How the Chinese Lunar Calendar Works: A Complete Guide

April 20, 2024

The Chinese lunar calendar, often referred to as the "Yin calendar" (阴历, yīnlì), has been an integral part of Chinese culture for millennia. Unlike the Gregorian calendar predominantly used in the Western world, which is solar-based, the Chinese lunar calendar is primarily lunar. However, due to its synchronisation with the 24 solar terms, referring to it as lunisolar would be more accurate. These solar terms mark the seasonal changes and play a crucial role in various aspects of Chinese life, in particular agriculture, holidays, and festivals.

Here’s a look at how the Chinese lunar calendar works and its impact on Chinese culture and practices.

Origins of the Chinese Lunar Calendar

The Chinese lunar calendar traces its origins back to ancient China. It is believed to have been developed during the Xia Dynasty (around 2000 BCE). It was further refined during the Zhou Dynasty and has since been utilized continuously, evolving with time but retaining its fundamental structure. In fact, the Spring Festival - Chinese New Year - which is seen as the most important annual festival, is determined using the lunar calendar.

How does the Chinese lunar calendar differ from the Western Gregorian calendar?

One of the primary distinctions between the Chinese lunar calendar and the Western Gregorian calendar lies in their timekeeping methods. While the Gregorian calendar is purely solar-based, following the Earth's orbit around the sun, the Chinese lunar calendar is based on the moon's phases. This leads to variations in the lengths of months and years between the two calendars.

Chinese Lunar Months, Years, and Cycles

The Chinese lunar calendar consists of twelve lunar months in a year, each corresponding roughly to one cycle of the moon's phases. However, due to the difference in length between a lunar month (about 29.5 days) and a solar year, a traditional Chinese year typically contains 354 or 355 days. To rectify this disparity leap months are occasionally added, making it a complex but precise system.

Significance of the Chinese lunar calendar in Chinese culture

The Chinese lunar calendar holds immense cultural significance in China. It not only serves as a tool for timekeeping but also influences various aspects of life, including festivals, agriculture, traditional customs, and even daily activities. For example, the lunar calendar guides farmers in determining when’s best to plant and harvest crops, and when to celebrate certain festivals, such as the Spring Festival and Lantern Festival.

The 24 Solar Terms of the Chinese Lunar Calendar

The 24 solar terms, known as jiéqì (节气) in Chinese, are crucial divisions of the solar year that mark the changing seasons and climatic phenomena. Each solar term signifies a particular astronomical event or natural phenomenon and plays a vital role in agricultural activities and traditional customs.

    立春 (Lìchūn)- Start of Spring: Marks the beginning of spring, typically falling around February 4th. It signifies the awakening of nature and the start of agricultural activities.
    Significance: Initiates the preparation for planting crops and signifies the onset of warmer weather.
    Traditional Customs: People eat special foods like "chunbing" (spring pancakes) and perform rituals to welcome spring.
    雨水 (Yǔshuǐ)- Rain Water: Occurs around February 19th and indicates the increase in rainfall, essential for agricultural growth.
    Significance: The increased precipitation nourishes the soil and promotes the growth of crops.
    Traditional Customs: Farmers begin to prepare their fields for planting, and various rain-related rituals are performed to pray for abundant rainfall.
    惊蛰 (Jīngzhé) - Waking of Insects: Takes place around March 5th and marks the time when hibernating insects awaken.
    Significance: Indicates the transition to warmer weather and the emergence of various insects.
    Traditional Customs: People celebrate the awakening of nature and engage in activities like kite flying.
    春分 (Chūnfēn) - Vernal Equinox: Falls around March 20th and signifies the equinox when day and night are of equal length.
    Significance: Marks the midpoint of spring and the beginning of longer daylight hours.
    Traditional Customs: Offerings are made to ancestors, and outdoor activities are common to enjoy the pleasant weather.
    清明 (Qīngmíng) - Clear and Bright (Tomb Sweeping Day): Occurs around April 4th and is a time for honouring ancestors and spring outings.
    Significance: In addition to honouring ancestors, it is a time to appreciate the beauty of nature.
    Traditional Customs: Families visit ancestral graves to clean and offer sacrifices, and outdoor activities like flying kites are popular.
    谷雨 (Gǔyǔ) - Grain Rain: Falls around April 20th and indicates the increased rainfall beneficial for grain crops.
    Significance: Ensures sufficient moisture for the growth of grains.
    Traditional Customs: Offerings are made to the gods of rain, and farmers begin transplanting rice seedlings.
    立夏 (Lìxià) - Start of Summer: Marks the beginning of summer, around May 5th, and heralds the arrival of warmer weather.
    Significance: Initiates the planting of summer crops and the onset of hot temperatures.
    Traditional Customs: People eat special foods like "liangpi" (cold noodles) and hang mugwort leaves to repel insects.
    小满 (Xiǎomǎn) - Grain Full: This takes place around May 21st and indicates that grains are becoming full but are not yet ripe.
    Significance: Highlights the crucial stage of grain development before harvest.
    Traditional Customs: Farmers pay close attention to their crops and perform rituals to pray for a bountiful harvest.
    芒种 (Mángzhòng) - Grain in Ear: Occurs around June 6th and signifies that grains are in the ear and nearing maturity.
    Significance: Indicates the approaching harvest season and the need for careful cultivation.
    Traditional Customs: Farmers guard against pests and diseases and perform rituals to pray for a successful harvest.
    夏至 (Xiàzhì) - Summer Solstice: Falls around June 21st and marks the longest day and shortest night of the year.
    Significance: Symbolises the peak of summer and the beginning of a gradual decrease in daylight hours.
    Traditional Customs: Various celebrations and festivals are held to welcome summer, and people enjoy outdoor activities.
    小暑 (Xiǎoshǔ) - Minor Heat: Takes place around July 7th and indicates the start of hot weather.
    Significance: Marks the onset of high temperatures and the need for heat protection measures.
    Traditional Customs: People consume cooling foods and drinks to beat the heat, and farmers pay extra attention to crop irrigation.
    大暑 (Dàshǔ) - Major Heat: Occurs around July 23rd and represents the hottest period of the year.
    Significance: This signifies the peak of summer heat and the importance of staying hydrated and cool.
    Traditional Customs: Various heat-relief measures are taken, and people enjoy water-related activities to escape the heat.
    立秋 (Lìqiū) - Start of Autumn: Marks the beginning of autumn, around August 8th, and signals the gradual cooling of temperatures.
    Significance: Initiates the transition from summer to autumn and the preparation for autumn harvests.
    Traditional Customs: People begin to prepare for the upcoming harvest and enjoy the cooler weather.
    处暑 (Chùshǔ) - End of Heat: Falls around August 23rd and indicates the waning of summer heat.
    Significance: Marks the end of the hottest period and the gradual cooling of temperatures.
    Traditional Customs: People start to feel relieved from the summer heat, and preparations for autumn activities begin.
    白露 (Báilù) - White Dew: Occurs around September 8th and signifies that dew appears white and heavy.
    Significance: Indicates the increasing moisture in the air and the transition to cooler weather.
    Traditional Customs: People pay attention to dew-related health practices, and farmers harvest various fruits and nuts.
    秋分 (Qiūfēn) - Autumnal Equinox: Takes place around September 23rd and marks the midpoint of autumn.
    Significance: Symbolises the equal length of day and night and the transition from warm to cool weather.
    Traditional Customs: People celebrate the harvest and offer sacrifices to ancestors, and various festivals are held.
    寒露 (Hánlù) - Cold Dew: Falls around October 8th and indicates that the weather is getting colder, with dew turning into frost.
    Significance: Marks the arrival of colder temperatures and the need for warmth.
    Traditional Customs: People start to wear warmer clothes, and farmers harvest late-season crops.
    霜降 (Shuāngjiàng) - Descent of Frost: Occurs around October 23rd and signifies the onset of frost.
    Significance: Indicates the increasing frequency of frost and the preparation for winter.
    Traditional Customs: People store food and firewood for winter, and various festivals are held to celebrate the harvest.
    立冬 (Lìdōng) - Start of Winter: Marks the beginning of winter, around November 7th, and signals a significant drop in temperatures.
    Significance: Initiates the coldest period of the year and the need for winter preparations.
    Traditional Customs: People begin to engage in winter activities and consume warm foods and drinks.
    小雪 (Xiǎoxuě) - Minor Snow: Takes place around November 22nd and signifies the arrival of light snowfall.
    Significance: Indicates the onset of winter snow and the need for additional warmth.
    Traditional Customs: People prepare for heavier snowfall, and farmers take measures to protect crops from frost.
    大雪 (Dàxuě) - Major Snow: Occurs around December 7th and signifies heavier snowfall.
    Significance: Marks the peak of winter snow and the coldest period of the year.
    Traditional Customs: People engage in winter sports and activities, and farmers focus on indoor tasks.
    冬至 (Dōngzhì) - Winter Solstice: Falls around December 22nd and marks the shortest day and longest night of the year.
    Significance: Symbolises the peak of winter and the gradual lengthening of daylight hours.
    Traditional Customs: Various festivals and celebrations are held to welcome the return of longer days, and families gather for reunion dinners
    小寒 (Xiǎohán) - Minor Cold: Takes place around January 5th and indicates a slight increase in temperature.
    Significance: Marks the transition from the coldest period to slightly milder temperatures.
    Traditional Customs: People prepare for the upcoming Lunar New Year festivities, and farmers plan for spring planting.
    大寒 (Dàhán) - Major Cold: Occurs around January 20th and signifies the coldest period of the year.
    Significance: Represents the peak of winter cold and the need for warmth and protection.
    Traditional Customs: People celebrate the end of winter and look forward to the arrival of spring.

Calculation and Influence on Agriculture

The 24 solar terms are calculated based on the position of the sun relative to the celestial equator. They serve as a guide for agricultural activities, helping farmers determine the best times for planting, harvesting, and various agricultural tasks.

For example, "Lìchūn" (Start of Spring) marks the beginning of the farming season, while "Lìqiū" (Start of Autumn) signals the start of the harvest period. By aligning agricultural activities with these solar terms, farmers can optimise crop yields and ensure food security.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Chinese Lunar Calendar

How long is a Chinese lunar year?

A Chinese lunar year typically consists of 12 or 13 lunar months, totalling approximately 354 or 355 days.

Is the Chinese Lunar calendar still used in modern China?

Yes, the Chinese lunar calendar continues to be widely used in modern China, especially for traditional festivals, agriculture, and cultural events.

Do the Chinese use the “regular” / Western calendar?

Yes, alongside the Chinese lunar calendar, the Gregorian calendar is also used for official and business purposes in China.

When did China adopt the Gregorian calendar?

China officially adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912 during the early years of the Republic of China.


The Chinese lunar calendar, with its intricate system of lunar months and 24 solar terms, reflects the deep connection between Chinese culture and the natural world. Through its precise timekeeping and influence on agriculture, festivals, and traditional customs, it continues to play a vital role in shaping Chinese society and preserving ancient traditions. As China embraces modernisation, the Chinese lunar calendar remains a timeless symbol of cultural heritage and wisdom passed down through generations.

About the Author

Mehmet has been a struggler, learner, and maybe one day a solid grasper of the Chinese language and country thanks to his decade-plus spent in the Middle Kingdom.