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Note: This is really the Lunar Calandar, used by most Asian countries, Korea, Japan, SE Asia in the past. Many countries don't officially celebrate the New Year now and most use a western (Gregorian) calendar.
Chinese do not have a continuous year count. They started counting from one again with each new emperor. However, from the Han dynasty, some scholars tried to reconstruct the ancient Chinese chronology, and it became customary to claim that the calendar was invented by the Yellow Emperor, Huáng Dì (xx), in 2637 BCE during the 61st year of his reign. However, many people prefer to start the count with the first year of his reign in 2697 BCE.
To add to the confusion, some authors use an epoch of 2698 BCE. I believe this because they want to use a year 0 as the starting point, rather than counting 2697 BCE as year 1, or that they assume that the Yellow Emperor started his year with the Winter solstice
The 12 year cycle begins with the Rat. According to Chinese legend, the twelve animals quarreled one day as to who was to head the cycle of years. The gods were asked to decide and they held a contest: whoever was to reach the opposite bank of the river would be first, and the rest of the animals would receive their years according to their finish.
All the twelve animals gathered at the river bank and jumped in. Unknown to the ox, the rat had jumped upon his back. As the ox was about to jump ashore, the rat jumped off the ox's back, and won the race. An important aspect of the Chinese calendar is the sexagenary cycle. This is a combination of the 10 “heavenly stems”, tiān gān (天干), and the 12 “earthly branches”, dì zhī (地支).
To explain how this cycle works, let us denote both the stems and
the branches by their numbers. We denote 1 by (1-1) or (甲, 子), 2 by (2-2) or (乙, 丑) and so on up to (10-10) or
(癸, 酉). But now we have run out of stems, so we denote 11
by (1-11) or (甲, 戌) and 12 by (2-12) or (乙, 亥). Now we have run out of branches, too, so 13 becomes (3-1) or
(丙, 子). We continue in this way through 6 cycles of stems
and 5 cycles of branches up to 60, which is (10, 12) or (癸, 亥). The next number is then (1,1) or (甲, 子), which starts
a new sexagesimal cycle.
Source: The Mathematics of the Chinese Calendar by
This cycle is used for keeping track of years, months, days and (double) hours in Chinese astrology. Your date and time of birth is determined by the Eight Characters (xx) formed by the pair of cyclical characters for the year, month, day and hour. The 60-day cycle has been used for keeping track of days since ancient times. In 4 CE, during the Hàn (?) dynasty, the 60-year cycle was also introduced. The earliest recorded use of the 60-year cycle is from 13 CE. In modern times, the year cycle is the only one that is in common use. Notice that each branch, or animal, occurs five times in each 60-year cycle. An animal corresponding to an odd number, will meet the stems that correspond to the odd numbers. Year 2000 is the 17th year in the current cycle (see below), so it corresponds to (7,5) (17 = 10 + 7 = 12 + 5) or (?, ?). So we see that it is a metal dragon year, or a “Golden Dragon”.
This way of naming years within a 60-year cycle goes back approximately 2000 years. A similar naming of days and months has fallen into disuse, but the date name is still listed in calendars.
It is customary to number the 60-year cycles since 2637 B.C.E., when the calendar was supposedly invented. In that year the first 60-year cycle started.
XIA DYNASTY (Hsia) 21-16 CENTURY BC SHANG DYNASTY 16-11 CENTURY BC ZHOU DYNASTY (Chou) 1111 BC-770 BC Spring and Autum 770-476 Warring States 476-221 QIN DYNASTY (Chin) (255-) 221-207 BC HAN DYNASTY 206 BC-220 Western [Former] Han 206 BC - 24 AD .... Eastern [Later] Han AD 25 - 220 Three Kingdoms 220-280 Shu Han 221 - 263 ..... Wei 220 - 265 .... Wu 222 - 280 JIN DYNASTY (Tsin) 265-420 SOUTHERN/NORTHERN DYNASTIES 420-589 SOUTHERN DYNASTIES: Liu Song 420 - 479 .... Southern Qi 479 - 502 .... Liang 502 - 557 .... Chen 557 ~589 NORTHERN DYNASTIES: Later [Northern] Wei 386 - 534 .... Eastern Wei 534 -550 .... Western Wei 535 - 556 .... Northern Qi 550 - 577 .... Northern Zhou 557 ~581 SUI DYNASTY 581-618 TANG DYNASTY Li Yuan 618-907 FIVE DYNASTIES and Ten Kingdoms 907-960 Later Liang 907 - 923 .... Later Tang 923 - 936 .... Later Jin 936 - 47 .... Later Han 947 - 950 .... Later Zhou 951 - 960 LIAO DYNASTY (907-) 947-1125 SONG DYNASTY (Sung) 960-1279 YUAN DYNASTY www.wsu.edu/~dee/CHEMPIRE/YUAN.HTM Mongol rulers 1279-1368 MING DYNASTY 1368-1644 QING DYNASTY (Ching) Kang Xi and Qian Long 1644-1911 The Republic of China Sun Yat-sen 1911-49 The People's Republic of China Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Mao Zedong 1949-Source: Chinese History at USC
See Also: Portraits of Emperiors at chinapage.com
The Chinese calendar is not a strictly lunar calendar like the Islamic calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar. The basic unit is the lunar month, with a year being 12 months with leap months thrown in every 2-3 years.