Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker

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Chapter XXXII - The Calendar

Allusion has already been made to the eclipses mentioned in Confucius’ history as a means by which the probability of his general truth as a historian may in a certain measure be gauged. A few words upon the Chinese calendar, as it is and was, may therefore not be amiss. The Chinese month has from first to last been uncompromisingly lunar; that is to say, the first day of each month, or “moon” as it may strictly and properly be called, always falls within the day (beginning at midnight) during which the new moon occurs. Of course, Peking is the administrative centre now, and therefore the observations are taken there with reference to the Peking meridian. As Confucius took his facts and records mainly from the Lu archives, and (we must suppose) noted celestial movements from what was seen by the Lu astronomers, it has always been presumed that the eclipses mentioned by him were observed from Lu too; that is, from a station over four degrees of longitude and one of latitude removed from the imperial capital as it then was (modern Ho-nan Fu). It was the duty of all sovereign princes to proclaim the first day of the moon at their ancestral temple; and even if the Chinese of those days had discovered the difference in “time” between east and west, these princes must each of them have proclaimed the day during which the new moon occurred as it occurred to themselves, in their own State, and not as it occurred to the Emperor’s astronomers. On the other hand, when eclipses were observed from the comparatively small territory of Lu, it must have occurred, at least occasionally, that visitors from other states had either the same eclipse or other eclipses to report. If the Emperor’s astronomer reported eclipses in Ho-nan- Fu on a given day, it is difficult to see how Lu, which was a centre almost of equal standing with the imperial capital for orthodoxy in rites and records, could have entirely ignored such reports.

But the Chinese year has always been luni-solar. From the earliest times they had observed the twelve ecliptical “mansions” and zodiacal signs, and also that the time occupied by the sun in travelling through a mansion was rather longer than one lunation, or the time intervening between two new moons. Their object has accordingly always been to bring the lunar and solar years into manageable combination, so that the equinoxes, solstices, and “seasons” might occur with as much regularity as possible in the same months, and so that the husbandman might know when to sow his grain. Formerly they regulated this discrepancy according to the mean movements of the sun and moon; but, ever since the Jesuits first instructed them more accurately, they have regulated the two years, that is, the solar year and the twelve lunations, according to the true movements, and with reference to the meridian of Peking. If the moons were each exactly 29 1/2 days in length, instead of being 44 minutes 2.87 seconds longer, it would have been a simple matter to halve the ordinary lunar year, and make six months “large” (30 days) and six “small” (29 days); but the extra 44 minutes and a fraction accumulate, and the result is that there must always be a larger number of “great” months than “small” in the year. The way the Chinese arranged this was to call a month “great” (30 days) if the interval between mid-night (beginning of the new-moon day) and the hour of the next new moon was full 30 days or over in duration; if less than 30 days, then the month was a “small” one (29 days). Not more than two long months ever followed in succession, and two short months never did so.

But, in any case, even twelve regular moons of 291/2 days only make 354 days, whereas a solar year is about 3651/4 days, whilst the sun’s time in passing through a “mansion” (one-twelfth of the solar year) is about 301/2 days. Thus there was a “superfluity" of about ten days in every lunar year, or about one lunation in every third year; not to mention that a “mansion” was about a day longer than a lunation, and that therefore the husbandman was liable to be thrown out of his reckoning. In order to remedy this, the Chinese intercalated a month once in about thirty-three moons, and called the intercalary month by the same name as the one preceding it, both with regard to the common numbers 1-12, and with regard to the two endless cycles of twelve signs and sixty signs, by which moons are calculated for ever, in the past and in the future. Regarding the difficulty of seasons, the solar year was divided into twenty-four “joints,” and each “joint” was about half a “mansion” (the difference rarely exceeding one hour). However, the spring equinox is always the sixth “joint,” and is the middle of spring season: this and the other “joints” being all about 151/4 days in length, the Chinese seasons can be symmetrically divided with relation to both equinoxes and both solstices; for the intercalary moon (judiciously made unobtrusive, and kept out of vulgar sight as far as possible) settles the lunar year difficulty; and the seasons conform, as of course they should do, to the heat of the sun, which is a much more natural and practical arrangement than our own arbitrarily assorted and unequal months.

The endless sixty-year cycle of years is usually referred back to for a beginning to either 2697 or 2637 B.C.; but, apart from the fact that there is little or no accurate knowledge anterior to 842 B.C., it is of no importance when it began, so long as sixty pairs of equinoxes and solstices are calculated backwards indefinitely. It goes back, in any case, to a date beyond which the memory of Chinese man runneth not to the contrary; it is unbroken and continuous; we are free to take up any date we like at sixty-year intervals, and say “here I agree to begin”: we cannot deny that 1908 is the cycle year it purports to be; and even if we did, batches of sixty years backwards from any other cyclic year called 1908, would always have a fixed relation to the other 4604 years recorded; nor, having accepted 1908, can we deny 1808, 1708, and so on, as far back as we like, in order to test how any given event, eclipse or other, coincides relatively with our own date: it is not a question of beginning, but of counting back, and stopping. We find Confucius of Lu (Chou clan state) using the calendar of the Chou dynasty (1122 B.C.-249 B.C.); whose founder had said: “In future we make the eleventh month the beginning of the year instead of the twelfth month.” The previous dynasty of Shang (1766-1123) had similarly said: “In future we make the twelfth month begin the year instead of the first.” The previous dynasty of Hia (2205-1767) and the individual emperors before had all said (or taken for granted): “The year begins in the first month,” from which we may naturally conclude that there could not have been an earlier calendar, as no “sage” could reasonably begin anywhere but at the beginning. At the same time, it must be explained that the astronomical order of the months, counting the first as being that when the sun enters Capricorn, is different from the civil order. Thus the Hia, Shang, and Chou first civil months were the third, second, and first astronomical months, representing the sun’s entry into Pisces, Aquarius, and Capricorn, respectively. When the First August Emperor conquered the whole of China, and proceeded to unify cart-axles, weights and measures, written characters, and many other discrepant popular arrangements, he said: “Let the tenth month be in future the first in the year instead of the eleventh.” That is to say, he took as civil first month the twelfth astronomical month, or that in which the sun enters Sagittarius. Thus we see that in 2000 years the calendar had got about 90 days out of gear; or, roughly, about an hour a year.

All the above may, perhaps, be understood more clearly by considering the following unmistakably genuine statement made by the Emperor in 104 B.C., a hundred years after the Ts’in dynasty had been destroyed; after he had contemplated the tombs of the ancient monarchs as explained in the last Chapter; after the West of Asia had been discovered; and when it is possible (though there is no record of it) that Persians, Indians, Greeks, etc., may have intervened in discussion upon the calendar. He says: “After the Emperors Yu and Li (the two who fled from their metropolis in 771 B.C. and 842 B.C. respectively, as related), the Chou dynasty went wrong, and those who were doubly subjects began to wield power; astrologers ceased to keep reckoning of seasons; the princes no longer proclaimed the first day of each moon. Hereditary astronomers got scattered; some remained in All the Hia (orthodox China); others betook themselves to the various barbarians. In the twenty-sixth year of the Emperor Siang (626 B.C.) there was an intercalary third month, which arrangement the ’Springs and Autumns’ condemns (it should have been at the end of the year)... The First August Emperor took the tenth month as the beginning of the year... The present Emperor (of the Han dynasty) appointed two astronomers, the second of whom (a native of East Sz Ch’wan) advanced the calculations and improved the calendar. Then it was found that the measures of the Sun and the Mansions agreed with the principles adopted by the Hia dynasty... The first cyclic day and also the first lunar day of the eleventh moon has now been proved to be the winter solstice. I change the seventh year (of my present reign-period), and I make of it the first year of the new reign-period, to be called ’Great Beginning.’"–Accordingly what had up to that date been the seventh year (of a reign-period bearing another name) now became a year of 442 days; that is to say, the three months postponed in turn by the Hia, Shang, and Chou dynasties were taken up again, and accordingly that one correcting year consisted of fifteen months. With slight changes, always adopted only to be again rejected after a few years of trial, this has been the basis of all later calendars; and for this reason Confucius’ birthday is kept on the twenty-seventh day of the eighth moon instead of during the tenth moon, as it would have been according to Chou dates.

The above examination into the calendar question tends to show still more clearly the good faith of the historians and the administration; it also illustrates the continuity and painstaking accuracy of the Chinese records, whatever other defects they may otherwise disclose.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Opening Scenes  •  Chapter II - Shifting Scenes  •  Chapter III - The Northern Powers  •  Chapter IV - The Southern Power  •  Chapter V - Evidence of Eclipses  •  Chapter VI - The Army  •  Chapter VII - The Coast States  •  Chapter VIII - First Protector of China  •  Chapter IX - Position of Envoys  •  Chapter X - The Second Protector  •  Chapter XI - Religion  •  Chapter XII - Ancestral Worship  •  Chapter XIII - Ancient Documents Found  •  Chapter XIV - More on Protectors  •  Chapter XV - State Intercourse  •  Chapter XVI - Land and People  •  Chapter XVII - Education and Literary  •  Chapter XVIII - Treaties and Vows  •  Chapter XIX - Confucius and Literature  •  Chapter XX - Law  •  Chapter XXI - Public Works  •  Chapter XXII - Cities and Towns  •  Chapter XXIII - Break-Up of China  •  Chapter XXIV - Kings and Nobles  •  Chapter XXV - Vassals and Emperor  •  Chapter XXVI - Fighting State Period  •  Chapter XXVII - Foreign Blood  •  Chapter XXVIII - Barbarians  •  Chapter XXIX - Curious Customs  •  Chapter XXX - Literary Relations  •  Chapter XXXI - Origin of the Chinese  •  Chapter XXXII - The Calendar  •  Chapter XXXIII - Names  •  Chapter XXXIV - Eunuchs, Human Sacrifices, Food  •  Chapter XXXV - Knowledge of the West  •  Chapter XXXVI - Ancient Japan  •  Chapter XXXVII - Ethics  •  Chapter XXXVIII - Women and Morals  •  Chapter XXXIX - Geographical Knowledge  •  Chapter XL - Tombs and Remains  •  Chapter XLI - The Tartars  •  Chapter XLII - Music  •  Chapter XLIII - Wealth, Sports, Etc.  •  Chapter XLIV - Confucius  •  Chapter XLV - Confucius and Lao-Tsz  •  Chapter XLVI - Oracles and Omens  •  Chapter XLVII - Rulers and People  •  Ancient Chinese Law

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Ancient China Simplified (1908)
By Edward Harper Parker
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