The Chinese Calendar
China uses the Gregorian calendar (the one most commonly used all round the world) for most official and business purposes, but the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar is still used to determine the days of important festivals, by some for celebrating birthdays, and even for agriculture (when to plough, plant, harvest, etc.). The Chinese calendar is still used for Chinese astrology and choosing auspicious days for weddings, etc.
Names of the Chinese Calendar
The Chinese Calendar: This is perhaps the easiest term for a non-East-Asian to understand, as it refers to the calendar that is used in particularly China, as opposed to the Gregorian or other calendars that are used in other places around the world.
However, the Chinese calendar is also used by other East Asian countries: Korea (where it's identical, as with other Chinese-origin populations in Malaysia, Singapore, etc.), Vietnam and Thailand (where different animals are used for the zodiac), and Japan (where the months are calculated slightly differently, like for the Tibetan calendar). So in these countries it is often known by different names, the most popular being the lunar calendar.
The Lunar Calendar (阴历 yinli /yin-lee/): Though technically it is a lunisolar calendar (influenced by the moon and the sun), it is called the lunar calendar to distinguish it from the traditional solar calendar (阳历 yangli /yang-lee/). See below.
The Farming Calendar (农历 nongli /nong-lee/): Though the seasons, and hence agriculture, are not affected significantly by the moon, Chinese farmers still use the Chinese lunar calendar to fix dates for ploughing, planting, harvesting, etc. Since the lunar calendar is corrected every 2 or 3 years with an extra month to ensure that middle solar terms fall within their correspondingly numbered lunar months, it is still usable, but not as accurate as a solar calendar.
Another reason the traditional lunar calendar is fittingly called the farming calendar is because rural China is the bastion of traditional ways and customs, whereas in the cities traditions are left behind and the Gregorian calendar and other international ways are increasingly adopted.
So a fourth name that is sometimes used in China is “the traditional calendar”, contrasting with “the modern calendar” or Gregorian calendar.
Chinese Years and the Chinese Zodiac
Each Chinese year has an animal associated with it. The years of the Chinese Zodiac run in a cycle of 12 animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, pig. The latest 12-year cycle began on Chinese New Year in 2008 with the year of the rat.
There are actually two traditional Chinese calendars: the solar calendar with 12 solar months (of 30 or 31 solar days) and the lunar calendar with 12 or 13 “lunar” months (of 29 or 30 solar days). The traditional solar calendar is seldom referred to, but it influences the lunar calendar.
The Chinese Traditional Solar Calendar
The Chinese solar calendar's 12 months are each split into two half months or solar terms: the first is a sectional term (节气) and the second is a middle term (中气). The solar terms have names relating to farming, weather, and the seasons.
Each of the solar terms is an exact length of time (1/24 of the Earth's orbit around the sun), half a solar month out of sync with the Western astrological zodiac. Solar terms occur on almost the same days each year on the Gregorian calendar.
Months of the Chinese Lunar Calendar
A lunar month (the time for the moon to complete all its phases) is just over 29 ½ days, so (as each month begins with the day of the new moon) there are slightly more 30-day months than 29-day months in the Chinese lunar calendar.
To prevent the lunar calendar from becoming totally out of sync with the traditional solar calendar, if a lunar month does not contain any of its corresponding middle solar term, an extra month is added called the intercalary month of the previous month.
In 2014 there will be two ninth lunar months (month 9 then intercalary month 9), so that the tenth lunar month contains the tenth middle solar term (November 22 to December 5, called 'minor snow'). See the lunar calendar for 2014 below.
Chinese Calendar Dates and Gregorian Calendar Dates
In this way an extra lunar month is added every two or three years. A Chinese calendar date is never less than 21 days behind the corresponding Gregorian calendar date, and never more than 51 days behind (intercalary months excepted). This can most easily be seen with Chinese New Year dates.
Chinese New Year, the first day of the first lunar month, falls in late January, early February or mid February (strictly in the period January 21 to February 20). See our China Public Holiday Schedule for other important festival dates that are according to the Chinese calendar.
Your China Tour and the Chinese Calendar
The Chinese calendar affects the busiest times for travel in China. These are times to avoid travelling in China unless you want to take part in the festivities.Contact us if you are thinking about a China tour for free consultancy on the best time to travel.
I updated this article on February 10, 2014
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