Thursday, February 07, 2008


Today is Chinese New Year, the most important festival in the Chinese calender. The year we are entering is the Year of the Rat, or , more properly, the year of the Earth Rat. Because the Chinese calender is a combined lunar/solar calender the length of each year doesn't correspond to that of the Gregorian calender. This year will last from Today until January 25, 2009 when we will enter the Year of the Earth Ox. The Chinese years, which occur in a cycle of 60 years are often named for a corresponding element (Earth, Metal, Water,Wood and Fire) and then with one of the 12 animals of the Zodiac with their corresponding Chinese names. These are as follows:

1)zi (rat)
2)chou (ox)
3)yin (tiger)
4)mao (hare,rabbit)
5)chen (dragon)
6)si (snake)
7)wu (horse)
8)wei (sheep)
9)shen (monkey)
10)you (rooster)
11)xu (dog)
12)hai (pig)

The Chinese signs of the Zodiac obviously don't correspond with those we know here in the West. As an interesting side note traditional Chinese astronomy recognized only 28 constellations. For more on Chinese astronomy see HERE. Because of the discrepancy between a lunar year and a solar year the Chinese calender uses "leap months" to reconcile the difference. A regular month has either 29 or 30 days. Every 2nd or third year a "leap month" is added. This has the same number as the preceding month. Thus it ends up that a "regular year may have either 353, 354 or 355 days. A leap year has either 383, 384 or 385 days.

There is some argument about exactly which year this is in the Chinese calender. The most popular theory is that it is year 4705. This stems from the idea that the calender was instituted by Emperor Huang Di in the 61st year of his reign (2637 BCE). Others date the calender from the first year of his reign (2697 BCE). Because these dates are exactly 60 years apart they make no difference in terms of the naming of the years.
The Chinese Zodiac is used only for calculating years and has no reference to the months of a year. In Chinese astronomy seasons begin and end not at the solstices and equinoxes but at the midway point between these msolar events (see diagram at the left). The months of the year are usually simply numbered, with zhengyue ("principal month") being the first, and the others simply following the numbers ie "eryue" (second month), "sanyue" (third month),etc.. They can alternatively be named partially after plants. The list is as follows:
1)First Month
2)Apricot blossoms
3)Peach blossoms
4)Mei ripens
5)Pomegrnate blossoms
6)Lotus blossoms
7)Orchid blossoms
8)Osmanthus blossoms
9)Chrysanthemum blossoms
10)Good month
11)Hiermal month
12)Last month
The celebrations of Chinese New Year begin today and continue on (for a variable amount of time depending on the country) until the Lantern Festival (this year on february 21). For the "days of Chinese New Years" and other information on thgis holiday season please see the archives at this blog for February 2007. Included there are 'Happy Chinese New Year' (Feb. 18/2007), 'The Days of Chinese New Years' (Feb. 19,2007) and 'More on Chinese New Years'(Feb. 24,2007). For a reference that shows you how to convert from Chinese to Gregorian calender dates see HERE.
Finally, here's the story of how the months got their names. Supposedly the animals were quarreling over who should get precedence in the naming of the 12 years of the cycle. The gods decided to hold a contest to determine the order. The animals lined up on a river bank, and their order in the calender would be determined by the order in which they swam to the other side. The cat was, understandably, disturbed by this contest because he feared water. The ox, meanwhile, wondered how he could find the other shores because he had poor eyesight. The sneaky rat suggested that he and the cat jump on the ox's back and guide him across. On thye way over the rat pushed the cat off into the water. Just as the ox was to come ashore the rat jumped off and became the first to reach the shore. Thus the first month was named after hi. The ox finished second. The lazy pig came in last. The cat finished too late to have any place in the calender. from this point forward the cat vowed to be the eternal enemy of the rat.

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