Ancient Chinese Calendar

Ancient Chinese developed a lunisolar (based on astronomical phenomena) calendar that is still in use in some way.

Although present-day Chinese, like most of the world, officially use the globally-accepted Gregorian calendar, holidays are still governed according to the traditional calendar.

2017 Chinese calendar

Early Chinese calendar influenced the development of calendars in countries inside the Chinese cultural sphere, such as Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and others.

Chinese Calendar Facts

  • According to the ancient Chinese calendar, a day begins and ends at midnight; a month starts on the day of the new moon, and the beginning of a new year falls either on the second or on the third new moon after the winter solstice.
  • A month in the Chinese calendar was either long (30 days) or short (29 days). Sometimes a year included a leap month.
  • Time was organized in cycles called stems and branches, also known as ghanzi or sexagenary cycles. One sexagenary cycle consisted of sixty terms (years). These terms are still in use in Chinese astrology.
  • The traditional calendar was developed during the Eastern Zhou dynasty in the Spring and Autumn period. Before that, the Chinese used other calendars.

Chinese time

Early Chinese calendars

  • The first Chinese calendars were solar, which means that they were based on the observations of the sun and not the moon.
  • There were three versions of the solar calendar: the five-elements calendar, a four-quarters calendar, and the balanced calendar.
    • According to the five-elements calendar, a year has 365 days, and it is further divided into five phases. Each phase corresponds to one of the five elements (metal, water, wood, fire, and soil) and has 73 days.
    • The four-quarters calendar divided the year into four sections, with two seasons each. One month consisted of three weeks, but those weeks were ten-day long. Sometimes, one ten-day week had to be added during the summer, and such a year would be 370 days long, while others had 360 days. Days were marked by the 10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches.
    • The balanced calendar was an attempt to have a more accurate and uniformed length of the year, which caused even more mess because a year now had 365.25 days. In this calendar, a month had 29.5 days. A year had 12 to 14 months, and after every 16thmonth, one half-month would be added. According to oracle bone records, this calendar was used during the Shang dynasty (around 1600 – 1046 BCE).

Lunisolar calendars

From the Zhou Dynasty onwards, several new calendars appeared. Those calendars were lunisolar, which means that considered both the position of the moon and the sun in calculating time cycles. There were six such calendars, and they are now known as quarter-remainder calendars because a year lasted for 365 and a quarter days.

  • The Zhou calendar was the first Chinese lunisolar calendar. The beginning of the year was set on the day of the new moon that preceded the winter solstice. The year this calendar was introduced was 2,758,130 according to that same calendar.
  • Other states, such as the Lu, Jin, and the Qin, issued different lunisolar calendars during the Warring States period. The most obvious difference between those calendars was the day that was chosen to be the first in a year. The Xia calendar of the Jin state set the beginning of the year at the day of the new moon that was nearest the Mars equinox. The Zhuanxu calendar of the Qin state began before and Song’s Yin calendar after the winter solstice.

Taichu calendar

The Taichu calendar, introduced by Emperor Wu of Han around 141-87 BCE, was a basis for the traditional Chinese calendar. In this calendar, a year was 365 385/1539 days long, and a month had 29 43/81 days.

The whole year was divided into 24 solar terms, which were paired to form 12 climate terms that corresponded to 12 months.

Later calendars that used the same logic of the solar year and the lunar month were the Dàmíng Calendar of the Liang dynasty, Wùyín Yuán Calendar of the Tang dynasty, and the Shòushí calendar of the Yuan dynasty.

The last one had a year that lasted 365.2425 days, which equals the number of days in our Gregorian calendar.
Five-phase and four-quarter calendars


Were the early Chinese calendars solar, lunar, or lunisolar – and what does that mean?

The first Chinese calendars were solar. It means that only the position of the sun – and not the moon – was taken into consideration.

Which calendar used the terms 10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches?

It was the so-called four-quarters calendar.

Which Chinese dynasty introduced the first lunisolar calendar?

It was the Zhou dynasty.

What was the name of the calendar introduced by Emperor Wu of Han that later served as a basis for traditional Chinese calendar?

It was the Taichu calendar.