One Timekeeping System to Rule Them All?
Although the royal court had political intentions in the creation of the 24 solar terms, among the common people of the Yellow River Basin, at least the middle and lower reaches, they were still of great importance to daily life. A well-known Chinese poem says, “During the Qingming Festival each year, the rain will fall.” After two long millennia, this line still holds true, and throughout the region it will rain virtually every year on this day, which marks the turning point between the cold and warm seasons. This is an example of how accurate the 24 solar terms can be.
The missionaries who came to China in the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) shared a common suspicion toward the 24 solar terms: throughout the vast territory of China, spanning several tens of degrees of longitude, the timing of the solar terms used in each area is the same! The Westerners expressed great doubt about this. Once the Jesuits became more familiar with Chinese astronomy, from time to time they would attempt to introduce Western astrology to the emperor, and eventually were successful in having the concept of “time zones” assimilated into the 24 solar terms, and the local times from east to west were adjusted accordingly. In addition, in the almanac for each year, the timings of the 24 solar terms for all of the provinces and vassal states at the time were respectively recorded.
It is hard to tell whether this act had any substantial influence on the traditional views of China toward time and the world, but in the least it caused an initial wavering in the traditional view of a “standardized timekeeping system”.
The Western missionaries were sensitive to longitude, but not latitude. Longitude certainly aided in determining the different time zones of China and their corresponding solar terms, but using latitude as a criterion could provide substantial evidence for
justifying the solar terms. In daily life, the difference of longitude in effect has a greater impact on the people’s usage of the 24 solar terms.
As previously mentioned, the climate and phenological changes in the Yellow River Basin, where the Han emperors resided, were used as standard to develop the names of the 24 solar terms.
However, when these solar terms are included in the official calendar, they are certain to be subject to trials throughout the widely varying regions of China. For example, how would the fishermen in southern China, who have never seen snow or had the need to wear thermal underwear, be able to accept solar terms such as Xiaoxue (Lesser Snow) and Daxue (Greater Snow)?
With China’s massive surface area and large number of regions possessing distinctive geological and phenological characteristics, why would the 24 solar terms, which are standardized based on the climate of the Yellow River Basin, still be accurate, regardless of where they were applied? Chinese natural scientists since Zhu Kezhen (also known as Coching Chu, 1890–1974) have striven to prove that the 24 solar terms are not suitable for application to all of China. However, at present, the same unified set of 24 solar terms is still used throughout the country. Why is this? The answer sounds quite dismaying: as the 24 solar terms are part of the national calendar, it is not permitted for there to be a second set.
Famous Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) scholar Gu Yanwu said that, in primitive society, astrology was a part of everyone’s life. With the appearance of social classes and the concept of separate states, a command