China Image. It’s actually a pretty ingenious idea for calculating nature’s patterns.
Why did I go over that?
Because I found it interesting Because you need to know the Chinese are working off a different calendar from the rest of the world. This is why January 1 (the start of the zodiac calendar) isn’t their New Year’s Day; the first day of the Chinese year moves around (February 19, 2015 | February 8th, 2016).
What does the Calendar look like?
Ancient China calculated time by dividing it into 60 year periods and further divided those 60 years three separate ways.
- First, they divided that 60 year period into 12 year cycles and called them the “Earthly Branches“.
- Second, they divided that 60 year period into 10 year cycles and called them the “Heavenly Stems“.
- Third, they decided that five elements represented in time – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water (in that order). Every two years, the element changes. 2016 is the second Wood Year. So 2017 and 2018 will be Fire Years. 2019 and 2020 Earth Years and so on until 2025 when we return to Wood Years.
Finally, they overlapped the two cycles on top of each other, with one year lining up to one Heavenly year. So each year has two names – first is the Heavenly Stem, second the Earthly Branch.
You can see the pattern below:
Right now, it is the year Bing Shen in China. It will take 60 years for that year to come again in the year 2077.
But don’t forget to add the right element to the title. So more specifically, it is the Bing Shen fire year. Funnily enough, 2077 is also a Bing Shen fire year; however, 2138 will be a Bing Shen Earth year.
They use the same Earthly Branches and Heavenly Stems system to name days and months, although each is calculated independently from the others. For example, today (February 12, 2015 on Western Calendar) is as follows ~
- Year: Bing Shen
- Month: Geng Yin
- Day: Jia Zi
Get to the Animals! Where do They Come In?
While that is all very fascinating, it is the Earthly Branch that most people care about these days and that has resulted in the beloved animals.
Notice the Earthly Branch includes 12 years. The number 12 was one of those patterns I was talking about that the Chinese love. They watched the heavens for a long time and discovered that it took Earth 12 years to be reunited with Jupiter. Thus, they divided time into 12 year cycles known as the Earthly Branch. So instead of decades, the Chinese have a 12 year system . They also divided the day into 12 hours, starting with hour 1 from 11:00pm-1:00am.
If you go deeper into Chinese astrology and astronomy, you’ll find that they also divide months and days into sets of twelve as well.
Then they chose twelve different animals to represent each year, month, day, and hour. For example, the Monkey represents the 9th year in the cycle (2016), month (August), day (Sunday – I think), and the hour in a day (3:00pm-5:00pm). Nifty!
However, most people (excepting the most serious fortune-tellers) don’t care about the month or day animals. So if you don’t ever learn about those, it’s fine.
The animals representing each hour are still sometimes influential because the Chinese character for the animal is still occasionally used on calendars to represent the hour. For example, the character 午 which means “horse” (hours 11:00am-1:00pm) also represents “noon” on a schedule. But generally, these are unimportant too.
Of far greater importance is your year animal. Learning the year animal is extremely important – the Chinese traditionally believed it said a lot about you. Your personality, the people you’ll get along with, your romantic compatibility, likelihood of success professionally, your lucky day, your lucky flower, your lucky season, what health problems you’ll suffer from, and more. 2016 is the celebrated “Year of the Monkey!”
Here is a list of the Chinese Zodiac animals in order and the hours, years, and months they represent:
- Rat (1st Year ~ 11:00pm-1:00am | 2008 | Dec 7 – Jan 5)
- Ox (2nd Year ~ 1:00am-3:00am | 2009 | Jan 6 – Feb 3)
- Tiger (3rd Year ~ 3:00am-5:00am | 2010 | Feb 19-Mar 5)
- Rabbit (4th Year ~ 5:00am-7:00am | 2011 | Mar 6 – Apr 4)
- Dragon (5th Year ~ 7:00am-9:00am | 2012 | Apr 5 – May 4)
- Snake (6th Year ~ 9:00am-11:00am | 2013 | May 5 – Jun 5)
- Horse (7th Year ~ 11:00am-1:00pm | 2014 | Jun 6 – Jul 6)
- Sheep (8th Year ~ 1:00pm-3:00pm | 2015 | Jul 7 – Aug 6)
- Monkey (9th Year ~ 3:00pm-5:00pm | 2016 | Aug 7 – Sep 7)
- Rooster (10th Year ~ 5:00pm-7:00pm | 2017 | Sep 8- Oct 7)
- Dog (11th Year ~ 7:00pm-9:00pm | 2018 | Oct 8 – Nov 6)
- Pig (12th Year ~ 9:00pm-11:00pm | 2019 | Nov 7 – Dec 6)
There are of course other divisions of time and categories that traditionally impact the calendar, such as the four pillars, five elements (see above), Yin/Yang, etc. I’m not going to go into that all now though since it doesn’t really have an effect on the calendar itself or modern Chinese thought.
So fun! I’ll stop here for now (I have to go get some work done), but I’ll try picking it up again later this week with information about the origin of the animal zodiac, how to find your animal, and what each animal represents.