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Chinese New Year and the Almanac 1

Lunar New Year is always an important moment in the life of the Chinese community in Jakarta especially in the China Town Glodok. Welcoming the New Year houses are cleaned and given red baubles as a symbol of hope that the New Year will give luck. In this time there are too many fortune tellings based someone’s Shio (12 astrological animal). This paper is not to predict your fortune, but to discuss the Chinese calendar and almanac that became the basis of fortune-telling.

Calendars in ancient China, time was divided into a predictable cycle. The qualities of a person and the world were thought to be connected with this cycle. As part of this system, each month and year were thought to have characteristics determined by a complicated interplay of factors. These were popularly symbolized by an animal, which served as a kind of shorthand for the influences. The years were then called by these animal names. The order of the animals remains constant through the cycle of years.

The animals, in order, are rat, bull (sometimes called the cow), tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, sheep (or goat), monkey, rooster (or cock), dog, and boar. Knowing a person’s birth date could help a practiced astrologer determine the person’s characteristics and fate. Months were based on the new Moon and lasted 29 or 30 days, with 12 months in a year. Every few years an extra month was added to the calendar to make up for the fact that the system did not quite add up to a full orbit around the Sun. The Chinese New Year falls on the first day of the lunar month in late January or early February.

Since 1911 China has used the Gregorian calendar, the same calendar as that used in the West. Buddhists developed a legend to explain the selection and order of animals in the calendar. It is said that during his days on earth, the historical Buddha selflessly preached to all creatures, animals as well as humankind. When he died and his body was to be cremated, all of the animals that had heard his holy words ran to do him honor. The system of years commemorated their arrival.

Although all Chinese societies officially use the common Gregorian calendar, the traditional Chinese calendar - a combined lunar and solar calendar of ancient origin - remains universally important. It marks all traditional festivals and holidays, is essential for Chinese astrology and is in itself an important medium of divination, as intricate almanacs based on it mark out auspicious and inauspicious dates for every kind of undertaking.

The traditional calendar goes by many names. The most common name is the farmer’s calendar or rural calendar (Nongli), but it is also frequently referred to as the lunar calendar or Yin calendar (Yinli) due to its emphasis on the moon phases as compared to the common solar calendar (Yangli). Yet other names are the old calendar (Jiuli) or the Xia calendar (Xiali).

The origin of the Chinese calendar goes back into the remotest antiquity, being among the root conceptions of Chinese civilization, as of all other ancient agricultural societies. Its significance for ritual and cultural integration and state formation cannot be exaggerated. Chinese mythology commonly credits the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huangdi, 2697 – 2599 BC) with inventing the calendar to advise the peasants when to sow, plant and harvest. Historical evidence goes far back indeed, as the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty describe a combined lunisolar calendar of years with twelve months and an intercalary thirteenth month to avoid drift. Documents of the Zhou dynasty testify to a complex calendar, including a sixty-day cycle (a combination of the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches, used in yin-yin or yang-yang combinations to produce a cycle of sixty named days). Along with the calendar reform of the Han dynasty, the sixty unit cycle began to mark years, and has been used continually since. A simple representation of this cycle is given by the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac combined with the Five Elements (year of the fire-pig = 2007, year of the earth-rat = 2008, etc.). Despite some modifications, of which the latest was introduced by the Jesuits under the leadership of Adam Schall in 1645, the traditional calendar was in use in China until 1929.

Chinese New Year Preperation at Jin De Yuan Temple