CHINESE HISTORICAL THEMES: LANGUAGE, NAMES AND TIME

LANGUAGES IN CHINA


calligraphy by the famous Tang Poet Li Bai

The Chinese define a nationality (ethnic group) as a group of people of common origin living in a common area, using a common language, and having a sense of group identity in economic and social organization and behavior. Altogether, China has fifteen major linguistic regions generally coinciding with the geographic distribution of the major minority nationalities. Members of non-Han groups, referred to as the "minority nationalities," constitute only about 7 percent of the total population but are distributed over 60 percent of the land. [Source: Library of Congress]

Most nationalities have their own language. Some have their own script, although some of these have fallen into disuse under Communist rule. Over the centuries a great many peoples who were originally not Chinese have been assimilated into Chinese society. Entry into Han society has not demanded religious conversion or formal initiation. It has depended on command of the Chinese written language and evidence of adherence to Chinese values and customs.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “China includes many ethnic groups that were brought within Chinese boundaries through processes of imperial expansion: Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and a host of others. The most influential of these groups speak and write their own languages with non-Chinese scripts, and in some cases prefer not to use Chinese, which to them is the language of an occupying power. However, from the early twentieth century, there has been an increasingly active effort by Chinese governments to ensure that a version of Chinese known as Mandarin – closely related to the dialect of Beijing – be universally taught in schools and used for all official transactions. The active spread of Mandarin, particularly once the use of radios and televisions became widespread, has created a common spoken language that can be understood by people in almost all regions. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History);

Names for China

China was named by Europeans after the ancient Ch'in Dynasty of the 3rd century B.C. This dynasty in turn was named after Emperor Qin (Chin) Shihuang, the man credited with unifying China.

Chung-kho, the Chinese name for China, means "Middle Kingdom." It is derived from the traditional Chinese belief that China lay in the middle of a flat earth, with deserts and oceans around the edges. The Chinese people call themselves Hans in honor of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), which itself was adopted from the name of a river.

China is sometimes called Cathay. The word Cathay comes form the Karakitay dynasty, an 11th century Buddhist empire in western China. In the Silk Road era this was the first part of China that Europeans reached when the approached China from the west.

Chinese Language

Dr. Eno wrote: “One of the most unusual aspects of Chinese culture is the Chinese language. It includes a vast array of regional dialects, many of which cannot be understood by Chinese of other regions, and it features the use of inflectional tones to distinguish among different words, otherwise pronounced identically. These characteristics make Chinese dramatically different from European languages, and it is relatively difficult for speakers of English and Romance languages to learn. But these differences also make Chinese a language of unusual interest. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Because Chinese characters do not give a clear indication of their pronunciation, regional differences in pronunciation of Chinese were likely always very broad, and particularly after the migrations that led to the development of equally strong Northern and Southern regions, the local dialects of Chinese diverged to the same degree that dialects of Latin in Europe diverged to create the various Romance languages. Today, the language spoken in the southern port cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, “Cantonese,” is at least as far removed from the language spoken in Beijing as Spanish is from French. However, the disjunction between writing and pronunciation has had the contrary effect of preserving the universal intelligibility of written Chinese, which has consequently served to reinforce the cultural and political unity of China. Thus Chinese may be considered the language of the “Han” Chinese people, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the population. /+/

“The official language of China is Mandarin, a variant of the Beijing dialect. Because of the wide variety of dialects in China, the central government began many centuries ago to require that all candidates for official appointment be able to speak a common dialect, and in this way Mandarin became a standard, though regional dialects remained in use. (“Mandarin” is an English word derived from Malay, meaning “government official,” and applied to Asian countries in the 19th century.)” /+/

“Chinese is a hard language to pronounce and a very hard language to render in the Roman alphabet. Many systems of transcription exist – each one awful in its own special way. In this course, we will use the pinyin system of Romanization for China, which was developed in the 50s in the People’s Republic of China.” /+/


Map of China's current language groups


Ancient Chinese Language

Dr. Eno wrote: “The earliest evidence of writing that reflects the spoken Chinese language dates back over three thousand years to the lower Yellow River Valley. Ancient Chinese seems to have been part of the same linguistic lineage that produced the languages of Tibet and Burma, and it is generally considered part of the “Sino-Tibetan” language group. The earliest Chinese states were formed from a coalescence of many different peoples, speaking many different languages, but because among them only Chinese could be written, it came in time to be the universal language of the Chinese state. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Even those who love ancient Chinese admit that the language is bizarre and that it creates unusual difficulties for the study of China in Western languages...We have little insight into the spoken language of ancient China. The texts we possess now are, being texts, all examples of the written language, and there is much evidence to support the view that spoken and written languages were very different in antiquity. In fact, as the Chinese cultural sphere expanded during the ancient period, it appears that many of the ethnic groups it absorbed maintained their native spoken language for many generations, and employed the Chinese written language for textual communication simply because it was the only written language available. /+/

“We are able to say that spoken ancient Chinese was largely a monosyllabic language: that is, the semantic (meaning) units of the language were almost always expressed by a single syllable. Each of these semantically significant syllables constituted a word. Words were uninflected: they did not take variable endings that indicated features such as tense, number, gender, or case. All these features, which make many Indo-European languages tedious to learn, are entirely absent from Chinese. No tense, no plurals, no subject-object markers. But it is disappointing to learn that a language stripped of all this complex features becomes not easier to master but harder. In ancient Chinese, which relies almost wholly on word order and a limited set of function words to provide grammatical clues to meaning, The level of ambiguity is spectacularly high. This is one of the reasons why many of the most revered ancient texts remain imperfectly understood.” /+/

Phonetic and Grammatical Features of Chinese

Dr. Eno wrote: “Modern spoken Mandarin is a “syllable poor” language, meaning that there are only a limited number of syllables that can be used by Chinese speakers. In fact, there are no more than 450 possible syllables that can be used in speech. In English and most other languages, although there is a limited number of basic sounds (phonemes) that we expect native speakers to be able to use, these can be combined in new ways to create new syllable sounds, and these can become part of the language. For example, if you wanted to name your cat Blarksht, your English-speaking friends might be surprised, but they’d call her “Blarksht”; Chinese speakers who met your cat, however, would probably refer to her as “Bu-la-ke-shi-te,” breaking her name into five syllables that exist in Chinese as the closest approximation to the syllable you had invented. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

left “A set of 450 available syllables is very small. There were probably many more in ordinary ancient Chinese speech, but over millennia, the vowel and consonant system of Chinese was greatly simplified, and distinctions among similar sounding words came to be made not through the use of vowel or consonant phonemes, but through standardized intonations, or “tones,” assigned to each syllable. Ancient Chinese was largely a “monosyllabic language”: that is, the semantic (meaning) units of the language were almost always expressed by a single syllable. Each of these semantically significant syllables constituted a word. Words were uninflected: they did not take variable endings that indicated features such as tense, number, gender, or case. For this reason, it was relatively simple to build into syllables – which corresponded to meaning units – a tonal element that would help distinguish their meaning. In standard Mandarin there are four “tones” – inflections that are a stable part of the pronunciation of each word or meaningful syllable: level, rising, low, and falling. /+/

“Not every syllable can carry every tone, but tones in Chinese mean that, in practice, roughly 4 x 450 = 1500 syllables are actually possible in Mandarin. (Not that this removes all ambiguity – a small dictionary lists 130 different characters that are all pronounced as “ yi” with a falling tone!) The syllable-poor nature of Chinese is one reason why, for foreigners, Chinese words may seem to look alike. Having few syllable choices, there is an unusual degree of resemblance among words transcribed into our Roman alphabet, and it makes it hard for Westerners when they encounter Chinese names and terms in their own script. In Chinese, the ambiguity is greatly reduced by the other striking feature of the language – written characters.” /+/

Richness of Ancient Chinese

Dr. Eno wrote: “Ancient Chinese was a language of great subtlety, enhanced by resonances which related written characters could produce.” In the story, “Han Qi Visits the State of Zheng”, set in the 6th century B.C., “ Han Qi’s comment about the “will of Zheng” employs two such resonances. The word for “poetry” in Chinese ( shi ) sounds like and uses a graphic element in common with the word for “will” ( zhi u: “will” in the sense of “intent” or “purpose”). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“There was, in fact, a saying current about the time that this narrative was composed to the effect that, “Poems speak one’s will.” The sense of the saying not only concerned the function of poetry, but also served as a gloss for the written character for “poetry,” which is composed of two graphs, one meaning “to speak,” and the other close to and homophonous with the graph for “will.” This notion of the “original” sense and function of poetry, as expressed by the written character, lay behind Han Qi’s initial request to learn the “will” of Zheng by hearing poetic recitations.” /+/

“Now, when Han Qi notes that the poems “have all reflected the will of Zheng,” yet another pun is involved. Because the word for “will” is written with the same character as a homophonous word meaning “record,” his statement is an elegant observation that both praises the way in which the ministers have conveyed the intent of their ruler, and equally points out that all of the poems selected by the ministers for this purpose are to be found among the recorded “Airs of Zheng.”“ /+/

Chinese Characters


Early writing from Neolithic Shandong

Dr. Eno wrote: “Chinese uses no alphabet. Instead, every word is assigned a character” which calls up both its sound and its meaning. The largest Chinese dictionaries list about 50,000 characters; a fully literate person needs to know about 3-4,000. The system of writing in characters seems to have evolved during the Shang period, about 3200 years ago. The earliest surviving Chinese texts date from that era, and the characters used in these are far more rudimentary and non-standardized than those we see later. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Learning Chinese characters can be a tedious chore, but learning about them is fun. The characters can be understood as the products of several approaches to representing a word in graphic form. Characters represent words, and words may be thought of as consisting of two major components: a sound and a meaning. Characters relate to words in the following ways. 1) Characters may be derived from simple pictographic representations of the meaning of a word. For example, the three graphs that stand for the words zi, mu, and , which mean “child,” “tree,” and “woman.” The graphs do not relate to the sounds of the words, but simply derive from a crude sketch of the noun that the word refers to. /+/

“2) “Ideographic forms” show how characters were developed for more abstract words. The characters for the low numbers convey in a simple form the meaning of the numbers (again, without regard for sound), and the graphs for “up” and “down” are also representations of abstract ideas, rather than pictures.” Some characters “were combinations of pictures pointing to a meaning beyond themselves. For example, a graph including the sun and moon did not mean “the sun and the moon,” as a pictograph would, it meant “bright,” an idea probably conveyed indirectly by this juxtaposition of two shining features of the sky. /+/

“3) The final type of character, a very common one, conveys its meaning by a combined approach to both sound and meaning.” This is called the logographic form. “In the example given, the problem is to figure out how to represent in writing the concept of a calendrical time or season, as denoted by the spoken word shi. The solution is to write the character for “sun,” closely associated with time and the progression of the year, on one side, and on the other side to borrow the character for a nearly homophonous word si (the meaning of which bears no relation to time). Readers then can understand the sense of the character to be a word concerning solar properties, one pronounced much like si (during the Classical period, shi and si would have been very close, being pronounced, very roughly, like dziug and diug respectively). /+/

“Perhaps the most significant facet of the Chinese language for understanding Chinese culture are the psychological and aesthetic effects of a written language composed of graphs rather than an alphabet. After long exposure to written Chinese, the impression grows that processes of understanding occur during reading that have no comparable equivalent for alphabetic scripts. These processes, both aesthetic and more generally cultural, made the Chinese written language appear as a near-sacred gift to the people of Classical China. /+/

Writing in Ancient China

20080223-evolution of chinese characters.jpg
Evolution of Chinese characters
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Chinese characters are one of the world's most unique forms of writing. They reflect the perfect fusion of idea and image. Although cuneiform and hieroglyphics disappeared with the civilizations that produced them, Chinese has continued down to the present day, evolving into a beautifully aesthetic system of lines and dots the incorporates such calligraphic styles as seal, clerical, cursive, running, and standard script for visual appeal. Using the brush to create them results in one of the world's most beautiful forms of writing. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Writing is one of the pillars by which a civilization is judged. Words and the way they are written down also preserve many aspects of the culture that produced them by incorporating elements of time and space. The system of Chinese characters remains one of the most important threads that ties together its three thousand years of written history. \=/

Forms of ancient Chinese writing include: 1) oracle bone writing; 2) bronze writing bronze writing; and 3) writing on bamboo slips.Some of the more famous examples of these are: 1) bronze writing from Mao-pi Yi; 2) Bronze Writing from Sung Hu; 3) the Ch'u Bamboo Slips; and the Ch'u Bamboo Slips from Ching-meng Pao-shan. \=/

Forms of ancient Chinese script include: 1) Small Seal Script; 2) Clerical Script; 3) Running Script; 4) Standard Script and 5) Cursive Script. Some of the more famous examples of these are: 1) Small Seal Script from Mt. T'ai; 2) Clerical Script in the “Stone Gate Eulogy”’ 3) Running Script in the “Lan-t'ing Preface”; 4) Standard Script in the “Record of Niu Chueh”; and 5) Cursive Script in “Essay on Calligraphy.” \=/

“In China, writing before the Ch'in dynasty in the 3rd century B.C. evolved to become the clerical script of the Ch'in and Han dynasties, making these ancient forms difficult to decipher. At around 100 AD, Hsu Shen of the Eastern Han compiled "An Etymology Dictionary" of 9353 small-seal characters and included ancient forms or equivalents. This first effort at understanding ancient characters laid the foundation for the study of bronze inscriptions from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. "The Stone Classics in Three Scripts" from the 3rd century AD not only corrected characters in the Classics, but more importantly provided a link between contemporary and ancient writing. \=/

“Deciphering Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions has consistently relied on Hsu's dictionary. Even the discovery of script on unearthed oracle bones from the late Shang relied on his text. Just as important, however, oracle bone script has also made corrections to the dictionary itself. The study of ancient characters involves investigating the original appearance, addressing problems of pronunciation, and researching issues of meaning and grammar. \=/

Examples of the Origins and Evolution of Chinese Characters

rightAccording to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The pictograph for the character of father in Chinese suggests a hand holding an ax or adz (also pronounced fu). The pictograph is like an early stone adz, which was a tool of the ancient Chinese used in farming. Therefore, the hand suggested the action of physical labor. Since males were the prime source of labor in patriarchal families, this graph was used to represent father. The pictograph of the character for man in Chinese is similar to a stick figure shown frontally with hair tied up, suggesting a man of distinction. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

The pictograph for the character of mother in Chinese represents the form of a female kneeling with her hands on her knees (the related pictograph for girl). The addition of two dots suggests breast feeding, thereby making the distinction of motherhood in traditional Chinese society. A horizontal line above suggests a hairpin, also indicating adulthood. \=/

The pictograph of the character for farm shows a field with weeds being removed by hand using a shell tool. Before the invention of tilling, the ancient Chinese used shells to dig out the weeds from their fields. Close examination of this character shows therefore shows that it is actually the earliest representation of farming. \=/

Early Chinese Dictionary

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Erya: a Dictionary is the earliest dictionary in Chinese history. "Er" means "close", while "ya" means "correct / right" This is a tool book that uses the official language to interpret the meaning of ancient words, provincial dialects and rarely used words. The author is unknown, and the book was first written some time after Western Han Period. As spoken and written language had changed rapidly from the Cunchiu, Warring Kingdoms to the Western Han periods, later generations were soon unable to understand books from earlier periods; therefore Erya: a Dictionary, a tool book specializing in interpretation of ancient words, was born. Annotations of Erya: a Dictionary by Guo Pu (275~324) of Western Jin Period was highly popular amongst the literati, and these made "The Annotations to Erya: a Dictionary become the most widely disseminated today. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“During the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties, imperial examinations became an important means for the government to recruit officials. At the time the Directorate of Education had adopted a duplicate print of Erya: a Dictionary from the Five Dynasties era as the official edition, but this edition contained annotations without explanations. During the middle of the Jinkang era the Directorate of Education edition was robbed by the invading Jin, so that not many of these remained; after the imperial family crossed to the south, the Directorate of Education first commissioned the counties in the vicinity of Linan City to remake plates for Erya: a Dictionary, and then ordered these counties to submit the plates to the Directorate of Education for preservation. Therefore, although this set of Erya: a Dictionary in the National Palace Museum collection is attributed to the Directorate of Education, in actual fact it had been made by some county in the vicinity of Linan. This set of Erya: a Dictionary has a broad columns, upright and powerful character style, and the characters are as large as coins. The majority of later scholars consider it to retain the book carving style of the Northern Song Dynasty, and it is now the world's sole surviving sample from that edition.

Chinese Names


Character for the surname ren

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “In studying Chinese cultural history, nothing is more difficult than the fact that – just Chinese words in transcription tend to look alike to foreign readers – Chinese names, when written without characters, are far more similar to one another than is the case in Western countries. Even when written with characters, almost all the one billion Han Chinese share about 500 surnames. The most common surname in the world is the Chinese surname Zhang ’– approximately 100 million Chinese people share it, equivalent to about one-third of all Americans. (Compare that to Smith, the most common American surname, shared by about three million people.) Other very common Chinese surnames include Wang, Huang, Yang, Lin, Chen, Wu, Liu, Zhou, and Zhao. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Chinese personal names are either one or two syllables – never more (unless the person is ethnically non-Han). While some personal names are encountered frequently, there is far greater variety among personal names than is the case in the West. In America, for example, almost a quarter of the male population share the most common ten male names. That would never occur in China, where parents very often coin names for children that have never been used before (based on the meaning of the characters chosen). However, from the standpoint of Westerners, who encounter Chinese names in transcription, the similarities among personal names may appear very great. The two-syllable limit and the similarity among syllables in transcription tend to hide the true variety of personal names. In Chinese, the characters disambiguate personal names easily, but the homogeneity of names in transcription is a special headache for Western students of China. /+/

“The most important rule in dealing with Chinese names is this: the surname precedes the personal name. For example, the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Mao, who gave him the name Zedong. This order always holds in a Chinese context, although some Chinese, when abroad, may reverse the order to conform with non-Chinese norms.

Family Names, Genealogies and Rulers’ Titles in Ancient China


character for the name Li

Dr. Eno wrote: “In ancient China, surnames were possessed only by those patrician families who played significant social roles. While some clans seem to have possessed surnames from a very early date, we still see at a late date rulers creating new clans through the bestowal of surnames, which was a great honor. Qi, by receiving a surname, now became the head of a clan (whereas before, according to the myth, he would have been a man without any clan status whatever, his father being a footprint without social standing). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“By granting Qi an estate, Shun also assured his clan of membership in the patrician elite, as each generation of subsequent clan heads would inherit the title of the ruler of Dai. The surname of the Zhou ruling house was, indeed, Ji, as the text states. The skeptical historian will suppose that this account of the origins of the Ji clan was an invention devised sometime near the date of the Ji clan’s conquest of the Shang (whose grand progenitor Xie was also a legendary minister to Shun), to glorify their history and present themselves to the various clans of China as worthy successors to the Zi clan, which had provided the rulers of the Shang. /+/

“In general, rulers are known in the histories by a posthumous title which gives their rank and adds one of a relatively short list of honorifics. “Wen”, which means “patterned,” “cultivated,” or “refined,” is such an honorific. Its assignment to King Wen indicates that it was he who brought the Zhou people most decisively into the Zhou cultural sphere. Since the posthumous title and basic legends of King Wen are attested to from the start of the Zhou kingdom, it may be that many of sinicizing features here attributed to the Old Duke’s reign were originally understood to have been the work of King Wen.” /+/

Chinese Time: a History of Dynasties


Yellow Emperor, China's legendary first emperor

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The Western world has a tradition of viewing historical time as a linear progression. We number our years consecutively, and easily conceptualize past eras in terms of centuries, succeeding one another as a type of narrative flow. Until the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, the governments of Chinese history had all been led by kings or emperors, whose thrones were passed down on the principle of hereditary succession within a single, ruling family: a “dynasty.” The history of China before 1912 has traditionally been conceived in terms of a succession of dynasties – rulers of China passing their thrones to their sons through the generations, until the authority of the ruling family is undermined by serious misrule or military weakness, and a challenger’s armies conquer the government, installing a new “dynastic founder,” who begins the process again. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Time was traditionally bound to the ruler. Each new ruler has begun the calendar anew, proclaiming a new “first year” upon the year of his (or, in a single celebrated case, her) accession. Years and dates did not reflect a notion of progressive time – a march towards “the future”; rather, time itself was inseparable from the ruler, whose edicts controlled the calendar. For millennia, rulers of China would exploit this tie by proclaiming new starts to the calendar even in the midst of their own personal reigns, as a way of wiping away past mistakes or launching new policy regimes. /+/

“Historical time was understood through a line of succession – the list of dynasties that had ruled China. Because there were periods of time where China was, in fact, not ruled as a single country by a single ruler, this line of dynasties, when listed in full detail, could be rather complex. However, it was – and still is – common when speaking of China’s past to refer to these periods of disunity by titles such as “the period of the Six Dynasties,” and so forth, and in this way, the three thousand year course of traditional Chinese history is often represented as a succession of just ten major dynastic houses.”

Major Dynastic Periods of Traditional Chinese History


Pu Yi, the last Chinese Emperor

Pre-imperial Shang c. 1500 – 1045 B.C.
Zhou 1045 – 256 B.C.
Imperial Qin 221 – 208 B.C.
Han 206 B.C. – AD 220
“Six Dynasties” 220 – 589
Sui 589 – 617
Tang 618 – 907
“Five Dynasties” 907 – 960
Song 960 – 1279
Yuan 1279 – 1368
Ming 1368 – 1644
Qing 1644 – 1911

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ The first two dynasties were ruled by “kings” (to translate the Chinese term into its rough English equivalent), whose power was somewhat limited, and whose “kingdoms” were significantly smaller than contemporary China. Beginning in the year 221 B.C., however, the greater part of today’s China was unified and then expanded under an enormously powerful but short-lived ruling house, the Qin (pronounced “ chin,” from which the word “China” is derived). From this time, China is considered to have become an empire, ruled by an “emperor,” a title which translates a grandiose term coined for himself by the founder of the Qin, a man known to history as “the First Emperor.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“When people in China think of time in the distant past, they don’t think of it in terms of this or that century; they think back to dynasties. Each dynasty has a narrative of events and outstanding people, as well as a distinctive cultural character, and this makes Chinese cultural history, despite its great length, something that can be conceptualized with relative ease.” /+/

Ten and Sixty-Day Cycles of Traditional Chinese Time

Dr. Eno wrote: “Although the annual calendar of early China underwent constant revision and years were always calculated relative to political rhythms, there was nevertheless one form of absolute timekeeping that, from Shang times to the present, has persisted unbroken. This is a sixty-day or sixty-year cyclical system, generated by the ordered succession of two series of ordinal signs, known as the ten heavenly stems and the twelve earthly branches. By matching, in sequence, the elements of the set of ten with the set of twelve, a sixty unit series is generated, organized in six units of ten. In this passage, the term wu-wu represents such a stem-branch combination (the two “ wus,” though homophones, are different characters). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“In ancient China, each day could be designated by a reign year, a month of the lunar calendar, and a day of the month, but it was also designated independently by a stem-branch cyclical sign, which showed its place within the sixty day sequence. Some aspects of daily life, such as sacrificial schedules, were based on the ten-day rhythm of the heavenly stems, which may be thought of as a type of week. (Months and years also received cyclical sign designations, although the earth-branch set of twelve figured more importantly there. The well-known Chinese animal-year cycle simply represents the earthly branches associated with corresponding animals.) Issues of fortune telling, a major concern of traditional China, were closely tied to the cyclical signs, which were considered to have deep mantic significance. /+/

“The stem-branch series of signs is linguistically very puzzling, and there are some scholars who believe that it is of non-Chinese origins. There are several other very unusual such sets associated with calendrical and astronomical terminology which also are suggestive of diffused cultural influences, perhaps from Central Asia or Mesopotamia.


Sexagenary cycle


Chinese Time in Terms of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches

Dr. Eno wrote: “The system of “Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches: is called a sexagesimal system because that term denotes “base-sixty”; Babylonian calculation also employed a sexagesimal form. “Sexagenary” refers to a system of 60 “counters.” This series was applied to broad range of phenomena in China. The system pervades the oracle texts and Zhou bronzes that bear the names of the Shang kings. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“These two series are combined in sequence by matching one stem to one branch, beginning with the first stem and the first branch ( jia-zi), then the second stem and the second branch ( yi-chou), and so forth. After the tenth stem is matched to the tenth branch ( gui-you), the stem sequence reverts to the first member of the series, jia, but the branch sequence continues on to its eleventh member, xu. Thus the eleventh term in the stem-branch cycle is jia-xu. This is followed by yi-hai, after which the branch series must return to its first member, zi, while the stem series moves on to its third member, bing. Bing-zi is thus the thirteenth term of the stem-branch cycle. If you continue on in this fashion, you will find that the sixtieth term in the stem-branch cycle is gui-hai, combining the last terms of each of the two sets. The following term would thus be jia-zi, which begins the cycle all over again. /+/

“In traditional Chinese solar-lunar calendars, every year, month, and day was assigned a stem-branch term (each of these different temporal levels worked independently in this system—the term for the current year, for example, had no relation to the terms assigned to the current months or days). At each level, a cycle of sixty was generated. For example, in the earliest version of this reading, I wrote the following: “The year in which I’m writing, 1994 (actually, the part of the year after “Chinese New Year” in February), is a jia-xu year; so was 1934, and 2054 will also be a jia-xu year, as will 2654, if people remain on the planet to note it. I am typing this on September 28, which corresponds to the 23rd day of the eighth month in the traditional Chinese solar-lunar calendar: the eighth month this year is a gui-you month and today is bing-chen (although it's past midnight in China, so it is already a ding-si day there, where it counts).” /+/

“The use of these two series in traditional China extended in other directions. For example, still in terms of dating, the well known twelve-year animal-cycle of Chinese years is simply a variant on the Earthly Branch cycle. The reason we speak of the “year of the rat” or the “year of the dragon” is because each year is correlated with a sexagenary combination, and the cycle of twelve Earthly Branches is determines which of twelve animals corresponds to each year. (In some forms of Chinese astrology, a person’s character is seen to be correlated to the animal sign of the year of their birth, like our Western zodiac signs. For example, I turn out to be an “ox” because I was born in a year designated by the sexagenary combination ji-chou, and all years with chou take the sign of the ox – I’m not sure whether that’s an improvement over being a goat, where I’m filed for my daily horoscope in the West, but it’s nice to have choices in life.) /+/

“Another important use of these terms was in certain forms of naming people.We do not fully understand how this worked, but it will become very important to us in relation to the nature of the Shang kinship and kingship systems. If you refer back to the list of the Shang kings recorded by the Shiji, you will discover that all the “dynastic” kings, and certain of the pre-dynastic kings, were designated by titles that included an element from the Heavenly Stem series. For example, Tang the Successful was more properly called Tian- yi, where “Tian” is the Chinese character for Heaven and yi is the second of the Heavenly Stems. The stem-branch system is used to designate days in the Shang oracle texts. The date of each divination is recorded with cyclical terms at the beginning of most inscriptions. In some inscriptions, the month of the inscription appears at the end. “/+/


Heaven Stem affect


Historical Dating and Calendars in Ancient China

Dr. Eno wrote: “In traditional China, there was no system of dating years in an unbroken, consecutive stream. Years were noted according to their location within the reigns of specific kings. One sign of the legitimacy of a ruler is whether or not chronicles date events according to his reign. A new ruler, properly a king, but during the eras of disunity of the late Zhou sometimes simply any patrician lord, would often upon assuming the throne issue a calendar in his name. This was often not an empty gesture. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The basic calendrical system of ancient China was a rather unstable solar-lunar year, calculations for which were complex and difficult. Calendars frequently moved far from synchronization with the natural rhythms of the seasons and the stars, which could disrupt agricultural planning (with devastating effects on the economy), confuse the systems of religious sacrifice, and make political activity chaotic – imagine a state where not only clocks but even calendars were not synchronized trying to map out a prolonged military campaign! /+/

“Earlier, Sima Qian’s narrative noted as one of King Wen’s accomplishments that he adjusted the Zhou calendar: this was a significant political act standardizing a basic social measure. Now, when Sima Qian begins to date events according to the elapsed years from King Wu’s accession, he is sending a strong signal that the locus of legitimacy in the Chinese cultural sphere had, from this point on, effectively shifted from the Shang king to the lord of the Zhou people.” /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2016

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