The 24 So­lar Terms

An­cient Chi­nese farm­ers cal­en­dar should be pro­tected as an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage, ar­gues folk­lorists

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - FRONT PAGE - By Chen Shasha

The world has seen great tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment in just the past few decades. The 24 so­lar terms, a thou­sand-year-old cal­en­dar sys­tem used by Chi­nese farm­ers to plant and har­vest crops, seems to be los­ing its at­trac­tive­ness among younger gen­er­a­tions who now rely heav­ily on elec­tronic de­vices.

Each so­lar term on the al­manac-like cal­en­dar has a spe­cific name rep­re­sent­ing a fea­ture of that spe­cific pe­riod. For ex­am­ple, Grain in Beard usu­ally comes on June 5, 6 or 7, when farm­ers are busy with har­vest or plant­ing new seeds. The End of Heat on Au­gust 22, 23 or 24 tells peo­ple that the hottest weather of the year has passed. One day, per­haps peo­ple will only re­mem­ber that, when the Win­ter Sol­stice (one of the 24 so­lar terms) ar­rives on De­cem­ber 21, 22 or 23 ev­ery year, we need to eat dumplings to pro­tect our ears from be­ing stung with cold – a tra­di­tional tale that pre­vails in North China. The pre­serv­ing and pass­ing of the 24 so­lar terms of China has be­come a se­ri­ous is­sue among tra­di­tion­al­ists in the dig­i­tal era, but good news ar­rived last Novem­ber when China’s 24 so­lar terms were fi­nally listed as In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage of Hu­man­ity by the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion (UNESCO). Soon af­ter­ward, the China Folk­lore So­ci­ety con­structed a study­ing cen­ter of China’s 24 so­lar terms in Bei­jing, aim­ing to ex­plore folk­lore re­sources be­hind the terms in dif­fer­ent ar­eas while pro­tect­ing and pass­ing down the her­itage for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

In­ter­view with Huang Jingchun

Huang Jingchun, deputy di­rec­tor of the new study­ing cen­ter and a pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing folk­lore and an­cient Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture at Shang­hai Univer­sity, re­cently sat down with the Global Times to share his knowl­edge and ideas about the pro­tec­tion of the 24 so­lar terms in China.

GT: An­cient Chi­nese peo­ple used both the lu­nar cal­en­dar and so­lar cal­en­dar. What are their re­spec­tive func­tions?

Huang: The Chi­nese tra­di­tional cal­en­dar is ac­tu­ally called the “lu­niso­lar” cal­en­dar by schol­ars. To make it dis­tinct from the Gre­go­rian cal­en­dar cre­ated by the West­ern­ers, Chi­nese peo­ple used to name it in dif­fer­ent ways, such as Chi­nese cal­en­dar (pro­nounced as zhongli in Pu­tonghua), an­cient cal­en­dar (ji­uli) and lu­nar cal­en­dar (yinli). How­ever, a lu­nar cal­en­dar, in­di­cat­ing only the moon phases, is ac­tu­ally in­cor­rect, as the Chi­nese tra­di­tional cal­en­dar com­bines both lu­nar cal­en­dar and so­lar cal­en­dar.

So­lar cal­en­dars de­cide the first day of a new year, months and fes­ti­vals ac­cord­ing to the move­ment of the sun on the eclip­tic. Lu­nar cal­en­dars set months and dates based on the po­si­tion of the moon on its revolution around Earth. To make the lu­nar months of lu­niso­lar cal­en­dars align with the so­lar year, Chi­nese add an in­ter­ca­lated month ev­ery three years.

We call the Chi­nese tra­di­tional cal­en­dar “lu­niso­lar” mainly be­cause it is imbed­ded with the 24 so­lar terms, which are de­fined ac­cord­ing to the po­si­tion of the sun. The 24 so­lar terms ac­tu­ally re­flects the po­si­tion of Earth re­volv­ing around the sun. Ev­ery 15-de­gree move­ment makes one term and 360 de­grees make 24 terms, which means a so­lar year.

As Earth re­volves around the sun in an el­lipse, it ro­tates faster on its axis when it comes closer to the sun and slower when it goes farther. There­fore, it takes Earth 15 days, some­times 14 or 16 days, to fin­ish one term. The terms can re­flect the cli­mate changes of dif­fer­ent sea­sons cor­rectly. There­fore, it is a so­lar cal­en­dar.

GT: The 24 so­lar terms were es­tab­lished be­fore the Qin Dy­nasty (221BC– 206BC). Has it ever gone through any evo­lu­tion in the past thou­sand years?

Huang: The 24 so­lar terms have un­der­gone some changes. In the Xiaozheng Chi­nese Cal­en­dar, one of China’s old­est sci­en­tific doc­u­ments com­pleted dur­ing the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770BC–476BC), there were some de­scrip­tions on phe­no­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena and farm works which were used to guide agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties and iden­ti­cal to the ideas to the 24 so­lar terms.

In the later stages of the War­ring States (475BC–221BC), the Lü’s An­nals, Twelve Pe­ri­ods, a se­ries doc­u­ments telling phe­no­log­i­cal changes and Tao­ism philoso­phies, in­cluded eight so­lar terms among which the Be­gin­ning of Spring (Fe­bru­ary 3, 4 or 5), the Be­gin­ning of Sum­mer (May 5, 6 or 7), the Be­gin­ning of Au­tumn (Au­gust 7, 8 or 9), the Be­gin­ning of Win­ter (Novem­ber 7 or 8) mark the start­ing of four sea­sons, while the Spring Equinox (March 20, 21 or 22), the Sum­mer Sol­stice (June 21 or 22), the Au­tum­nal Equinox (Septem­ber 22, 23 or 24) and the Win­ter Sol­stice stay in the mid­dle of the four sea­sons.

At the be­gin­ning of Western Han Dy­nasty (206BC–AD25), the Huainanzi, a philo­soph­i­cal work of the Eclec­tics of an­cient China, made a de­tailed de­scrip­tion of the 24 so­lar terms. Later on, Em­peror Wu (156BC–87BC) of the Han Dy­nasty in­te­grated

the terms into the so­lar cal­en­dar, from when the terms be­came an in­dis­pens­able part of Chi­nese cal­en­dars.

GT: Some peo­ple ar­gue that the terms are no longer ac­cu­rate due to cli­mate changes. What do you think?

Huang: The 24 so­lar terms are still im­por­tant, as they re­flect the changes of sea­sons and the phenophases and are used to guide agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion. As they were con­cluded in the mid and lower reaches of the Yel­low River, it is suit­able for that area.

Farm­ers in dif­fer­ent ge­o­graph­i­cal lat­i­tudes con­sult the terms based on spe­cific lo­cal con­di­tions. This can be ex­plained by some farm­ing proverbs. For in­stance, farm­ers in Cen­tral China’s He­nan Prov­ince say that the Au­tum­nal Equinox (Septem­ber 22, 23 or 24) is the best time to sow wheat, those in Cen­tral China’s Hubei Prov­ince believe that Cold Dew (Oc­to­ber 8 or 9) is the best choice, but peo­ple in East China’s Zhe­jiang Prov­ince pre­fer the Frost’s De­scent (Oc­to­ber 23 or 24).

Cli­mate change is not so se­ri­ous yet to af­fect ac­tual sea­sons. China is a vast ter­ri­tory. The terms might be poorly ap­pli­ca­ble in North­east China and South China in­clud­ing South China’s Guang­dong Prov­ince and the Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion, but it won’t af­fect the di­vi­sion of the four sea­sons by the four be­gin­nings, two equinoxes and two sol­stices. Cur­rently, they can still di­rect agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion in the ar­eas of the Yel­low and Yangtze rivers.

GT: Most mod­ern peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing of the terms is quite lim­ited. How can we pro­tect the terms, as they are now listed as an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage of China?

Huang: It is true that some peo­ple un­der­stand the terms in a su­per­fi­cial way and even re­gard them as an out­dated or su­per­sti­tious cal­en­dar. We should self-ques­tion the su­per­sti­tious be­liefs peo­ple have en­dowed to the terms, such as taboos on par­tic­u­lar days. How­ever, the most im­por­tant thing is that we need to un­der­stand it in an ac­cu­rate and cor­rect way and keep in mind that it is a so­lar cal­en­dar in essence.

The Gre­go­rian cal­en­dar is only a so­lar cal­en­dar, which only con­sid­ers the po­si­tion of the sun. The cal­en­dar of Is­lam is a lu­nar cal­en­dar which in­cludes 12 lu­nar months but does not con­sider the trop­i­cal year. The Chi­nese tra­di­tional cal­en­dar in­te­grat­ing both the trop­i­cal year and 12 lu­nar months bears the ex­plo­ration spirit and wis­dom of an­cient Chi­nese.

GT: As ur­ban­iza­tion pro­gresses along with tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment, what kind of mean­ing do the terms have?

Huang: The terms has been closely com­bined with the liv­ing rhythm, lifestyle and es­pe­cially tra­di­tional fes­ti­vals of Chi­nese peo­ple. It also ab­sorbed some con­tents of history, re­li­gions and folk­lore. These cul­tural fea­tures are still playing an en­er­getic role in our so­ci­ety de­spite in­creas­ing ur­ban­iza­tion.

For ex­am­ple, peo­ple are now em­pha­siz­ing more on health, which re­quires us to un­der­stand the knowl­edge of the terms. It is not only a cul­tural her­itage of China, but also a pre­cious her­itage to all the hu­man be­ings.

GT: How will your cen­ter spread and pro­mote the terms in the fu­ture?

Huang: In fact, there has been a fever to pro­tect the terms af­ter they were listed as a UNESCO in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage. The es­tab­lish­ment of the cen­ter is a prac­ti­cal step that the China Folk­lore So­ci­ety took to bring to­gether folk­lorists, his­to­ri­ans and ex­perts study­ing cul­tural relics and cal­en­dars to pro­tect and pro­mote the terms.

Some or­ga­ni­za­tions have been set up to pro­tect some or all of the terms. Cre­ations themed with the terms are so ac­tive that thou­sands of paint­ings, es­pe­cially peas­ant paint­ings, have been made.

The cen­ter will get more in­volved in the pro­tec­tion ac­tiv­i­ties held in dif­fer­ent places and or­ga­nize study­ing work­shops to delve into the cul­tural essence. Fo­rums co-or­ga­nized by the aca­demic field and lo­cal gov­ern­ments such as the one held by Nan­jing Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity and Gaochun county of East China’s Jiangsu Prov­ince on Septem­ber 23 are also an im­por­tant way by which the schol­ars could do re­search on the ba­sis of lo­cal agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion and history.

Photo: CFP

An adult and child alonga river­bank

(M n) elow) ot­tom) Pho­tos CF

Trees urin ffer­ent ea­sons Farm­ers rvest rice au­tumn Flower rm­ers trans­plant wers

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