china edition


Leap and Counting Years

Chinese Calendar - Animal Zodiac

Leap years

Leap years have 13 months. To determine if a year is a leap year, calculate the number of new moons between the 11th month in one year (i.e., the month containing the Winter Solstice) and the 11th month in the following year. If there are 13 new moons from the start of the 11th month in the first year to the start of the 11th month in the second year, a leap month must be inserted.

In leap years, at least one month does not contain a Principal Term. The first such month is the leap month. It carries the same number as the previous month, with the additional note that it is the leap month.

Counting years

Unlike most other calendars, the Chinese calendar does not count years in an infinite sequence. Instead years have names that are repeated every 60 years. (in the past, years used to be counted since the accession of an emperor, but this was abolished after the 1911 revolution.)

Within each 60-year cycle, each year is assigned a name consisting of 2 components:

•  The first component is a Celestial Stem. These words have no English equivalent:

Celestial Stem
1. Jia 6. Ji
2. Yi 7. Geng
3. Bing 8. Xin
4. Ding 9. Ren
5. Wu 10. Gui

•  The second component is a Terrestrial Branch. The names of the corresponding animals in the zodiac cycle of 12 animals are given in parentheses.

Terrestrial Branch
1. Zi (rat) 7. Wu (horse)
2. Chou (ox) 8. Wei (sheep)
3. Yin (tiger) 9. Shen (monkey)
4. Mao (rabbit) 10. You (rooster)
5. Chen (dragon) 11. Xu (dog)


Si (snake) 12. Hai (pig)

A method which reflected this cyclical method of recording years are the 12 Animal Signs. Every year is assigned an animal name or "sign" according to a repeating cycle: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

Therefore, every 12 years the same animal name or "sign" would reappear. A cultural sidelight of the animal signs in Chinese folklore is that horoscopes have developed around the animal signs, much like monthly horoscopes in the West have been developed for the different moon signs, Pisces, Aries, etc. For example, a Chinese horoscope may predict that a person born in the Year of the Horse would be, "cheerful, popular, and loves to compliment others". These horoscopes are amusing, but Chinese people are not taking it seriously.

The animal signs can also tell you how old someone is. Instead of asking directly how old a person is, people often ask what his or her animal sign is. This would place that person's age within a cycle of 12 years and with a bit of common sense, you can conclude the exact age. More often, though, people ask for animal signs not to find out someone's exact age, but just to know who is older or younger among friends and relatives.

According to a Chinese legend, the 12 animals were discussing one day as to who was to be the first of the cycle of years. The gods were asked to decide and they held a contest: the one who reached the opposite bank of the river would be first, and the rest of the animals would receive their years according to their finish. All the 12 animals gathered at the river bank and jumped in. Unknown to the ox, the rat had jumped upon his back. As the ox was about to jump ashore, the rat jumped off the ox's back, and won the race. The lazy pig ended up last. That is why the rat is the first year of the animal cycle, the ox second, and the pig last.

Each of the 2 components is used sequentially. Thus, the first year of the 60-year cycle becomes jia-zi, the second year is yi-chou, the third year is bing-yin, etc. When we reach the end of a component, we start from the beginning: The 10th year is gui-you, the 11th year is jia-xu (restarting the Celestial Stem), the 12th year is yi-hai, and the 13th year is bing-zi (restarting the Terrestrial Branch). Finally, the 60th year becomes gui-hai.

This way of naming years within a 60-year cycle goes back approximately 2,000 years. A similar naming of days and months has fallen into disuse, but the date name is still listed in calendars.

It is customary to number the 60-year cycles since 2637 BCE, when the calendar was supposedly invented. In that year the first 60-year cycle started.

The current 60-year cycle started on 2 Feb 1984. That date bears the name bing-yin in the 60-day cycle, and the first month of that first year bears the name gui-chou in the 60-month cycle.

This means that the year wu-yin, the 15th year in the 78th cycle, started on 28 Jan 1998. The 20th year in the 78th cycle, started on 1 Feb 2003.