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Sexagenary Cycle: Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches

Source: Wikipedia

The Chinese sexagenary cycle, also known as Stems-Branches, is a cyclic numeral system of 60 combinations of the two basic cycles, the ten Heavenly Stems and the twelve Earthly Branches

This traditional Chinese calendrical system is used as a means of numbering days and years, not only in China but also in other East Asian nations like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The Sexagenary system is also important in Chinese astrology and Chinese fortune telling.

The cycle was used in China since the second millennium BC (it has been found on Shang dynasty oracle bones), as a means of naming days (just as western cultures use the days in the week). This use of the cycle for days is attested throughout the Zhou dynasty. For instance, most entries in the Spring and Autumn Annals use this system. Its use for recording years is more recent. It became widespread in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC- 8 AD), and might have begun in the late Warring States period. The year 1984 began the present cycle, and 2044 will begin another.

The calendar is calculated by combining the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches. These two sets of terms were used to enumerate years of the civil calendar. Combining the series form a greater cycle of 60 terms, as the least common multiple of 10 and 12 is 60. The first term is formed by adding the first stem to the first branch, then the second stem to the second branch, and so on. If you start with kinoe-ne/kōshi, so the 61st year would also be kinoe-ne. This was how the tradition of celebrating the 60th birthday began. This counting system employing things of nature and animals create many myths, and people of Japan today still consider the good and bad luck of certain days and years.

The 1st day of a new year in the sexagenary cycle should be the Lichun.

The Tibetan calendar also counts years using a 60-year cycle based on 12 animals and 5 elements, but while the first year of the Chinese cycle is always the year of the Wood Rat, the first year of the Tibetan cycle is the year of the Fire Hare (year #4 on the Chinese cycle).

 

1. Ten Heavenly Stems

 

  Heavenly
Stem
Chinese
name
(Mandarin
pron. in pinyin)
Yin yang Wu xing
1 jiǎ yang wood
2 yin
3 bǐng yang fire
4 dīng yin
5 yang earth
6 yin
7 gēng yang metal
8 xīn yin
9 rén yang water
10 guǐ yin

 

 

2. Twelve Earthly Branches

 

  Earthly
Branch
Chinese
name
(Mandarin
pron. in pinyin)
Chinese
zodiac
Corresponding
hours
1 Rat 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
2 chǒu Ox/Buffalo 1 to 3 a.m.
3 yín Tiger 3 to 5 a.m.
4 mǎo Rabbit/Hare 5 to 7 a.m.
5 chén Dragon 7 to 9 a.m.
6 Snake 9 to 11 a.m.
7 Horse 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
8 wèi Sheep/Goat 1 to 3 p.m.
9 shēn Monkey 3 to 5 p.m.
10 yǒu Chicken/Rooster 5 to 7 p.m.
11 Dog 7 to 9 p.m.
12 hài Pig/Boar 9 to 11 p.m.

*The names of several animals can be translated into English in several different ways.

 

3. Sexagenary Cycle

 

  Stem-Branch Chinese
name
Associations
1 甲子 jiǎ-zǐ Yang Wood Rat
2 乙丑 yǐ-chǒu Yin Wood Ox
3 丙寅 bǐng-yín Yang Fire Tiger
4 丁卯 dīng-mǎo Yin Fire Rabbit
5 戊辰 wù-chén Yang Earth Dragon
6 己巳 jǐ-sì Yin Earth Snake
7 庚午 gēng-wǔ Yang Metal Horse
8 辛未 xīn-wèi Yin Metal Sheep
9 壬申 rén-shēn Yang Water Monkey
10 癸酉 guǐ-yǒu Yin Water Chicken
11 甲戌 jiǎ-xū Yang Wood Dog
12 乙亥 yǐ-hài Yin Wood Pig
13 丙子 bǐng-zǐ Yang Fire Rat
14 丁丑 dīng-chǒu Yin Fire Ox
15 戊寅 wù-yín Yang Earth Tiger
16 己卯 jǐ-mǎo Yin Earth Rabbit
17 庚辰 gēng-chén Yang Metal Dragon
18 辛巳 xīn-sì Yin Metal Snake
19 壬午 rén-wǔ Yang Water Horse
20 癸未 guǐ-wèi Yin Water Sheep
21 甲申 jiǎ-shēn Yang Wood Monkey
22 乙酉 yǐ-yǒu Yin Wood Chicken
23 丙戌 bǐng-xū Yang Fire Dog
24 丁亥 dīng-hài Yin Fire Pig
25 戊子 wù-zǐ Yang Earth Rat
26 己丑 jǐ-chǒu Yin Earth Ox
27 庚寅 gēng-yín Yang Metal Tiger
28 辛卯 xīn-mǎo Yin Metal Rabbit
29 壬辰 rén-chén Yang Water Dragon
30 癸巳 guǐ-sì Yin Water Snake
31 甲午 jiǎ-wǔ Yang Wood Horse
32 乙未 yǐ-wèi Yin Wood Sheep
33 丙申 bǐng-shēn Yang Fire Monkey
34 丁酉 dīng-yǒu Yin Fire Chicken
35 戊戌 wù-xū Yang Earth Dog
36 己亥 jǐ-hài Yin Earth Pig
37 庚子 gēng-zǐ Yang Metal Rat
38 辛丑 xīn-chǒu Yin Metal Ox
39 壬寅 rén-yín Yang Water Tiger
40 癸卯 guǐ-mǎo Yin Water Rabbit
41 甲辰 jiǎ-chén Yang Wood Dragon
42 乙巳 yǐ-sì Yin Wood Snake
43 丙午 bǐng-wǔ Yang Fire Horse
44 丁未 dīng-wèi Yin Fire Sheep
45 戊申 wù-shēn Yang Earth Monkey
46 己酉 jǐ-yǒu Yin Earth Chicken
47 庚戌 gēng-xū Yang Metal Dog
48 辛亥 xīn-hài Yin Metal Pig
49 壬子 rén-zǐ Yang Water Rat
50 癸丑 guǐ-chǒu Yin Water Ox
51 甲寅 jiǎ-yín Yang Wood Tiger
52 乙卯 yǐ-mǎo Yin Wood Rabbit
53 丙辰 bǐng-chén Yang Fire Dragon
54 丁巳 dīng-sì Yin Fire Snake
55 戊午 wù-wǔ Yang Earth Horse
56 己未 jǐ-wèi Yin Earth Sheep
57 庚申 gēng-shēn Yang Metal Monkey
58 辛酉 xīn-yǒu Yin Metal Chicken
59 壬戌 rén-xū Yang Water Dog
60 癸亥 guǐ-hài Yin Water Pig


4. Application

The sexagenary cycle was first used for days in the Shang Dynasty, and later also used for years and less commonly for months.

For example, the year 2000 was the 17th year of the 78th sexagenary cycle, a gēng-chén year (庚辰年), a year of the Yang Metal Dragon. Therefore, 2006 is the 23rd year of the 78th sexagenary cycle, called a bǐng-xū year (丙戌年), a year of the Yang Fire Dog; 2007 a year of the Yin Fire Pig.

The naming of the months and days is not common now, although they are shown on Chinese calendars and almanacs.

  • Attention: In common practice, the "combination" elements (Chinese agricultural calendar) should be applied for the Sexagenary Cycle. Either the "Heavenly Stem" or the "Earthly Branch" alone is not enough to determine the element for any year within the 60 years of the Sexagenary Cycle.
  • The writing of "Yang Earth Rat"(e.g., 2008), etc., is not recommended for use, because people might misinterpret "Earth" as the "Element" of that year (2008).
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