The Complexities of Chinese Time

Time is measured differently in China.



To begin with, there are 60 periods ,干支, gān zhī. made from  10 heavenly stems 天干, tiān gān), and the 12 earthly branches 地支, dì zhī, combining.

Then there’s the two-week periods which mark the year, termed 二十四节气 ershisi jieqi, the 24 solar periods. The system is suprisingly accurate. Temperatures can drop over night, and people will say, oh, its  立秋 li qiu, the beginning of autumn.

Seven days before the Chinese New Year, it was the 小年 xiao nian, the Little Year, and everyone has to eat dumplings. In that inbetween time, people are busy, sorting, cleaning, getting their hair cuts, buying new clothes for the new year, decorating the house – in short, out with the old and in with the new. These fortnightly periods have some amazingly poetic names, like ‘exited insects’, ‘grain rains’, and self-descriptive names like ‘limit of heat’ and ‘cold dew’. They also include dates for the solstices and equinoxes.

Chinese calender showing Gregorian and tradional dates

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, modern Chinese use the Gregorian system. Unless you’re used to juggling two different time systems, the solar calander and the lunar. To keep track, most people use calendars which show both. Whilst the Gregorian calander based on sun-cycles is used for day to day life, the lunar calander is used for most social or personal things like setting dates of marriages or other big events. Older people can tell you the date of their birthdays on the lunar calander, but not the solar one.


Confused? Maybe you need this watch to help you, designed to incorporate the complex mechanics of Chinese time.

A watch made in the Dragon year, 2012, incorporating Chinese calendric system.  Photo from  The New York Times.


Not only does it have the solar terms, the stems and branches, it includes the two-hourly periods in each day. Those periods are connected to the ‘heavenly stems and earthly branches’.

2016 is a leap year. On the Gregorian solar calander, to make up for the extra quarter of a day ( one solar year is about 365.24 days), once every four years there’s an extra day. The Chinese calender, incorporating both lunar and solar calculations, has an extra month once every seven years or so. Instead of 29 days in February, there are two “9th months” in those years. It’s based on something called the Metonic cycle, which is based on merging solar and lunar years, and has been used in China since aroun 104BC.


Beijing armillary sphere, one of the world’s first astronomical observatories.


It gets more complicated. There’s a sixty year cycle, based on Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, a Triple Concordance, combining Jupiter’s cycle, the seasonal year and the lunar eclipse ( every 135 years or so), and even an Epoch Cycle, stemming from the 11th century, which is every 129,000 years or so.

Chinese Emperors employed Royal Astromoners, to keep track of the time cycle. The Royal Astronomers job was not only to mark the passage of Time, but to predict the future. In  a country which believed in the essential harmony of the heavens, humanity, and earth, the ability to predict the movement of the stars would give enormous advantages.

star maps
Star Map commissioned by Song Dynasty Emperor, etched on Stone. Stele in the Confucius Temple, Suzhou.

The ancient kings of Zhou did just this when they predicted an alignment of five planets and an eclipse, and dating the time of an important battle, they defeated the corrupt former kingdom by using an eclipse-enduced darkness to advance.

Ancient Chinese Astronomer

Photograph sourced from

Back to the present day, the calender incorporates the complex mechanics of the Chinese marking of time from the ancients to now.

Chinese calendar with traditional dates, including the Chinese New Year, marked. On the side are the calendrical markings and astrological advices about the dates.

Time is somewhat complex, in China.

Just as well we have the spaceship to guide us through time. 🙂

golden spaceship.jpg


For more in depth accounting of the Chinese calendric system, you can check out

Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks and Cultures, Anthony F. Aveni

Christopher Cullen’s Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China

Happy Reading!