“It is only when the cold season comes that we know the pine and cypress to be evergreens” – ancient Chinese proverb
The Chinese calendar can be described as lunisolar, influenced as it is by the moon and the sun. While the lunar calendar is based on lunar cycles or phases of the moon occurring approximately every 29 or 30 days, the solar calendar is alike to the Western Gregorian calendar, with 12 solar months of 30 to 31 days, 365 days in a regular year and 366 days in a leap year. However, that is where the similarities between the solar and the Gregorian calendar end.
Each month of the solar calendar is split up into two solar terms, each centred on an equinox or solstice day. In ancient China, as early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), farmers created the solar calendar – with less accurate dates and more guesswork – determined by the changes in climate, natural phenomena, agricultural production and other aspects of human life. Each month of the solar calendar is split up into two solar terms, each centred on an equinox or solstice day.
As of the end of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), eight solar terms marking the four seasons were established. The remaining solar terms were initiated in the Western Han Dynasty (206-24 AD), which is why many of the terms refer specifically to the climate of Xi’an, capital of the Han Dynasty.
Seasonality plays an important and integral part in Chinese culture and cuisine. It is evident in the names of each of the solar terms – start of spring, frost descent, rain water – and in the philosophy of yin and yang, used to describe two opposing but complementary forces for all things in the universe, including seasonal changes and directions. This philosophy relates to much of Chinese culture, including seasonality in Chinese cuisine: natural harmony is achieved by eating or drinking foods that are similar in nature to the environment.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are specific foods that should be consumed throughout the year to balance the change in weather and to ensure that the body remains healthy. This refers to foods that are in season locally, but also to what is described as “seasonal pulses”: taut in spring, full in summer, floating in autumn, and sunken in winter. Derived from the yin and yang philosophy, many foods are described as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ (or somewhere in between). This describes the ‘energies’ of the food as opposed to their specific temperatures.
The Chinese solar calendar is an ancient calendar that has retained its importance in many people’s lives today.
The 24 solar terms
Beginning of spring, or Laap Chun 立春 (around 4th February) – the beginning of spring, primarily in the extreme south
Rain water 雨水 (around 18th February) – the gradual increase of rainfall
Awakening of insects, or Ging Jit 惊蛰 (around 5th March) – possible thunder, insects wake up
Vernal equinox 春分 (around 20th March) – equal length of day and night
Clear and bright 清明 (around 5th April) – clear skies, fresh air, warm weather and lush plants
Grain rain, or Guk Yue 谷雨 (around 20th April) – an increase of rainfall, the early crops show their shoots
Beginning of summer, or Laap Ha 立夏 (around 5th May) – the beginning of summer
Grain full 小满 (around 21st May) – the seeds of summer crops are getting plump but not ripe
Grain in ear, or Mang Zhong 芒种 (around 6th June) – the ripening of wheat crops and the beginning of a busy farming season
Summer solstice, or Ha Jee 夏至 (around 21st June) – the extreme of summer
Lesser heat, or Siu Sue 小暑 (around 7th July) – the hottest days are yet to come
Major heat 大暑 (around 23rd July) – the hottest time of the year
Beginning of autumn, or Laap Chau 立秋 (around 7th August) – the beginning of autumn
Limit of heat 处暑 (around 23rd August) – the summer is coming to an end
White dew, or Baak Low 白露 (around 7th September) – the temperature begins to fall, the weather starts getting cold, and there are dewdrops on grass and trees in the morning
Autumnal equinox 秋分 (around 23rd September) – equal length of day and night
Cold dew, or Hon Low 寒露 (around 8th October) – lower temperature, dew and a cold feeling in the air
Frost descent 霜降 (around 23rd October) – the appearance of frost
Beginning of winter, or Laap Dung 立冬 (around 7th November) – the beginning of winter
Minor snow 小雪 (around 22nd November) – the beginning of light snowfall
Major snow, or Daai Suet 大雪 (around 7th December) – the beginning of heavy snowfall
Winter solstice 冬至 (around 22nd December) – the extreme of winter
Lesser cold, or Siu Hon 小寒 (around 5th January) – the weather is getting colder, but the coldest days are yet to come
Major cold 大寒 (around 20th January) – the coldest time of the year