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Cultures > China

:: 2200 BC - PRESENT

Cultural Background | Surviving | Living in Community | Finding Meaning in the Cosmos


Keeping Time
The Chinese had both a solar and a lunar calendar.

Lunar Calendar: The Chinese created a lunar calendar based on the cycles of the moon to help them know when to plant, harvest, and celebrate.

In the Chinese calendar, the beginning of the year falls somewhere between late January and early February. Chinese New Year starts with the New Moon on the first day of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. The 15th day of the new year is called the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated at night with lantern displays and children carrying lanterns in a parade. The Chinese New Year has long been the most important festival. At this time farmers gave thanks for the earth's abundance.

The cycle of each moon is about 29.5 days, therefore the lunar month is either 29 or 30 days long. There are 12 months in the lunar calendar.

The calendar continues in a 12-year cycle, with each year named for an animal. According to one myth, the Chinese god Buddha called all the animals of China to his bedside, but only 12 animals came. Because he wanted to honor the animals for their devotion, he created a year for each animal. The twelve animals that appeared were the rat, ox, tiger, hare (rabbit), dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

Solar Calendar: The Chinese solar calendar is determined by the longitude of the sun in the sky. The solar calendar is divided into 24 parts based on the longitude of the sun in the sky. The solar calendar cycles every 60 years.

The lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar calendar. In order to "catch up" with the solar calendar the Chinese insert an extra month once every few years (seven years out of a 19-year cycle). This is the same as adding an extra day on leap year, which we do in the West. This is why, according to the solar calendar, the Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year.

The Chinese have adopted the Western calendar (which we use) since 1911, but the lunar calendar is still used for festive occasions such as the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese also developed a water clock that would keep track of the time of day.

The Chinese began making mechanical clocks which told the time as well as showing the movements of the planets as early as 200 AD. The greatest of these was a water clock built by an official named Su-Sung at the request of the emperor in the 11th century.

Su-Sung's clock stood 40 feet high and was powered by a special water wheel. Buckets around its rim were filled, one at a time, by a steady flow of water. When each bucket was heavy enough to trip a mechanism, it fell forward -- carrying the bucket behind it into place under the water spout. And the process repeated. The weight of the buckets exerted enough force to activate a number of displays. One of these displays was a bronze sphere of the universe which showed the position of the Earth in relation to other stars and planets in the sky.

Su-Sung's wonderful clock, which took eight years to build, was very accurate. It looked a little like the mechanical clock which wasn't invented for another 200 years in Europe.

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Learn more about the lunar cycle, the solar cycle, and keeping time.

"Time measurement was an important occupation in ancient Chinese cultures and the Chinese calendar represents one of the longest unbroken sequence of time measurement in history."


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