The Chinese Calendar

Confusingly Interesting!

The Chinese calendar is intimidating for those who do not understand it or have never heard of such a thing.

chinese calendar chart

Credit: jmurawski

Most Americans are accustomed to the Gregorian (western) calendar which is the standard for the United States.

However, there are a lot of Asian-Americans that use the Chinese calendar in addition to the Gregorian calendar.

We will slowly attempt to unpack and explain what a Chinese calendar is to give you a better understanding of what it is, why it’s used, and what it is based upon.

The intricacies of this calendar is quite fascinating.

Who uses the Chinese calendar?

China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan are the primary countries that use the Chinese calendar.

sunset china

Additionally, some Asian-Americans use it in addition to the Gregorian (western) calendar.

Why do Asians use this calendar?

What’s interesting is most Asian countries also use the Gregorian calendar just as we do but they reference the Chinese calendar for festivals, birthdays, agriculture, and seasons.

This calendar also provides favorable dates for planning important life events such as weddings, funerals, starting a new job, or moving to a new place.

The entire calendar is based around the Chinese zodiac which not only provides horoscopes, but each year keeps features a representational animal.

zodiac symbol

Astronomical observances regarding the phases of the moon and the sun’s longitude are the foundation for the Chinese calendar making it lunisolar.

Components Of A Chinese Calendar

The Chinese calendar has a multitude of components that allows one to:​​​​​

  • Know what date/year it is
  • Know what the general range of weather will be
  • For planting and harvesting
  • Know what season it is
  • Know where the earth is in its orbit around the sun
  • Know what zodiac they are in (year of the animal)
  • Determine ideal dates for events
  • Planning special events according to a time of “favorability”
    The “Bones” Of A Chinese Calendar
  • Chinese calendars used to be solar, but are now lunisolar

The calendar uses:

  • Lunisolar: the combination of both a lunar and a solar calendar
  • Lunar - calendars based on the moon’s orbit around earth
  • Solar - calendars based on the positions of the sun during seasons

2. The calendar is planned out in one of two formats: tropical year or synodic months. This is done according to the earth’s orbit around the sun which helps in planting/harvesting.

The calendar is based on:

  • Agriculture
  • Based on either a tropical year or synodic month
  • Tropical year - 365.24222 days
  • Synodic month - 29.5306 days

3. A Chinese calendar is focused on the earth’s orbit around the sun; where it is in relation to 
the sun at a specific time of year. This also helps in giving people an idea of when it’s 
favorable to plant and harvest.

The calendar uses:

  • Solar Terms: also known as solar breaths (seasons, climates, plant/animal life)
  • Vernal Equinox (5 solar breaths)
  • Summer Solstice (5 solar breaths)
  • Autumnal Equinox (5 solar breaths)
  • Winter Solstice (5 solar breaths)

Vernal Equinox

Summer Solstice

Autuminal Equinox

Winter Solstice

(5 solar breaths)

(5 solar breaths)

(5 solar breaths)

(5 solar breaths)

Clear and Bright

Minor Heat

Cold Dew

Minor Cold

Grain Rain

Major Heat

Frost Descent

Major Cold

Start of Summer

Start of Autumn

Start of Winter

Start of Spring

Small Field Grain

Limit of Heat

Minor Snow

Rain Water

Grain in Ear

White Dew

Major Snow

Awakening of Insects

4. Chinese calendars are planned out in 60-year increments which is known as a Sexegenary Cycle. This is relative to the Chinese zodiac. A cycle is further broken down into 12-year cycles which are repeated 5 times (12 months x 5 = 60-year cycle)

The calendar is based on:

  • Sexegenary Cycle (known as a “major” cycle of 60 years)
  • Futher divided into 12-year cycles which are repeated
  • 1st Component Known as “Heavenly Stems”
  • Each Yea
  • Wood
  • Fire
  • Earth
  • Metal
  • Water
  • 2nd Component Known as “Earthly Branches”

12 Zodiac Signs (see image below)













chinese zodiac sign

History Behind The Chinese Calendar

The Chinese calendar was introduced by Chinese Emperor Huangdi in 2637 BC who developed the first cycle of the zodiac.

This calendar is the most extensive chronological record found in history.

The zodiac Emperor Huangdi created was simple and did not include the 12 zodiac animals.

There is no evidence of exactly when the 12 animal zodiac was created, but it has been estimated being introduced around 5th century BC.

The 12 animal zodiac became a way to track one’s birth date during the North Zhou Dynasty in 557-581 AD.

zodiac signs all animals

This system is still used today. Each animal represents a different year that fall in cycles of 60 years.

Zodiac Animal Traits

If you happen to be born in the year of the animal, it is said that you have specific traits.


1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008

Quick Witted, Resourceful, Versatile


1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009

Decisive, Honest, Dependable, Hardworking


1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010

Brave, Competitive, Unpredictable, Self-Confident


1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011

Gentle, Quiet, Elegant, Skillful, Kind, Patient


1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012

Confident, Smart, Ambitious, Hardworking


1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013

Smart, Courageous, Confident, Insightful, Communicative


1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014

Animated, Kind, Straightforward, Active, Energetic


1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015

Gentle, Shy, Stable, Sympathetic, Amicable


1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016

Witty, Smart, Ambitious, Adventurous


1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017

Observant, Hardworking Resourceful, Courageous, Talented


1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018

Loyal, Honest, Amiable, Kind, Cautious, Prudent


1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019

Diligent, Compassionate, Generous, Easy-going, Gentle

Zodiac Compatibility

Ox, Dragon, Monkey

Rat, Monkey, Rooster

Dragon, Horse, Pig

Rooster, Rat, Monkey

Dragon, Rooster

Sheep, Monkey, Dog, Pig

Rabbit, Horse, Pig

Ox, Snake

Ox, Snake


Sheep, Monkey, Dog, Pig

Tiger, Rabbit, Sheep

Confused yet Understood

After learning the basics of what goes into planning a Chinese calendar and what the components are, it tends to still leave one scratching their head.

The question, “why so much for a simple calendar?” is often asked.

Asians who follow the zodiac (the 12 animals) for horoscope reasons, as well as the seasonal and earth’s orbit aspects, use this information for their daily lives.

Contrastly, we merely go to a calendar to know what day or date it is.

numbered calendar

Calendars around the world serve a purpose for that culture just as ours does.

Although we don’t understand them, learning more about them makes it somewhat understandable and interesting.

Fun Facts About Calendars!

  • An animal’s zodiac year begins with Chinese New Year.
  • Lunar cycles have 60 years.
  • 2019 is the year of the Pig.
  • The Rat is the first on the zodiac list because rats are out foraging before any of the other animals.
  • The only compatible animal for a dog is a Rabbit.


(n.d.) The Chinese Zodiac, Retrieved from:

Thorsen, S. (n.d.) The Chinese Calendar, Retrieved from: