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. 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.

In China, the native calendar is the "farmer's calendar" (農曆 nngl), as opposed to the "civil calendar" (公曆 gōngl), or "Western calendar" (西曆 xīl).

Table of contents
1 Calculations and Rules
2 Nomenclature
3 Twelve Animals
4 Jiq
5 Holidays
6 External links

Calculations and Rules

The Chinese lunar calendar and the Julian Calendar often sync up every 19 years. Most Chinese people notice that their Chinese and Western birthdays often fall on the same day on their 19th, 38th birthday etc

The Chinese zodiac is completely different and is not used in the actual calculation of the calendar, but only in naming years. In fact, Chinese has a very different constellation system.

  1. The months are lunar months, such that the first day of each month beginning midnight is the day of the astronomical new moon.
  2. Each year has 12 regular months, which are numbered in sequence (1 to 12). A year may also have an intercalary month (闰月 rnyu), which may come after any regular month. It has the same number as the preceding regular month, but is designated intercalary.
  3. The Chinese solar year is divided into 12 parts that are equivalent to the sun signs of the tropical zodiac.
  4. Intercalary months are arranged so that the sun always enters Capricorn on the 11th regular month (month 11) of a year.
  5. If there are 12 months between two successive occurrences of month 11, one of these 12 months must be an intercalary month and it is the first of these 12 months during which the sun remains within the same zodiac sign throughout.
  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 Tiānwnti) in Nanjing.

The Zodiac Sign in which the sun is in at the start of the month usually determines the number of a regular month:

Month  Zodiac Sign at Start
11     Sagittarius (by rule 4)
12     Capricorn
 1     Aquarius
 2     Pisces
 3     Aries
 4     Taurus
 5     Gemini
 6     Cancer
 7     Leo
 8     Virgo
 9     Libra
10     Scorpio

Some astronomers believed this correspondence to be always true, but there are exceptions. An exception occurred in 1985, after the sun had entered Capricorn and then Aquarius in month 11, causing the Chinese New Year to occur on 20 February 1985 in Pisces rather than Aquarius.

The problem here is that there is a month in which the sun enters two signs of the zodiac. I'll refer to such a month as a dual-entry month. If a given month is a dual-entry month or has a dual-entry month before it and no earlier than the preceding month 11, the above correspondence may fail, otherwise it holds.


The years are named by cycle of 10 Heavenly Stems (天干 tiāngān) and cycle of 12 Earthly Branches (地支 dzhī). Each year is named by a pair of one stem and one branch called Stem and Branch (干支 gānzhī). Heavenly Stems are associated with Yin Yang (阴阳 yīnyng) and 5 elements (五行 wǔxng). Earthly Branches are associated with 12 animals (see Twelve Animals section).

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 also called Jiǎzǐ. Some figures of speech use "jiǎzǐ" to mean "a full lifespan;" one who has lived more than a jiǎzǐ is obviously blessed. (Cf. the Biblical "three-score years and ten.")

This 60-year cycle is insufficient for historical references. During feudal China, the Nian Hao (Era name of an emperor) is add in front of year name for distinction. Example, 康熙壬寅 (kāngxī rnyn) (1662 AD) is the first 壬寅 (rnyn) year during reign of 康熙 (kāngxī).

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

There is a distinction between solar year and lunar year in the Chinese calendar because the calendar is lunisolar. Lunar year (年 nin) is from one Chinese new year to the next. Solar year (歲 su) is from one Start of Spring to the next (see Jiq section). Lunar year is used exclusively because dates are also in lunar.

Twelve Animals

The Twelve Animals (十二生肖 shr shēngxio, or colloquially 十二属相 shr shǔxiāng) representing the 12 Earthly Branches (地支 dzhī) 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 are 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 ox was fastest, but the rat had snuck up and climbed onto the ox's back. Just as the ox came ashore, the rat jumped off and finished the race first. The lazy pig came to the far shore last. 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.

See Chinese astrology for more details.


Chinese months follow the phases of the moon. The part of the calendar that follows the movement of the sun is called jiq (節氣). Jiq is also translated to "Solar Terms". There are twenty four jiq. These jiq roughly fall on the same date in solar calendars such as Gregorian Calendar because they were solar based. Obviously these jiq do not form any pattern in the Chinese calendar. Before the Gregorian calendar was introduced to China, these jiq are published each year in farmers' almanac. Farmers relied on these jiq to plan their planting and harvest.

Chinese Name Occurrence (Gregorian Date) Literary Meaning Remark
立春 (lchūn) February 4 ~ February 18 start of spring  
雨水 (yǔshuǐ) February 19 ~ March 4 rain water indicates more rain instead of snow
驚蟄 (jīngzh) March 5 ~ March 20 awakening of the insects indicates animals and insects awakening from hibernation
春分 (chūnfēn) March 21 ~ April 4 vernal equinox  
清明 (qīngmng) April 5 ~ April 19 clear and bright the time for tending graves
穀雨 (gǔyǔ) April 20 ~ May 5 grain rain indicates rain will help grain growth
立夏 lxi May 6 ~ May 20 start of summer  
小滿 xiǎmǎn May 21 ~ June 5 small plumpness indicates plumpness of grains
芒種 mngzhng June 6 ~ June 20 grain in ear indicates grains growing ears (botany usage)
夏至 xizh June 21 ~ July 6 summer solstice  
小暑 xiǎoshǔ July 7 ~ July 22 minor heat  
大暑 dshǔ July 23 ~ August 6 major heat  
立秋 lqiū August 7 ~ August 22 start of autumn  
處暑 chshǔ August 23 ~ September 7 stop of heat  
白露 bil September 8 ~ September 22 white dew indicates condensed moisture makes dew white
秋分 qiūfēn September 23 ~ October 7 autumnal equinox  
寒露 hnl October 8 ~ October 22 cold dew  
霜降 shuāngjing October 23 ~ November 6 frost descent indicates appearing of frost and descent of temperature
立冬 ldōng November 7 ~ November 21 start of winter  
小雪 xiǎoxuě November 22 ~ December 7 minor snow  
大雪 dxuě December 7 ~ December 21 major snow  
冬至 dōngzh December 22 ~ January 5 winter solstice  
小寒 xiǎohn January 6 ~ January 19 minor cold  
大寒 dhn January 20 ~ February 3 major cold  

The dates above are approximate and may vary slightly year to year. Chinese New Year is usually the new moon day closest to L Chūn.

Song of Solar Terms is used to ease the memorization of Jiq.


《節氣歌》 "Jiqgē"
春雨驚春清谷天 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.


Date English Name Chinese Name Remarks 2003 2004 2005
month 1 day 1 Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) 春節 chūnjié Observed with a family gathering and major festivities Feb 1 Jan 22 Feb 9
month 1 day 15 Lantern Festival 元宵節 yuánxiāojié Observed with yuanxiao eating Feb 15 Feb 5 Feb 23
month 5 day 5 Dragon Boat Festival (Dragon Festival) 端午節 duānwǔjié Observed with dragon boat racing and zongzi eating Jun 4 Jun 22 Jun 11
month 7 day 7 Qi Qiao Jie (Chinese Valentine's Day) 乞巧節 qǐqiǎojié Girls practice homemaking skills and 'beg' for good marriage Aug 4 Aug 22 Aug 11
month 7 day 15 Spirit Festival (Ghost Festival) 中元節 zhōngyuánjié     Aug 12 Aug 30 Aug 19
month 8 day 15 Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) 中秋節 zhōngqiūjié Observed with a family gathering and moon cake eating Sep 11 Sep 28 Sep 18
month 9 day 9 Double Ninth Festival 重陽節 zhòngyángjié A day for mountain climbing and going to flower shows Oct 4 Oct 22 Oct 11

External links