Why does China use the lu­nar cal­en­dar in­stead of a so­lar one?

– Moon Boy

HK Magazine - - HOME - Dear Mr. Know-It-All,

Con­trary to what you might ex­pect, the Chi­nese cal­en­dar isn’t a lu­nar cal­en­dar. In­stead it’s lu­niso­lar—mean­ing that it’s based on mea­sure­ments of the phases of the moon, but also on the po­si­tion of the sun in the sky.

In­stead of fol­low­ing the so­lar cal­en­dar in hav­ing one leap day ev­ery four years, the Chi­nese cal­en­dar in­tro­duces a leap month ev­ery three years in­stead. Sounds odd? It’s not that unusual. The an­cient Baby­lo­ni­ans, Greeks and Jews all used a vari­ant of this cal­en­dar.

There’s been a lu­niso­lar cal­en­dar in China since at least the Shang Dy­nasty, around the 14th cen­tury BC. Ac­tu­ally, leg­end holds that the semi-myth­i­cal Yel­low Em­peror in­vented the cal­en­dar in around 2500BC—but he’s also said to have in­vented math, agri­cul­ture, boats and foot­ball, so you can take this with a pinch of salt.

In an­cient China the se­crets of the cal­en­dar were jeal­ously guarded, the purview of the king or em­peror him­self. Af­ter all, the em­peror car­ried the man­date of heaven upon his shoul­ders, which is what al­lowed him to rule. The in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the spheres was nat­u­rally his to pass down. The royal astronomers made their cal­cu­la­tions to draw up the cal­en­dar, pre­dict­ing eclipses and fore­cast­ing the fu­ture. More to the point, it would also be used to tell the peo­ple when they should be plant­ing crops or har­vest­ing them.

The brand new Repub­lic of China adopted the West­ern Gre­go­rian cal­en­dar on Jan­uary 1, 1912, as an at­tempt to break away from the au­thor­ity of the em­peror. Af­ter all, if you’ve quashed his di­vine man­date of heaven, then he no longer has con­trol over the months or days of the week. Since then, China’s been of­fi­cially run on the so­lar cal­en­dar.

What are the ben­e­fits of a lu­niso­lar cal­en­dar? Well, aside from eas­ily be­ing able to tell the phases of the moon and tidal pat­terns, there aren’t that many. They don’t al­low you to pin­point where the Earth is in re­la­tion to the sun and more prac­ti­cally, it’s harder to align the months ex­actly with the sea­sons.

But we still use the lu­nar cal­en­dar to mark fes­ti­vals and de­cide on aus­pi­cious pe­ri­ods for wed­dings, fu­ner­als and more. Af­ter all: who wants to mess with the di­vine man­date of heaven?

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