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Transition from the Lunar Calendar to the Western Calendar Under Chinese Law

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The 1949 PRC Resolution, in Zhongyang Renmin Zhengfu Faling Huibian collected by the Law Library of Congress. Photo taken by Laney Zhang.
The 1949 PRC Resolution in Zhongyang Renmin Zhengfu Faling Huibian, in the collections of the Law Library of Congress. Photo by Laney Zhang.

Today is the New Year’s Day on the Chinese lunar calendar (阴历, also known as the “rural calendar” (农历)). As explained in my previous blog post, Happy Lunar New Year!, the New Year’s Day falls on a different day each year. Starting February 8, 2016, this is the Year of the Monkey — which, of course, is not the formal name of the year on the calendar.

Year of the Monkey on the Lunar Calendar

Formally, this is the Bing-Shen Year. The lunar calendar assigns a name consisting of two components to each year. The first component of the first year is the first code of a cycle of ten “celestial stems (天干),” and the second component is the first code of twelve “terrestrial branches (地支).” The second year combines the second stem and branch, which continues, generating sixty combinations to name a circle of sixty years.

Each terrestrial branch is associated with an animal sign, the Chinese zodiac, as follows: Zi (rat); Chou (ox); Yin (tiger); Mao (rabbit); Chen (dragon); Si (snake); Wu (horse); Wei (sheep); Shen (monkey); You (rooster); Xu (dog); Hai (pig). “Shen” is associated with “monkey,” so the Bing-Shen Year is also the Year of the Monkey. It’s therefore easy to tell what animal sign you were born under if you know the name of your birth year on the lunar calendar.

The lunar calendar was popularly used in traditional Chinese society before it was replaced by the Western (Gregorian) calendar in the 20th century. Historically, the Gregorian calendar has been called the Western calendar (西曆), Common Era calendar (公曆), and solar calendar (陽曆) (as opposed to lunar calendar (陰曆)).

Calendar Used in the People’s Republic of China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) decided to use the Gregorian calendar when the state was founded in 1949. According to the PRC Resolution on the Capital, Calendar, National Anthem and National Flag, enacted on September 27, 1949, the PRC uses Common Era (公元) as its calendar era, and therefore stated that “this year is year 1949.” The Resolution is also one of the several national laws of the PRC that apply to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Macao Special Special Administrative Region.

The lunar calendar, however, is not banned in the PRC. Actually, nowadays over half of the public holidays observed by all Chinese (compared to holidays observed by only certain groups, such as Women’s Day by women, and Youth’s Day by youths) are based on the lunar calendar: the Lunar New Year (Spring Festival), Qingming Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Earlier Efforts to Adopt the Western Calendar and Ban the Lunar Calendar

In fact, efforts to adopt the Gregorian calendar in China started much earlier. On January 2, 1912, the second day of the founding of the Republic of China, the provisional president Dr. Sun Yat-sen sent a telegram to the provinces, announcing the adoption of the solar calendar with that year as the first year of the new calendar.

Yuan's 1912 circular, in the Provisional Gazettes. Photo taken by Laney Zhang.
Yuan’s 1912 circular in the Provisional Gazettes, in the collections of the Law Library of Congress. Photo by Laney Zhang.

Dr. Sun’s telegram does not appear to be included in the Provisional Government Gazette (《臨時政府公報》) of Sun’s Nanking government. However, when looking through the gazettes of the Minguo period for this post, I found a circular issued on February 18, 1912 by the “newly elected provisional president,” Yüan Shih-k’ai, in the Provisional Gazette (《臨時公報》) of Yüan’s Peking government. Dated “the New Year’s Day of the Ren-Zi Year,” the circular also announced adoption of  the solar calendar with that year (1912) as the first year of the Republic of China, and all government instruments would be dated by both the solar and lunar calendars, effective the same day.

I should note that the Provisional Gazette, which was published daily during the short period before Yüan became the “regular” president of the Republic of China, is quite rare, and we have two original copies here at the Law Library of Congress! Researchers may also find a reprint of the Provisional Gazette helpful, as it is more complete and easier to use.

The calendar of the Republic of China follows the Gregorian calendar with the first year as 1912. After the new calendar was introduced, the lunar calendar was apparently still popularly used by the people. In the late 1920s, the Nationalist Government issued a series of decrees banning the use of the lunar calendar in order to promote the Republic of China calendar. For example, on July 2, 1929, it was ordered that the practice of printing calendars with parallel lunar calendar and solar calendar would be banned, as it “hindered the promotion of the Republic of China calendar (國歷).” Effective 1930, publishers could print calendars containing solely the Republic of China calendar.

Furthermore, on October 5, 1929, the Nationalist Government ordered that all business accounts, contracts, and other civil and commercial documents must be dated with the Republic of China calendar, and must not also be dated with the lunar calendar; otherwise, the document would not be legally enforceable.

As an end note, the Lunar New Year holiday in China started yesterday, February 7, and will last seven days through February 13, as ordered by a State Council decree. Happy Year of the Monkey to all!

If you find rules relating to calendars interesting, you should also read Peter’s recent post on the Christmas and New Year holidays in Russia. Calendars are also discussed in Nathan’s posts on “keeping time in the Middle Ages” and “why the pope is never late for tea,” and are mentioned in a blog post by Nicolas on the French working week.


  1. I have read in other documents that China went to the Gregorian calendar when the Chinese republic was established in 1912?

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