A Brief Introduction of Chinese Calendar and Chronology
Having a calendar was a crucial instrument for a ruling dynasty in China. The first edict a dynasty founder proclaimed was to pronounce the calendar of the new dynasty and to pronounce the element and the colors corresponding to this calendar.
The calendar in China is a combination of two cycles, the Ten Celestial Stems (Shi Tiangan 十天干) and the Twelve Terrestrial Branches (Shier Dizhi 十二地支). This system was already in use during the 12th century BC.
12 Terrestrial Branches (shier dizhi 十二地支)
The begin of the cycle is the year jiazi 甲子, which was last in 1984, and the next jiazi year will be in 2045. From the Han Dynasty 汉 on, emperors assumed a reign motto (nianhao 年号) that changed every few years. Ming 明 and Qing 清 emperors only used one motto for their whole reign and are thus recognized from their motto instead of their posthumous temple name. For example, "Qianlong 乾隆 - Heavenly abundance" was the motto of the Qing emperor with the personal name Aisin Giorro Hongli 爱新觉罗弘历, the posthumous title "Gaozong 高宗 - High Ancestor" and the dynastic title "Chundi 纯帝 - Sincere Emperor". He acceded to the throne in 1736, a bingchen 丙辰 year, and he retired from the government after one whole 60 year cycle, in 1795. Cycle names are sometimes still used today, for example the Wuxu Reform 戊戌变法 of 1898 and the Xinhai Revolution 辛亥革命 of 1911. The normal way to give a date in Chinese history is, to give the year of the reign motto: 建炎元年jianyan 1, the first year of the reign motto "Establishing Brilliance". It is also the first year of Emperor Song Gaozong's 宋高宗 reign, the first emperor of Southern Song 南宋, in 1127 AD. There are only a few reign mottos in Chinese history that were used several times. Before rulers began to create reign mottos, the number of their reigning year was counted: 秦始皇三年 Qin Shihuang 3, the third year of the First Emperor's reign.
Every year correlates with one of twelve animals (corresponding to the Twelve Branches), 2001 is the year of snake, the next year of snake will be in 2013. The character of the animal has influence on the character of people born during that year. Many parents want their sons to be born in a dragon year. The sixty year and day cycle is independent of the ruling dynasty and the end of the year, and it must have started some thousands of years ago, around 2000 BC. An example for the Chinese time counting: the Han Dynasty 汉 was founded on a jiawu 甲午 day in a jihai 己亥 year. But what jihai year? It was the fifth reign year of Liu Bang 刘邦 as king of Han, that is the year 202 BC. And which of the six possible jiawu day in that year? From the context, we find out that it was the 28th of february in the year 202 BC. Western historians have to be very careful concerning a date at the begin of a year, because the Chinese year begins in the Western february or early march. The 10th of january is already a day in the Western solar new year, but still in the Chinese old year.
The Ten Celestial Stems are associated with the Five Elements or Phases (wuxing 五行) and their corresponding colors. The Qin Dynasty 秦 chose Water as her element and black as its color. The Han Dynasty 汉 chose the element Fire and therewith used the imperial color red. Four of these colors and elements are likewise connected to the four seasons: wood and green with the spring, red and fire with the summer, yellow and earth with the autumn, and black and water with the winter.
The character for year (nian 年) is compounded of a ripe ear 禾 and a man 人 or a thousand 千, showing us that the original meaning of this word was not "year", but rather "harvest". The Chinese lunar year (yueli 月历 or "old calendar" 旧历 jiuli) has twelve lunar months with 29 and 30 days. The first month is called "correct month" (zhengyue 正月), the others are simply numbered as "second month" (eryue 二月) etc. The season is also divided in first, middle and last part (meng 孟, zhong 仲 and ji 季) Every third year, a thirteenth intercalary month (runyue 闰月) was inserted to adjust the lunar year with the solar year. One month is divided into three ten day weeks (xun 旬). Days are also counted as a combination of the Stems and the Branches, also in sixty day cycles like the years. This sixty day monthly cycle is divided into two months. When China came into contact with the Western seven day week, new names for each of the seven was introduced by the Jesuits, following the names of the western days, and following the Five Elements that are associated with the five proximate planets:
The Chinese today simply numerate their days: 星期一 xingqiyi "star-time one": monday, 星期二 xingqier "star-time two": tuesday, 星期天 xingqitian "star-time sun": sunday, or 礼拜一 libaiyi "ritual-prayer one": monday, and so on.
The Twelve Terrestrial Branches and the corresponding hours with the names of animals and cardinal points. Hours are counted in double-hours, beginning at 11:00 PM just before midnight. The "hour of the horse" was midday. The southern gate of the imperial palace in Peking is called Wumen 午门, according to the Branch wu 午 corresponding to the south. There are also other animals connected with the four cardinal points and seasons: The Black Warrior [Dragon] (xuanwu 玄武) symbolizes the north and the winter, the Green Dragon (qinglong 青龙) the east and the spring, the Red Bird (zhuque 朱雀, jap. suzaku) the south and the summer, and the White Tiger (baihu 白虎) the west and the autumn. Yellow is the colour of the center, the colour of China.
The begin of the year changed during early history from dynasty to dynasty. During the Zhou Dynasty 周, the year began with the lunar month that contained the winter solistice (zi 子), today the year starts two months after the full moon that follows the winter solistice (yin 寅). Like Western calendars have some fixed days according to the lunar year (for example, Easter is falling of the first sunday after the first fullmoon of the spring), the Chinese calendar has fixed days within the year with a special name, like the first day of the first month (lichun 立春 "spring begins") or the summer solistice (xiazhi 夏至 "summer arrives"). Buddhist names for the days are also in use.
The calendar made problems when several emperors or rulers claimed to be the righteous at the same time. During the Warring States period 战国时代, the feudal states challenged the political power of the Zhou kings, but not their ethical position as Heaven appointed kings. The first problem arised during the Three Kingdoms period 三国 and during the time of division between north and south, because every ruler proclaimed his own calendar.