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Lunar vs Solar

Which calendar to use?

by Seto Kit Yan

Most Chinese are familiar with the Chinese lunar calendar, which keeps track of the movements of the moon, in particular the new moon and full moon days. However, Chinese fortune-tellers and Feng Shui masters refer to the Hsia Calendar or Xia Li, which is based on the Chinese equivalent of the solar calendar. So, for purposes of plotting a feng shui chart or analyzing one's life path, it is the solar date that we use.

Hsia Calencar Or Xia Li

Based on the solar cycle, this Chinese system of timekeeping is said to have been started by the Xia people (ca 2,205 B.C.). Also known as the Farmer's calendar, the Xia Li is a calendar of multiple functions. Seen from a practical point of view, it helps people keep track of seasons and schedule agricultural activities. Besides beings a record of the passage of time, it is also used for fortune-telling (i.e. Four Pillars of Destiny) and predictive feng shui (i.e. Flying Star or Fei Xing).

The hours, days, months and years are expressed in the Gan Zhi system of 10 Heavenly (Celestial) Stems and 12 Earthly (Terrestrial) Branches, which translate into the 5 Elements or Wu Xing - metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. The Stems (gan) and Branches (zhi) are combined to generate a cycle of 60 years - each beginning with the Jia Zhi Year of the Wood Rat.

The current cycle began in 1984, which also corresponds with the beginning of the Period of 7 (in the Lower Yuan) according to San Yuan Flying Star Feng Shui. This year, 2003, marks the final year of the Period of 7, which reigned for the past 20 years. Next year, 2004, will be the beginning of the Period of 8, which will last for the next 20 years. Then comes the Period of 9, which ends with Gui Hai Year of the Water Boar. This also marks the final year of the Gan Zhi cycle of 60 years.

What's In A Chinese Calendar ?

Much has been said about the traditional almanac and Chinese system of measuring and recording the passage of time. The system of timekeeping that the Chinese use is a combination of the lunar and solar calendars, or more appropriately, a lunisolar calendar. This means that the months mirror the movements of the moon and the years reflect with the seasons of the sun.

The traditional Chinese Almanac is used to indicate traditional festivals and to time agricultural activities in the countryside. Ordinarily, the Chinese live their daily lives on a monthly basis according to the lunar cycle, which mark the new moon and full moon days. On the other hand, the farming community and fortune-tellers subscribe to the multi-dimensional Xia Li or Hsia calendar, which represents the Chinese version of a solar calendar.

To illustrate how the Chinese have internalized both the systems, let's observe how they state their birthdays. Besides the Gregorian dates (now that we are in modern times), the Chinese express their birthdays in lunar dates, as well as their Ba Zhi (Eight Characters) according to the solar-based Xia Calendar, which can be used for fortune-telling purposes.

While we are at it, let's examine an interesting aspect of the Chinese concept of year in respect of nián and suì. Traditionally, the Chinese are known to express their ages to be a year "older" than their Western counterparts. This is because the Chinese have a completely different point of reference. Nián describes the year from one Chinese New Year to another, while Suì describes the solar year from one Winter Solstice to another. When querying about one's age, the Chinese enquire about the number of suì you have observed. That is why the Chinese claim themselves to be a year older after celebrating the Winter Solstice or Dong Zhì in December.

This Winter Festival is a special day when the yin qualities of darkness and cold are at their most powerful, yet it is also the turning point, giving way to the auspicious light and warmth of yang. For this reason, it is a time for optimism and celebration, a season during which people get together for family reunions. Did you know that Christmas is also a celebration in the season of the Winter Solstice?

The Lunar (Yin) Aspect

The months line up with the lunar positions or phases of the moon - from the new moon through its waxing cycle to the full moon through its waning cycle. The first day of the month is the day on which a new moon occurs, and the full moon day (mid-month) is usually the fifteenth day. Both are important days in the lunar cycle, during which the Chinese observe special prayers and make offerings.

An example of a traditional lunar festival celebrated by the Chinese is the Mid-Autumn Festival or Zhong Qiu Jié, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month, to coincide with the full moon. Another very important festival is the Chinese New Year, which is celebrated on a new moon day. But, this event belongs to the lunisolar category. Read on, and you will discover why.

The Islamic calendar used by the Muslims is an example of a lunar-only calendar.

The Solar (Yang) Aspect

The Chinese recognized that the solar cycle naturally furnished a regular sequence of seasons, which determined their needs and obviously controlled the supply of their natural foods. Being an agricultural society with rice as their staple food, they realized a need to track the seasons so that they could prepare well in advance for the hardships of winter. Hence, a Farmer's Calendar or Nong Li was drawn out so that farmers could sow and harvest their crop during the appropriate seasons of the year.

To identify the seasons, the position of the sun is measured in degrees. The four seasonal markers are the (Spring) Vernal Equinox on March 21st at 0 , the Summer Solstice on June 21st at 90 , the Autumnal Equinox on September 23rd at 180 and the Winter Solstice on December 22nd at 270 . These are further divided into the 12 principle terms of 30 each, then halved to form the 24 solar terms of 15 each.

An example of a traditional solar festival celebrated by the Chinese is the Winter Festival or Dong Zhì, celebrated on the December 22nd (sometimes 21st), which is actually the day of the Winter Solstice itself.

The Jalali calendar used by the Persians is a solar calendar. So is the Gregorian (or formerly Julian) Calendar that is widely used in most of the world today.

The Lunisolar (Yin Yang) Aspect

The Chinese keep track of time with an interesting combination of both the lunar (yin) and solar (yáng) phases, and more, as the resulting lunisolar calendar (yin yáng lì) used is also subject to observations of the true motions of the moon and the sun (as well as other planets, as you will soon find out).

To keep the lunar and solar years in synchronization, there would be an extra "intercalary month" added to form a Chinese "leap year". Hence, there would be 13 months in a leap year - much like how there is a 29th of February in a leap year. Undoubtedly a calendar of immense complexity in calculations, the Chinese calendar does not rely on mathematical approximations alone.

The Chinese New Year is an example of a lunisolar festival, as it is celebrated on a date determined by reconciling the lunar and solar phases. There are a couple of rules to determine the date of the Chinese New Year: (1) it should be the 2nd new moon after the solar Winter Solstice, (2) it should be the new moon day closest to the minor solar term lì chun (Beginning of Spring), (3) it should be the 1st new moon day after the major solar term dà hán (Great Cold).

The Babylonian calendar, the Hebrew calendar and the Hindu calendar are all lunisolar calendars.


The Jupiter Aspect

The surveillance of other celestial bodies (i.e. planets, stars, etc) besides the Sun and the Moon attests to the intricacy of the Chinese Calendar. Here, the scrutiny of the orbit of planet Jupiter also demonstrates scientific aspect of the practice of Feng Shui and Chinese Astrology. Read on to discover the reason behind the observation of the annual feng shui "affliction" known as the Grand Duke Jupiter.

Jupiter is the 5th planet from the Sun and by far the largest. More than a thousand times the size of planet Earth, Jupiter is the third brightest in the sky. From the vantage point of Earth, Jupiter appears to move in a direction opposite that of the Sun. This led astronomers to the discovery that Earth was apparently not the center of motion.

Chinese astronomers observed that Jupiter took 12 years to orbit the Sun. Hence, the cycle of 12 years, which correspond to the 12 Earthly Branches or 12 animal signs of the Chinese Zodiac. The Year of the Rat is designated as the 1st year of the Jupiter Cycle, and the Year of the Boar indicates the 12th or final year of the Jupiter Cycle. This year, 2003, is the Year of the Sheep or Goat, whichcorresponds to the 8th year of the current Jupiter Cycle.

The Chinese refer to planet Jupiter as Sui Xing, or the Minister of the Year. The position of the planet Jupiter also indicates the direction governed by the Grand Duke Jupiter or Tai Sui for the year. In year 2003, which is the Year of the Sheep, the Grand Duke of Jupiter reigns in the direction marked as Southwest 1 or Wei (202.5 - 217.5 ) in the Chinese Compass. Feng Shui Masters continually caution against confronting the Grand Duke Jupiter as "he" represents an insurmountable obstacle. Owing to the massive size of Jupiter (>1000 times the size of Earth!), this is a very good piece of advice.