Chinese Calendar - History, Rules and Holidays


The Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar formed by combining a purely lunar calendar with a solar calendar. Among Chinese, the calendar is not used for most day to day activities, but is used for the dating of holidays such as Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) and the Mid-Autumn Festival and for divination, including choosing the most auspicious date for a wedding or the grand opening of a building. The primary use in day to day activities is for determining the phase of the moon, which is important for farmers and is possible because each day in the calendar corresponds to a particular phase of the month. Other traditional east Asian calendars are similar to if not identical to the Chinese calendar: the Korean calendar is identical, the Vietnamese calendar substitutes the cat for the rabbit in the twelve animals, the Tibetan calendar differs slightly in animal names, and the traditional Japanese calendar used (and still uses) a different method of calculation, resulting in disagreements between the calendars in some years.

In China, the native calendar is the "farmer's calendar" (農曆 nónglì), as opposed to the "civil calendar" (公曆 gōnglì), or "Western calendar" (西曆 xīlì). The Chinese calendar was also called the "old calendar" (舊曆) after the "new calendar" (新曆), i.e. the Gregorian calendar, was adopted as the official calendar.


  • 1 History
    • 1.1 Beginnings
    • 1.2 Early History
    • 1.3 The "No Principal Term" Rule
    • 1.4 The True Sun and Moon
    • 1.5 The Gregorian Reform and the 1929 time change
  • 2 Rules
  • 3 Nomenclature
  • 4 Twelve animals
  • 5 Jieqi
  • 6 Holidays
  • 7 Korean calendar
  • 8 See also
  • 9 External links



The legendary beginning of the Chinese calendar developed during the first millennium BC. The legend states that the first Chinese calendar was invented by the first legendary emperor, Huangdi or the Yellow Emperor, whose reign was assigned to 2698-2599 BC. The fourth legendary emperor, Emperor Yao, added the intercalary month. The 60-year stem-branch (干支 gānzhī) cycle was first assigned to years during the first century BC. Giving Huangdi some maturity, the first year of the first cycle was assigned to 2637 BC according to Herbert A. Giles, A Chinese-English Dictionary (1912), and all other Western authors during the late Qing dynasty. Thus since 1984 the current cycle has been 78. However, some modern authors assign the first year of the first cycle to 2697 BC while Huangdi was still immature, saying we are now in cycle 79. These two epochs give rise to two continuous counts of years, causing the 'Chinese' years 4642 or 4702 to begin in early 2005.

However, continuously numbered sexagesimal cycles and the years based on them were inventions of Western chronologists—the Chinese themselves did not use either. But they did use unnumbered cycles, albeit in a subservient role to the reign-period year declared by the Emperor of China. Indeed, not using the emperor's reign-period was tantamount to treason punishable by death. But the Boxer rebellion of 1900 left the de facto ruler of China, the Empress Dowager Cixi, weakened and vulnerable to a challenge from Chinese Republicans, who intentionally used a continuous count of years to delegitimize the Qing Dynasty by refusing to use its years. Although republican newspapers used more than one epoch, that selected by Sun Yat-sen, 2698 BC, was adopted by most overseas Chinese communities outside southeast Asia like San Francisco's Chinatown, causing their year 4703 to begin in early 2005. Many chronologists, being unfamiliar with its history, think that 2698 BC is an error for the 2697 BC epoch obtained from sexagesimal cycles, whereas it is actually the only epoch actually used by some Chinese, albeit a minority (most Chinese don't use any continuous count of years from a legendary epoch).

Early History

The earliest archaeological evidence of the Chinese calendar appears on oracle bones of the late second millennium BC Shang dynasty. They show a 12-month lunisolar year having an occasional thirteenth month, and even a fourteenth month. Because Chinese dates are on firm ground beginning in 841 BC, the calendar of the early Zhou dynasty is known to have used arbitrary intercalations. The first month of its year was near the winter solstice and its intercalary month was after the twelfth month. The sìfēn 四分 (quarter remainder) calendar, which began about 484 BC, was the first calculated Chinese calendar, so named because it used a solar year of 365¼ days, along with a 19-year = 235-month Rule Cycle, known in the West as the Metonic cycle. The winter solstice was in its first month and its intercalary month was inserted after the twelfth month. Beginning in 256 BC with the Qin kingdom, which would later become the Qin dynasty, the intercalary month was an extra ninth month at the end of a year that began with the tenth month, now placing the winter solstice in the eleventh month. This year continued to be used during the first half of the Western Han Dynasty.

The "No Principal Term" Rule

The great Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty introduced the basic rules that have governed the Chinese calendar ever since. His Tàichū 太初 (Grand Inception) calendar of 104 BC had a year with the winter solstice in the eleventh month and designated as intercalary any calendar month (a month of 29 or 30 whole days) during which the sun does not pass a principal term (remained within the same sign of the zodiac throughout). Because the sun's mean motion was used to calculate the jiéqì until 1645, this intercalary month was equally likely to occur after any month of the year. However, the conjunction of the sun and moon (the astronomical new moon) used the mean motions of both the sun and moon only until 619, the second year of the Tang dynasty, when both began to use true motions modeled using two offset opposing parabolas (with small linear and cubic components). Unfortunately, the parabolas did not meet smoothly at the mean motion, but met with a discontinuity or jump.

The True Sun and Moon

With the introduction of Western astronomy into China via the Jesuits, the motions of both the sun and moon began to use sinusoids in the 1645 Shíxiàn (Constant Conformity) calendar of the Qing dynasty, made by the Jesuit Adam Schall. The true motion of the sun was now used to calculate the jiéqì, which caused the intercalary month to often occur after the second through the ninth months, but rarely after the tenth through first months. A few autumn-winter periods have one or two calendar months where the sun enters two signs of the zodiac, interspersed with two or three calendar months where the sun stays within one sign.

The Gregorian Reform and the 1929 time change

The Gregorian calendar was adopted by the nascent Republic of China effective January 1, 1912 for official business, but the general populace continued to use the traditional calendar of the Qing Dynasty. The status of the Gregorian calendar between about 1916 and 1921 while China was controlled by several competing warlords is unknown. From about 1921 until 1928 warlords continued to control northern China, but the Kuomintang controlled southern China and probably used the Gregorian calendar. After the Kuomintang declared a reconstituted Republic of China October 10, 1928, they decreed that effective 1 January 1929, everyone must use the Gregorian calendar. They also decreed that effective 1 January 1929, all of China must use the coastal time zone that had been used by all European treaty ports along the Chinese coast since 1904. This changed the beginning of each calendar day, for both the traditional and Gregorian calendars, by +14.3 minutes from Beijing midnight to midnight at the longitude 120° east of Greenwich.

This caused some discrepancies, such as with the 1978 Mid-Autumn Festival. There was a new moon on September 3, 1978, at 00:07, Chinese Standard Time[1]. Using the old Beijing timezone, the New Moon occurred at 23:53 on the 2nd, so the eighth month began on a different day in the calendars. Hong Kong people (using the traditional calendar) celebrated the Festival on 16 September, but those in China celebrated on 17 September. [2] (see page 18)

The Kuomintang may have begun to number the years of their republic in 1929, regarding 1912 as year 1. When the Communists gained control of mainland China October 1, 1949, they simply continued using the Gregorian calendar, but now numbered the years in the Western manner, beginning with 1949. On both mainland China and Taiwan, the months of the Gregorian calendar are numbered 1-12 just like the months of the traditional calendar.


The following rules have been valid since 104 BC, although some of the details were unnecessary before 1645. Note that these rules do not specify the detailed calculations, permitting either mean or true motions of the Sun and Moon to be used, depending on the historical period.

  1. The months are lunar months, such that the first day of each month beginning at midnight is the day of the astronomical new moon.
  2. Each year has 12 regular months, which are numbered in sequence (1 to 12)and have alternative names. Every second or third year has an intercalary month (閏月 rùnyuè), which may come after any regular month. It has the same number as the preceding regular month, but is designated intercalary.
  3. Every other jiéqì of the Chinese solar year is equivalent to an entry of the sun into a sign of the tropical zodiac (a principle term or cusp).
  4. The sun always passes the winter solstice (enters Capricorn) during month 11.
  5. If there are 12 months between two successive occurrences of month 11, at least one of these 12 months must be a month during which the sun remains within the same zodiac sign throughout (no principle term or cusp occurs within it). If only one such month occurs, it is designated intercalary, but if two such months occur, only the first is designated intercalary.
  6. The times of the astronomical new moons and the sun entering a zodiac sign are determined in the Chinese Time Zone by the Purple Mountain Observatory (紫金山天文台 Zǐjīnshān Tiānwéntái) outside Nanjing using modern astronomical equations.

The Zodiac Sign which the sun enters during the month and the ecliptic longitude of that entry point usually determine the number of a regular month. Month 1, zhēngyuè, literally means principal month. All other months are literally numbered, second month, third month, etc.

# Chinese Name Long. Zodiac Sign
11 十一月 shíyīyuè 270° Capricorn
12 十二月 shí'èryuè 300° Aquarius
1 正月 zhēngyuè 330° Pisces
2 二月 èryuè Aries
3 三月 sānyuè 30° Taurus
4 四月 sìyuè 60° Gemini
5 五月 wǔyuè 90° Cancer
6 六月 liùyuè 120° Leo
7 七月 qīyuè 150° Virgo
8 八月 bāyuè 180° Libra
9 九月 jiǔyuè 210° Scorpio
10 十月 shíyuè 240° Sagittarius

Some believe the above correspondence to be always true, but there are exceptions, which, for example, prevent Chinese New Year from always being the second new moon after the winter solstice, or that cause the holiday to occur after the Rain Water jieqi. An exception will occur in 2033-2034, when the winter solstice is the second solar term in the eleventh month. The next month is a no-entry month and so is intercalary, and a twelfth month follows which contains both the Aquarius and Pisces solar terms (deep cold and rain water). The Year of the Tiger thus begins on the third new moon following the Winter Solstice, and also occurs after the Pisces (rain water) jieqi, on February 19.

Another occurrence was in 1984-85, after the sun had entered both Capricorn at 270° and Aquarius at 300° in month 11, and then entered Pisces at 330° during the next month, which should have caused it to be month 1. The sun did not enter any sign during the next month. In order to keep the winter solstice in month 11, the month which should have been month 1 became month 12, and the month thereafter became month 1, causing Chinese New Year to occur on 20 February 1985 after the sun had already passed into Pisces at 330° during the previous month, rather than during the month beginning on that day.

On those occasions when a dual-entry month does occur, it always occurs somewhere between two months that do not have any entry (non-entry months). It usually occurs alone and either includes the winter solstice or is nearby, thus placing the winter solstice in month 11 (rule 4) chooses which of the two non-entry months becomes the intercalary month. In 1984-85, the month immediately before the dual-entry month 11 was a non-entry month which was designated as an intercalary month 10. All months from the dual-entry month to the non-entry month that is not to be intercalary are sequentially numbered with the nearby regular months (rule 2). The last phrase of rule 5, choosing the first of two non-entry months between months 11, has not been required since the last calendar reform, and will not be necessary until the 2033-34 occasion, when two dual-entry months will be interspersed among three non-entry months, two of which will be on one side of month 11. The leap eleventh month produced is a very rare occasion. See [3] for details.

Exceptions such as these are rare. Fully 96.6% of all months contain only one entry into a zodiacal sign (have one principle term or cusp), all obeying the numbering rules of the jiéqì table, and 3.0% of all months are intercalary months (always non-entry months between principle terms or cusps). Only 0.4% of all months either are dual-entry months (have two principle terms or cusps) or are neighboring months that are renumbered.

It is only after the 1645 reform that this situation arose. Then it became necessary to fix one month to always contain its principal term and allow any other to occasionally not contain its principal term. Month 11 was chosen, because its principal term (the winter solstice) forms the start of the Chinese Solar year (the sui).

The Chinese lunar calendar and the Gregorian Calendar often sync up every 19 years (Metonic cycle). Most Chinese people notice that their Chinese and Western birthdays often fall on the same day on their 19th, 38th birthday etc. However, a 19-year cycle with an certain set of intercalary months is only an approximation, so an almost identical pattern of intercalary months in subsequent cycles will eventually change after some multiple of 19 years to a quite different 19-year cycle.

The Chinese zodiac (see Nomenclature and Twelve Animals sections) is only used in naming years—it is not used in the actual calculation of the calendar. In fact, the Chinese have a very different constellation system.

The twelve months are closely connected with agriculture, so they are alternatively named after plants:

  1. Primens (first month) 正月: Latin "primus mensis".
  2. Apricomens (apricot month) 杏月: apricot blossoms.
  3. Peacimens (peach month) 桃月: peach blossoms.
  4. Plumens (plum month) 梅月: plum ripens.
  5. Guavamens (guava month) 榴月: guava blossoms.
  6. Lotumens (lotus month) 荷月: lotus blossoms.
  7. Orchimens (orchid month) 兰月: orchid blossoms.
  8. Osmanthumens (osmanthus month) 桂月: osmanthus blossoms.
  9. Chrysanthemens (chrysanthemum month) 菊月: chrysanthemum blossoms.
  10. Benimens (good month) 良月: good month.
  11. Hiemens (hiemal month) 冬月: hiemal month.
  12. Lamens (last month) 腊月: last month.


The years are named by a cycle of 10 Heavenly Stems and a cycle of 12 Earthly Branches. Each year is named by a pair of one stem and one branch called a Stem-Branch (干支 gānzhī). The Heavenly Stems are associated with Yin Yang and the Five Elements. Recent 10-year periods began in 1984, 1994, 2004, etc. Earthly Branches are associated with the Twelve Animals. Recent 12-year periods began in 1984, 1996, etc.

The 60-year cycle formed by combining the two cycles is known as a jiǎzǐ (甲子). It is not 120 because half of the combinations are unused. Jiǎzǐ is named after the first year in the 60-year cycle which is called jiǎzǐ. Some figures of speech use "jiǎzǐ" to mean "a full lifespan"—one who has lived more than a jiǎzǐ is obviously blessed. (Compare the Biblical "three-score years and ten.")

This 60-year cycle is insufficient for historical references. During the Imperial period, the Nian Hao (Era name of an emperor) was placed in front of the year name for distinction. Example: 康熙壬寅 (Kāngxī rényín) (1662 AD) is the first 壬寅 (rényín) year during the reign of 康熙 (Kāngxī). Using a particular emperor's nian hao was implicit recognition of the legitimacy of that emperor which could be very politically significant in cases of disputed succession or revolt. In addition, it also made it difficult for Chinese historians to avoid taking sides over which dynasty was more legitimate in talking about earlier periods in which China was divided.

The months, days, and hours can also be denoted using Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, though they are commonly addressed using Chinese numerals instead. Together, four Stem-Branch pairs form the Eight Characters (八字 bāzì) used in Chinese astrology.

There is a distinction between a solar year and a lunar year in the Chinese calendar because the calendar is lunisolar. A lunar year (年 nián) is from one Chinese new year to the next. A solar year (歲 suì) is either the period between one "start of spring" and the next or the period between two winter solstices (see Jiéqì section). A lunar year is exclusively used for dates, whereas a solar year, especially that between winter solstices, is used to number the months.

Twelve animals

The Twelve animals (十二生肖 shí'èr shēngxiào, or colloquially 十二屬相 shí'èr shǔxiāng) representing the twelve Earthly Branches are, in order, the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep (or goat), monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

A legend explains the sequence in which the animals were assigned. Supposedly, the twelve animals fought over the precedence of the animals in the cycle of years in the calendar, so the Chinese gods held a contest to determine the order. All the animals lined up on the bank of a river and were given the task of getting to the opposite shore. Their order in the calendar would be set by the order in which the animals managed to reach the other side. The cat wondered how he would get across if he was afraid of water. At the same time, the ox wondered how he would cross with his poor eyesight. The calculating rat suggested that he and the cat jump onto the ox's back and guide him across. The ox was steady and hard-working so that he did not notice a commotion on his back. In the meanwhile, the rat snuck up behind the unsuspecting cat and shoved him into the water. Just as the ox came ashore, the rat jumped off and finished the race first. The lazy pig came to the far shore in twelfth place. And so the rat got the first year named after him, the ox got the second year, and the pig ended up as the last year in the cycle. The cat finished too late to win any place in the calendar, and vowed to be the enemy of the rat forevermore. See Chinese zodiac for more details.


Chinese months follow the phases of the moon. The solar-based agricultural calendar is made up of twenty-four points called jiéqì 節氣. They are essentially seasonal markers to help farmers decide when to plant or harvest crops, as the lunisolar calendar is for obvious reasons unreliable in this respect. The term Jiéqì is usually translated as "Solar Terms" (lit. Nodes of Weather). Each is the instant when the sun reaches one of twenty-four equally spaced points along the ecliptic, including the solstices and equinoxes, positioned at fifteen degree intervals. In the table below, these measures are given in the standard astronomical convention of ecliptic longitude, zero degrees being positioned at the vernal equinox point. Because the calculation is solar-based, these jiéqì fall around the same date every year in solar calendars such as the Gregorian Calendar, but do not form any obvious pattern in the Chinese calendar. The dates below are approximate and may vary slightly from year to year due to the intercalary rules of the Gregorian calendar. Jiéqì are published each year in farmers' almanacs. Chinese New Year is usually the new moon day closest to lìchūn. Each calendar month under the heading "M" contains the designated jiéqì called a principle term, which is an entry into a sign of the zodiac, also known as a cusp. Here term has the archaic meaning of a limit, not a duration. In Chinese astronomy, seasons are centered on the solstices and equinoxes, whereas in the standard Western definition, they begin at the solstices and equinoxes. Thus the term Beginning of Spring and the related Spring Festival fall in February, when it is still very chilly in temperate latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere.

M Ecliptic
Chinese Name Gregorian
Date (approx.)
  315° 立春 lìchūn 4 February start of spring spring starts here according to the Chinese definition of a season
1 330° 雨水 yǔshuǐ 19 February rain water starting at this point, the temperature makes rain more likely than snow
  345° 啓蟄 qǐzhé
(驚蟄 jīngzhé)*
5 March awakening of insects when hibernating insects awake
2 春分 chūnfēn 21 March vernal equinox lit. the central divide of spring (referring to the Chinese seasonal definition)
  15° 清明 qīngmíng 5 April clear and bright a Chinese festival where traditionally, ancestral graves are tended
3 30° 穀雨 gǔyǔ 20 April grain rains rain helps grain grow
  45° 立夏 lìxià 6 May start of summer refers to the Chinese seasonal definition
4 60° 小滿 xiǎomǎn 21 May grain full grains are plump
  75° 芒種 mángzhòng 6 June grain in ear lit. awns (beard of grain) grow
5 90° 夏至 xiàzhì 21 June summer solstice lit. summer extreme (of sun's height)
  105° 小暑 xiǎoshǔ 7 July minor heat when heat starts to get unbearable
6 120° 大暑 dàshǔ 23 July major heat the hottest time of the year
  135° 立秋 lìqiū 7 August start of autumn uses the Chinese seasonal definition
7 150° 處暑 chùshǔ 23 August limit of heat lit. dwell in heat
  165° 白露 báilù 8 September white dew condensed moisture makes dew white; a sign of autumn
8 180° 秋分 qiūfēn 23 September autumnal equinox lit. central divide of autumn (refers to the Chinese seasonal definition)
  195° 寒露 hánlù 8 October cold dew dew starts turning into frost
9 210° 霜降 shuāngjiàng 23 October descent of frost appearance of frost and descent of temperature
  225° 立冬 lìdōng 7 November start of winter refers to the Chinese seasonal definition
10 240° 小雪 xiǎoxuě 22 November minor snow snow starts falling
  255° 大雪 dàxuě 7 December major snow season of snowstorms in full swing
11 270° 冬至 dōngzhì 22 December winter solstice lit. winter extreme (of sun's height)
  285° 小寒 xiǎohán 6 January minor cold cold starts to become unbearable
12 300° 大寒 dàhán 20 January major cold coldest time of year

Note: The third jiéqì was originally called 啓蟄 (qǐzhé) but renamed to 驚蟄 (jīngzhé) in the era of the Emperor Jing of Han (漢景帝) to avoid writing his given name 啓 (also written as 啟, a variant of 啓).

The "Song of Solar Terms" (節氣歌; pinyin: jiéqìgē) is used to ease the memorization of jiéqì:

春雨驚春清穀天 chūn yǔ jīng chūn qīng gǔtiān,
夏滿芒夏暑相連 xià mǎn máng xià shǔ xiānglián,
秋處露秋寒霜降 qiū chù lù qiū hán shuāng xiáng,
冬雪雪冬小大寒 dōng xuě xuě dōng xiǎo dà hán.


The Chinese calendar year has nine main festivals, seven determined by the lunisolar calendar, and the other two derived from the solar agricultural calendar. (Note that the farmers actually used a solar calendar, and its twenty-four terms, to determine when to plant crops, due to the inaccuracy of the lunisolar traditional calendar. However, the traditional calendar has also come to be known as the agricultural calendar.)

The two special holidays are the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and the Winter Solstice Festival, falling upon the respective solar terms, the former occurring at ecliptic longitude 15 degrees, the latter at 270 degrees. As for all other calendrical calculations, the calculations use civil time in China, eight hours ahead of UTC.

Date English Name Chinese Name Remarks 2003 2004 2005
month 1
day 1
Chinese New Year,
lit. Spring Festival
Family gathering and major festivities for three days; traditionally 15 days Feb 1 Jan 22 Feb 9
month 1
day 15
Lantern Festival 元宵節
Yuanxiao eating
and lanterns
Feb 15 Feb 5 Feb 23
Apr 4
or 5
Tending Graves Festival,
lit. Clear and Bright Festival
Graves tending Apr 5 Apr 4 Apr 5
month 5
day 5
Dragon Boat Festival 端午節
Dragon boat racing
and zhongzi eating
Jun 4 Jun 22 Jun 11
month 7
day 7
The Night of Sevens,
a Valentine's Day
  Aug 4 Aug 22 Aug 11
month 7
day 15
Ghost Festival
or Spirit Festival
    Aug 12 Aug 30 Aug 19
month 8
day 15
Mid-Autumn Festival
or Moon Festival
Family gathering
and moon cake eating
Sep 11 Sep 28 Sep 18
month 9
day 9
Double Ninth Festival,
lit. Double Yang Festival
Mountain climbing
and flower shows
Oct 4 Oct 22 Oct 11
Dec 21
or 22
Winter Solstice Festival 冬至
Family gathering Dec 22 Dec 21 Dec 22

Korean calendar

The traditional Korean calendar is directly derived from the Chinese calendar. In the early nineteenth century Korea relied on close diplomatic relations with China while shutting off relations with all other countries. In recognition of this relationship, the ruler of Korea would make a point of accepting the new Chinese calendar from the Emperor of China each year with great pageantry. The calendar had:

  • The Chinese zodiac of 12 Earthly Branches (animals), which were used for counting hours and years;
  • Ten Heavenly Stems, which were combined with the 12 Earthly Branches to form a sixty-year cycle;
  • Twenty-four turning points (jeolgi 節氣 절기) in the year, spaced roughly 15 days apart;
  • Lunar Months.

The Korean calendar traditionally counts years from 2333 BC, the date of the legendary founding of Korea by Dangun.

The lunar calendar is rarely used now in modern Korea except for the observation of traditional holidays (cf. Korean Lunar Festivals) and the marking of birthdays by older Koreans.


Chinese New Year and Chinese Calendar

Introduction to Chinese Calendar - How the astronomers developed it

Chinese Calendar - History and Traditions

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