If you study Classical Chinese texts (文言文), you’ll know that dates can be a little bit tricky. With that in mind, I’m attempting to put together a little guide to understanding dates in Classical Chinese texts.
The general format I’d give is this:
[dynasty] [emperor] [era name] [year] [month] [day]
Different texts will use various parts of this format, but the order should always be the same (please point out any exceptions if you know of them). The season quite often appears in dates as well, usually towards the end.
If given, the dynasty name will be first part of the date. If you study much imperial Chinese history (or classical Chinese texts, for that matter) you might already fairly familiar with this sequence, but here’s a quick run down. I’ve included the pre-Qin semi-mythical dynasties:三皇五帝 → *夏* → *商* → *周* → *秦* → *漢* → 三國 → *晉* → 南北朝 → *隋* → *唐* → 五代十國 → *宋* → *遼* → *金* → 西夏 → *元* → *明* → *清*
Names of dynasties that are more accurately given in several characters very often appear as a single character in Classical Chinese texts. This is often because the longer names are terms that were given to these dynasties later. Seeing one of these dynasty names if often a good indicator that you’re about to get a date (not that kind of date, Classical Chinese isn’t any good for that).
If the dynasty name is given, it is almost always followed by the name of whoever was emperor at the time. As there are several emperors per dynasty there are too many to list here, but if you’ve studied Chinese history for a while the names of the emperors will at least be familiar, even if you don’t know much about them. The name of the emperor will likely be followed by 帝 (emperor) which makes things a bit easier.
After the dynasty and emperor, you usually get a reign period or era name (年號). These are horribly inconsistent. They start with 漢武帝 (Han Wudi) and then vary wildly between different dynasties and emperors. Some emperors have none, some have one, and some have several. They’re usually two characters, but again there are exceptions.
A new era name means that the sixty-year cycle resets back to year one, so the year part of a date is always counted from the beginning of the era name given. If no era name is given then it can be assumed that the sixty year cycle is counting from the beginning of that emperor’s whole reign (again, correct me in the comments if I’m wrong).
Era names tend to have good meanings or at least understandable ones. For example, 漢武帝’s first one was 建元 - “establishing the first”. The later Han emperor 漢桓帝 had an era called 建和 - “establishing peace”. You get the idea.
You might think that the year would be simple, but unfortunately it isn’t. Years given in Classical Chinese texts work on the sixty-year cycle (六十花甲). How that works would make another post in itself, but a simple explanation is as follows:
There are two characters. Each year, both of these characters tick over to the next one in their respective sequence. The first sequence has ten characters:
→ 甲 → 乙 → 丙 → 丁 → 戊 → 己 → 庚 → 辛 → 壬 → 癸 → (return to go!)
And the second sequence has twelve:
→ 子 → 丑 → 寅 → 卯 → 辰 → 巳 → 午 → 未 → 申 → 酉 → 戌 → 亥 → (return to go!)
A common misconception is that the two characters work as a large and small unit, with the larger only ticking over when the smaller completes a cycle. That’s not how it works: both characters tick over every year (at Chinese New Year), it’s just that the sequence of the second character is longer, so you get 60 different year names out of this.
Sometimes the year is just given as a simple number, in which case it indicates that it’s x many years into the current era name, or reign of that Emperor if no era name is given.
Month and day
If you’re lucky, the month day will be just be given as x 月 x 日. Sometimes, though, you see the sexagenary cycle described above being used to mark out the months as well. In that case, the longer twelve-character sequence is used, e.g. 丑月 for the second month (the same sequence is also used for hours of the day)._ _The first month of the year can also be described as 正月, which means ‘first month’.
Time for some examples of these pesky Classical Chinese dates.
So first up the dynasty is fairly obvious: 漢. That’s followed by the Emperor: 成帝, and then the era name: 建始. Then we’ve got a nice simple year and month format: 四年九月. So if we put it all together we literally get:
Han Dynasty, Emperor Cheng, Jianshi Reign, Year 4, Month 9
And a clearer English translation might be:
In the 9th month of the 4th year of the Jianshi Reign of Emperor Cheng of Han
Note that as usual the order of the date is reversed in English. If you want to figure out what year this is in the Gregorian calendar, you’d have to go and look up what year Emperor Cheng of Han’s Jianshi Era started (32 BCE apparently), and go forwards four years.
Another Han dynasty one. The emperor is 桓帝 and the current era name is 建和. It’s the third year of that era name. Then we get a season, autumn, and a month. So it’s the seventh lunar month (June - July in the Gregorian calendar?) and apparently it’s autumn. I’m not sure how that happened, but let’s go with it:
In the 7th month, in autumn, of the 3rd year of the Jianhe Reign of Emperor Huan of Han
This one doesn’t give a dynasty or emperor and goes straight into the era name, so presumably the emperor is obvious in context (it’s probably Emperor Wu of Jin if you’re wondering). Then there’s that 正月 term for the first month. So we’ve got something like:
In the 1st month of the 5th year of the Taikang Reign
I’ve included this one just to show how a date might appear in a Classical Chinese text. On either side of the date we’ve got 时 (time) and 也 (is), which explain that this is giving the date. In between is the date itself: 嘉慶癸亥三月三十日. It starts with the era name, 嘉慶, followed by a year from the sixty-year cycle, 癸亥, and then the month and day given with numbers.
On the 30th day of the 3rd month of the 60th year of the Jiaqing Reign
If you’re in an exam and don’t know which year the 癸亥 year is, you can often get away with just putting the pinyin for it:
On the 30th day of the 3rd month of the guihai year of the Jiaqing Reign
This one starts with an emperor but no dynasty. Then it has the era name, 建平, the year given with a number, and then the season:
In the summer of the 4th year of the Jianping Reign of Emperor Ai
This one simply gives the emperor, reign and year:
In the 3rd year of the Xiping Reign of Emperor Ling
Another that relies on context. This one only gives the year in the sixty-year cycle and then the month and day with numbers:
On the 19th day of the 11th month in the 38th year
If I’ve got anything wrong here, please point it out in the comments. Same if you have any suggestions or questions!