Knowledge: “The Traditional Chinese Calendar” & "Gregorian Calendar"


Chinese people are now celebrating another “new year” this January. For us, the first month of 2009 is very interesting — in this month, we’ve had fourteen-day holiday, and celebrated two “new years”.

One is January 1st, same as the new year in west, which is called “yuán dàn”; The other one is Chinese traditional new year, Chinese people call it “Spring Festival”.

Many of my friends have asked me why the “Spring Festival” varies every year, sometimes in February and others in January? I pondered for a long time scratching my head, thinking ”Why?”

Thanks to Google and Wikipedia, I finally found my answer: the “Spring Festival” is up to the “traditional Chinese calendar”, which sometimes has 11 days less than Gregorian calendar, and sometimes has 19 days more. Therefore, the “Spring Festival” can vary by 30 days with respect to the Gregorian calendar.

I know some people are already confused now. Why do the Chinese people have a “traditional Chinese calendar”? First, we need to know about the three types of calendars used by human beings throughout history: the“lunar calendar”, “Gregorian calendar” and “lunisolar calendar”

A “lunar calendar” orients itself around the moon’s phases-changes. Ancient China, Babylon and ancient Egypt all adopted this type of calendar. The advantage of a “lunar calendar” is that it accurately represents the moon’s changes of phase; the disadvantage being that every “lunar calendar year” is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar year, thereby causing a difference of 6 months every 17 years. As a result, our summer would move into January, and winter will to June – an agricultural nightmare.

The “Gregorian calendar” is based on the revolutions of the earth around the sun. It is practical for agriculture, but since it does not account for the changes of moon, it is not appreciated by fisherman because they can not calculate tidal variation from it.

In an attempt to appease both sides, the ancient Chinese people created a “lunisolar calendar” which gives consideration to both the “lunar” and “Gregorian” calendars. Behold the “traditional Chinese calendar”. According to this format, every year has 12 months, including “big months (30 days)” and “small months (29 days)”. To make up for the 11 day difference which arises between itself and the “Gregorian calendar” every 12 months, the “traditional Chinese” calendar includes an “intercalary month” every three years. As a result, the “traditional Chinese calendar” matches the “Gregorian calendar” perfectly every 19 years. For example, May 27th 1963, May 27th 1982, and May 27th 2001 in the Gregorian calendar all correspond to “the fifth day of the fourth intercalary month.”

This is why the “Spring Festival” varies every year. In case you were wondering, in the past 45 years, the “earliest” one was in January 21st, 1966; and the “latest” one was in February 20th,1985 — exactly 30 days difference!

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5 thoughts on “Knowledge: “The Traditional Chinese Calendar” & "Gregorian Calendar"”

  1. Nice to know!
    It would be nice as well to know a bit about how you celebrate the New Year? Is it with fireworks and a lot of food like in many other countries?

  2. Pingback: 知识:“中国农历”与“阳历” - Lexiophiles

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