First of all, Happy Chinese New Year!
Year of the Horse? Not yet.
In this post, I am going to show you why the start of a new zodiac sign is not on the first day of the Chinese New Year, using Chinese astrology and history. The day of zodiac transition is in fact in February annually. I have tried to make it as simple as possible to understand. Hope it won’t be too complicated! I have also put the main points in bold.
Why is today not the beginning of the Year of the Horse?
Most people would have assumed that the first day of Chinese New Year is the start of the next Chinese Zodiac sign, specifically for this year, the Horse. Is this the truth then? Strictly speaking, this method of determining the transit in zodiac signs has been treated as a socially accepted approach. Few would know that there is actually another date that marks the transit in zodiac signs. The latter is usually regarded as the geomancy/divination approach. To understand whether the traditional social approach or the geomancy approach is the correct or accurate one, we have to first start from the Chinese calendar system.
The Chinese calendar
The Chinese calendar, (农历, nongli), has two parts to it. The Lunar calendar (阴历，yinli) and the Solar calendar (阳历，yangli). The Lunar calendar records dates using the Moon cycle (In contrast, the Gregorian calendar uses only the Earth’s cycle around the Sun). On the first day of any month, the moon is at its new moon phase. On the fifteen day of the month, the moon is at its full moon phase. Hence, similarly to the Gregorian calendar, we will get a total of 12 months with 29 to 30 days each month. Also similar to the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese calendar has a leap year but it occurs every 3 years in the form of an extra month.
Explanation for leap year:
In the Gregorian calendar, there are 365 days every year, but the astronomical year (The period the Earth takes to complete one orbit around the Sun) has 365.25 days. Hence, February 29 every four years corrects this deviation to synchronize the calendar year with the astronomical year (0.25 x 4 = 1). The Chinese calendar has about 355 days instead as it follows the Moon cycle strictly, so the deviation is wider and thus an extra month is required every three years, which makes the Lunar year 385 days.
The Chinese calendar records years using the Celestial/Heavenly Stems (天干, tiangan) and the Earthly Branches (地支, dizhi).
Ten Heavenly Stems: 甲 (jia), 乙 (yi), 丙 (bing), 丁 (ding), 戊 (wu), 己 (ji), 庚 (geng), 辛 (xin), 壬 (ren), 癸 (gui)
Twelve Earthly Branches: 子 (zi), 丑 (chou), 寅 (yin), 卯 (mao), 辰 (chen), 巳 (si), 午 (wu), 未 (wei), 申 (shen), 酉 (you), 戌 (xu), 亥 (hai)
There is no year 2000, year 2014 or whatever in the Chinese year system. It records by using the combination of these stems and branches. For example we can label the ten stems as A, B, C…to I, J and the twelve branches as 1, 2, 3….to 11, 12. The cycle goes like that: A1, B2, C3… I9, J10, A11, B12, C1… I11, J12, a total of 60 combinations before it repeats itself from A1 again. This means that if you are born in year A1, you will be 60 years old in the year J12 and 61 years old when you celebrate your birthday on the year of A1 again. Now you understand why the Chinese way of interpreting age is always a year older than your Gregorian calendar age; we were considered 1 year old the moment we were born. This cycle is called the sexagenary cycle.
The twelve Earthly Branches are represented by the twelve Chinese zodiac signs in order of rat, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, chicken, dog and pig. Note: this is not by coincidence. As Horse represents 午 (wu), this year 甲午 (jiawu) is the year of the wood horse (The element for 甲 is wood). For simplicity, we name it the year A7. The first day of the year A7, also the Chinese New Year of 2014 is socially recognized on the 31st of January, based on the Chinese calendar of the first day of the first month. Naturally, it is not wrong to assume that the year of the Wood Horse begins on the 31st January! This is where the misconception lies.
The date of the new year 甲午, or A7 is NOT on the 31st Jan 2014, NOT on the recognized Chinese New Year! You are shocked, but why? There are two evidences for this. The first one is where we move into astrology and astronomy. The second one dates back to Chinese history a century ago.
We know that the Earth revolves around the Sun in a nearly circular path. There are 360 degrees in a circle. If you know these terms Vernal Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice (all with reference to the Northern Hemisphere), then you should be able to understand the concept relatively fast. Just imagine a circle around the Sun and define a starting position. This position is the vernal equinox. At the vernal equinox, the Earth is at position (like a compass bearing) 0 degrees. The proper term for this is the ecliptic longitude. At Summer Solstice (peak of summer), the ecliptic longitude is at 90 degrees, at Autumnal Equinox the ecliptic longitude is at 180 degrees… you get the drift. By the way, the Earth revolves in an anti-clockwise direction around the Sun as viewed from the top.
These terms Vernal Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice are just part of something called the Solar Terms and there are 24 of such terms altogether. For a total of 360 degrees, you get 15 degrees for each term after dividing by 24. Just search “solar term” in Wikipedia and you will get the whole list of them. The solar terms were important in the past for activities such as agriculture. The term that we should be looking at is called the “start of spring” or 立春 (lichun). This is the day or specifically, an exact time in this day that marks the change of the zodiac sign. This is the day a new Chinese year begins. This day falls between 3 to 5 February annually, but it is usually on February 4.
A year is defined as one revolution of the Earth around the Sun. Even the Gregorian calendar is not accurate to that extend as it requires a leap year. The Solar calendar is the most accurate in terms of tracking the Earth’s position around the Sun. The Lunar calendar does not complete the Earth’s revolution around the Sun and therefore it cannot be defined as a year.
Why must it be the “start of spring” and what determines the transit point on this day?
The answer lies in Zeus, well not exactly. It is his Roman counterpart, Jupiter. Jupiter revolves the Sun every 11.86 Earth years, and this was how the 12 Earthly Branches came into play in the subject of divination. The celestial sphere was divided into 12 sections (30 degrees each, similar to the western horoscope) by ancient astrologers, each representing two hours of a day. If you can’t visualize it, think of the lines on a basketball. Jupiter moves into each of these 12 sections yearly, which forms the 12 astrological signs. The next question is: If Jupiter’s period is 11.86 years and the celestial sphere consists of 12 sections, it does not synchronize to give an accurate interpretation of the astrological signs. This is because after a long period of time, the error will be noticeable and Jupiter moves into the wrong section. Yes, that was how the concept of 太岁(taisui) came about. Taisui (the year star, also the Great Duke of Jupiter) is an intangible (imaginary) star that was created to correct this error between the 12 branches and Jupiter’s period. It revolves the celestial sphere in exactly 12 Earth years. With the introduction of Taisui, the astrological signs can then be interpreted with consistency. The day that Taisui transits into a new section of the celestial sphere is on the “start of spring” or 立春 (lichun). Now we know that Taisui is not just the group of 60 Taoist deities; it originated for the purpose of math and science.
The figure below shows the 12 sections in 2D.
Do not be fooled by the animals in the zodiac. In fact, your zodiac is actually an earthly branch manifested in the form of a creature. As mentioned, Horse represents 午 (wu), thus the branch 午 (wu) is the one that is being interpreted in astrology and geomancy. Further, 立春 (lichun) the name itself, marks the start of spring, a new beginning of seasons which has a huge significance. Hence, the annual solar terms begin on the day 立春 (lichun), where the ecliptic longitude is at 315 degrees. Think about the western horoscope. Do the entry and exit dates of the horoscope Aries change every year? No, it remains from 20 March to 20 April annually. These laws of physics cannot be altered, not in the near future anyway.
The beginning of the Wood Horse year is 3 Feb 2014 at UTC 2203, or SGT+1 0603. Babies born after the first day of Chinese New Year but before this time still remain as Water Snakes.
Look at this Chinese calendar below, the beginning of February is still the year of the snake. Not until 立春, when it will change to Horse.
Where is the significance of Chinese New Year then?
The Chinese New Year (CNY) – A short history
The first day of the first month (CNY) is known as 正月初一 (zhengyuechuyi) in Chinese. If you take a look at the Chinese calendar, 正月初一 (zhengyuechuyi) is called 春节 (chunjie), and the eve of CNY is called 除夕 (chuxi). Prior to 1913, 春节 (chunjie) falls on 立春 (lichun), and people celebrated CNY on this day. 春节 (chunjie) literally means the spring festival and hence, the link with lichun. In 1913, Yuan Shikai, the President of the Republic of China (ROC), also the successor of Sun Yat Sen, declared 春节 (chunjie) to fall on 正月初一 (zhengyuechuyi). Thus, beginning from 1914, Chinese New Year celebrations were held on the first day of the first month. This year will be the 100th year since the new system was implemented.
The argument for using the first day of the first month to mark the transit of the zodiac is that it is the most logical way since the first day of the first month is the beginning of the year. Using the previous system, there will be some “years” (1st to 12th month) without a transit in zodiac (when 正月初一 is after 立春 and the next 正月初一 is before 立春) and some years with two transits in zodiac (when 正月初一 is before 立春 and the next 正月初一 is after 立春). In order not to complicate matters, the current system was employed.
As this misconception only affects the minority who were born in the Gregorian periods of January and February, most of us can continue to look at divination and geomancy interpretations in the zodiac signs we were born in. If you were born in January and February, and you do put some beliefs in zodiac sign interpretations, it is better to verify your true astrological sign by looking back at the year in which you were born using the Chinese calendar. The rule is that the Chinese year, also the new zodiac, based on the heavenly stems and earthly branches always begin on 立春 (lichun). This means that in certain Chinese years, such as that of the Water Snake 癸巳 (guisi) in 2013, has two 正月初一 (first day of the first month) because lichun was before 正月初一 in 2013 and after 正月初一 in 2014. How is that possible? It is the way it was made because the year runs independently from the order of the months; the orbit of the moon is independent from the orbit of Taisui. It is unlike the Gregorian calendar where 2014 comes after 31st December 2013. Lastly, you should avoid the services of a geomancer if he does not know, or is unable to comprehend this truth because he is not competent enough.
We have taken a glimpse of how the Chinese calendar works and saw that the Chinese zodiac signs are interpreted using the position of Taisui. We have also found out that the Chinese New Year was in fact celebrated on lichun more than a century ago. The correct approach to determine the transit in zodiac signs is thus the geomancy/divination approach. The beginning of the Chinese calendar year is on lichun. An additional fact we saw was that Taisui (60 Taoist deities) is not just a religion thing, it was created by astrologers to keep track of time. In other words, you can say that these deities were created by people.
In today’s context, it doesn’t really matter what our zodiac sign is truly because we are more in control of our lives and do not have to put too much faith in superstition. The modernization of society and education has gradually replaced the importance of traditional cultures that our ancestors highly valued. Yet, for the purpose of knowledge, it is always good to know the origins and true meaning behind these traditional values.
Whatever it may be, today is still the Chinese New Year the world celebrates. Happy New Year everyone!