Stories from the Bible suggest that there were shepherds working in the wilderness when Jesus was born. This has led some to conclude that Christ couldn’t really have been born in the bitter months of winter, and it’s true that Christmas only began to be celebrated on December 25 in the fourth century. Historians speculate that church officials wanted to weaken more established pagan celebrations.
China’s Spring Festival holiday is a much more recent invention, created barely a century ago. But the date at which China’s new lunar year should formally begin is a fiercely debated topic – in fact, it is known to academics as the “Spring Festival problem”.
As a result many people aren’t certain about their own zodiac signs (and thus their forthcoming fortune). As almost 1.4 billion Chinese celebrate the Spring Festival again this week, WiC presents its own explanation of one of China’s most venerated but complicated to calculate traditions.
How the Chinese calendar works
The most widely used calendar, the Gregorian, relies on the relative position of the sun. The other commonly used system is the lunar calendar which dates “months” based on lunar phases. The traditional Chinese calendar is a hybrid of both. It uses lunar months (of about 29.5 days) in tracking a solar year (about 365.2 days). Thus according to the Chinese format a full moon always happens on the 15th or 16th of the month, while a lunar year of 12 lunar months averages 354 days. A ‘leap month’ of additional days then has to be inserted about every three years to keep the calendar in tune with the seasons. In this way, the starting date of the Chinese New Year also varies, although it always comes around about a month or so later than the first day of a new year under the Gregorian standard.
There is another important layer of the Chinese calendar: the 24 solar terms, or jie qi. In Western astronomy, solstices and equinoxes divide the solar cycle into four seasons. China’s jie qi, simply put, divides a single tropical year into “24 seasons”. In agrarian China the seasonal-marking system was important because it dictated what farmers should do through the different jie qi of the year. The year always starts with lichun, or Beginning of Spring, which typically falls in late January or early February (in Gregorian calendar terms). But essentially, the Chinese calendar is a complex combination of one lunisolar system plus a solar calendar (aka the 24 solar terms).
What makes a Chinese year…
Confused yet? The outcome of this combination of approaches means that there are actually TWO different yearly cycles in the Chinese calendar. That sounds complex but traditionally the Chinese had a definitive way to distinguish between the two: nian (年) and sui (岁).
A nian is the duration from one Chinese New Year’s day to the next. It is roughly 353 days in a normal year and 383 days in a leap year when a leap month is inserted. Meanwhile a sui is the solar year from one lichun to the next. It lasts for 365 days, just like a Gregorian year.
These days the Chinese word nian means “year” while sui is only used in discussions about a person’s age. In older times, spring was considered the important beginning of life. As such Chinese people often counted their age from the nearest lichun (i.e. the period denoting the Beginning of Spring).
When is Chinese New Year’s day?
Generally a new nian arrives on the day of a new moon that’s closest to a new sui. In other words, the two dates are often days apart but can sometimes fall on the same day (such a circumstance will happen again in 2038).
The Chinese celebrated both events and they were often known as “sui festival” and “nian festival”.
Again, given the importance of agriculture to China in the past, lichun was the most important “new year’s day” for society in general. The ancient Chinese often celebrated the arrival of a new sui more vigorously than the beginning of another nian. Upon lichun, even the emperor would attend ceremonies to pray for a good harvest – and hence social stability.
However, as the Chinese economy has skewed away from the countryside in modern times, the importance of lichun has also receded. Instead, urban Chinese have started to settle on the nian festival as the key date in celebrating Chinese New Year’s Day (lichun this year is February 3; nian is January 28).
Journey to the West…
Many of the traditions of the Chinese calendar aren’t as local as you might think. In fact, some of the calculations were heavily influenced by Western astronomy via practices introduced by the Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell, who arrived in China in 1630 (see WiC238).
When the imperial Qing government collapsed in 1911 and China became a republic on January 1, 1912, the new regime then decided to adopt the Gregorian calendar to signify that China was modernising.
That gave the Chinese an extra “New Year’s Day” (January 1). To confuse things further, the young republic’s new president Yuan Shikai (a military strongman who tried to restore the monarchy with himself as emperor) decided to reform the Chinese holidays and celebrate the Gregorian New Year’s Day as the new “Spring Festival”.
In 1928 after Chiang Kai-shek took power he also made the case for a celebration on January 1. The Generalissimo even banned festivities at the Lunar New Year to focus public attention on the Gregorian calendar. But that didn’t work very well and the Chinese continued to celebrate the Chinese New Year (the nian festival) for years.
In 1949 the Communist Party took over and it kept the Gregorian dating system. But it switched the Spring Festival celebration back to the arrival of the Chinese New Year.
How about those 12 zodiac animals?
The Chinese zodiac is another traditional way that time has been measured, with 12 different animals assigned to each year in a repeating 12-year cycle. The zodiac signs alternate so the Chinese often find themselves debating whether a new zodiac begins with lichun or the Chinese Lunar New Year’s day (nian).
There is no definitive answer on how the zodiac system began but one thing is certain: it is neither a solar-based system nor a lunar one. Instead, a person’s zodiac sign depends entirely upon Jupiter’s position when he or she was born.
Perhaps that’s why the debate on when new phases of the Chinese zodiac formally begin has never been settled. The Chinese government’s official position is to stick with the most popularly used system: that is, to go with nian, or the Chinese New Year according to the lunisolar calendar. It’s not perfect but probably the best approach.
It can lead to puzzles for individuals born in January and February, where one feng shui master might designate them with one zodiac sign, while another decrees something different by prioritising lichun.
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