Earthly Branches

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Earthly Branches
Chinese Zodiac carvings on ceiling of Kushida Shrine, Fukuoka.jpg
A carving of the Chinese zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan

In correlative thinking, the 12 years of the Jupiter cycle also identify the 12 months of the year, 12 animals (mnemonics for the system), cardinal directions, seasons, and the 12 traditional Chinese units of time in the form of two-hour periods that each day was divided into. In this case an Earthly Branch can refer to a whole two-hour period, or to the exact time at its center. For instance 午時wǔshí can mean either noon or 11 am 1 pm. (The jiéqì system provided single hours and 15-degree arcs in time and space.)

Chinese seasons are based on observations of the sun and stars. Many Chinese calendrical systems have started the new year on the second new moon after the winter solstice.

The Earthly Branches are today used with the Heavenly Stems in the current version of the "traditional Chinese calendar" and in Taoism. The Ganzhi (Stem-Branch) combination is a fairly new way to mark time; in the second millennium BC, during the Shang era, the 10 Heavenly Stems provided the names of the days of the week. The Branches are as old as the Stems (and according to recent archaeology may actually be older), but the Stems were tied to the ritual calendars of Chinese kings.

Twelve branches

ChineseJapaneseRyukyuan (Okinawan)Korean
MongolianManchuVietnamese Chinese
DirectionSeasonLunar MonthDouble Hour
Middle Chinese
on'yomi of
Earthly Branch
of Animal / Zodiac
on'yomi of
Earthly Branch
Japanese-based kun'yomi
of Animal / Zodiac
native kunyomi of animal zodiac
1 ㄗˇzi2chútsiXし (shi)ね (ne)にー (nii)えんちゅ (enchu)자 (ja)ᠬᠤᠯᠤᠭᠠᠨ᠎ᠠᠰᡳᠩᡤᡝᡵᡳtí (SV: tử)
0° (north)winterMonth 1111pm to 1am (midnight)
2 ㄔㄡˇchǒucau2thiútrhjuwXちゅう (chū)うし (ushi)ちゅーうし (ushi)うし (ushi)축 (chuk)ᠦᠬᠡᠷᡳᡥᠠᠨsửu

30°Month 121am to 3am
3 ㄧㄣˊyínjan4înyinいん (in)とら (tora)いんとぅら (tura)とぅら (tura)인 (in)ᠪᠠᠷᠰᡨᠠᠰᡥᠠdần
60°springMonth 13am to 5am
4 ㄇㄠˇmǎomaau5báumaewXぼう (bō)う (u)ぼーうー (uu)うさじ (usaji)묘 (myo)ᠲᠠᠤᠯᠠᠢᡤᡡᠯᠮᠠᡥᡡᠨmão (non-SV: mẹo)
90° (east)Month 25am to 7am
5 ㄔㄣˊchénsan4sîndzyinしん (shin)たつ (tatsu)しんたち (tachi)りゅー (ryuu)진 (jin)ᠯᠤᠤᠮᡠᡩᡠᡵᡳthìn (SV: thần)龙(龍)
竜 (龍)120°Month 37am to 9 am
6 ㄙˋzi6ziXし (shi)み (mi)みー (mii)はぶ (habu)사 (sa)ᠮᠣᠭᠠᠢᠮᡝᡳᡥᡝtị
150°summerMonth 49am to 11am
7 ㄨˇng5ngó͘nguXご (go)うま (uma)うま (uma)んま ('nma)오 (o)ᠮᠣᠷᠢᠮᠣᡵᡳᠨngọ马(馬)
180° (south)Month 511am to 1pm (noon)
8 ㄨㄟˋwèimei6mjɨjHび (bi)ひつじ (hitsuji)ふぃちじ (fichiji)ふぃーじゃー (fiijaa)미 (mi)ᠬᠣᠨᠢᡥᠣᠨᡳᠨmùi (SV: vị)

210°Month 61pm to 3pm
9 ㄕㄣshēnsan1sinsyinしん (shin)さる (saru)しんさーるー (saaruu)さーるー (saaruu)신 (sin)ᠪᠡᠴᠢᠨᠪᠣᠨᡳᠣthân
240°autumnMonth 73pm to 5pm
10 ㄧㄡˇyǒujau5yuwXゆう (yū)とり (tori)ゆーとぅい (tu'i)とぅい (tu'i)유 (yu)ᠲᠠᠬᠢᠶ᠎ᠠᠴᠣᡴᠣdậu鸡(雞)
鶏 (鳥)
270° (west)Month 85pm to 7pm
11 ㄒㄩseot1sutswitじゅつ (jutsu)いぬ (inu)いん ('in)いん ('in)술 (sul)ᠨᠣᠬᠠᠢᡳᠨᡩᠠᡥᡡᠨtuất
300°Month 97pm to 9pm
12 ㄏㄞˋhàihoi6hāihojXがい (gai)い (i)げーいー (yii)やましし (yamashishi)해 (hae)ᠭᠠᠬᠠᠢᡠᠯᡤᡳᠶᠠᠨhợi猪(豬)

Wild boar
330°winterMonth 109pm to 11pm

Some cultures assign different animals: Vietnam replaces the Ox and Rabbit with the water buffalo and cat, respectively; Tibet replaces the Rooster with the bird. In the traditional Kazakh version of the 12 year animal cycle (Kazakh : мүшел, müşel), the Dragon is substituted by a snail (Kazakh : ұлу, ulw), and the Tiger appears as a leopard (Kazakh : барыс, barıs). [3]


The 24 cardinal directions (ancient Chinese convention places the south (red) at the top). China 24 cardinal directions.png
The 24 cardinal directions (ancient Chinese convention places the south (red) at the top).

Though Chinese has words for the four cardinal directions, Chinese mariners and astronomers/astrologers preferred using the 12 directions of the Earthly Branches, which is somewhat similar to the modern-day practice of English-speaking pilots using o'clock for directions. Since 12 points were not enough for sailing, 12 midpoints were added. Instead of combining two adjacent direction names, they assigned new names:

The 24 directions are:

 CharacterMandarin nameCantonese nameHokkien nameKorean nameJapanese nameRyukyuan (Okinawan)Vietnamese nameDirection
1ㄗˇ zǐzi2chú자 (ja)ね (ne)にー (nii)tí (SV: tử)0° (north)
2ㄍㄨㄟˇ guǐgwai3kúi계 (gye) (SK: 규 (gyu))みずのと (mizunoto)みんぬとぅ (minnutu)quý15°
3ㄔㄡˇ chǒucau2thiú축 (chuk) (SK: 추 (chu))うし (ushi)うし (ushi)sửu30°
4ㄍㄣˋ gèngan3kùn간 (gan)うしとら (ushitora)うしとぅら (ushitura)cấn45° (northeast)
5ㄧㄣˊ yínjan4în인 (in)とら (tora)とぅら (tura)dần60°
6ㄐㄧㄚˇ jiǎgaap3kap / kah갑 (gap)きのえ (kinoe)ちにー (chinii)giáp75°
7ㄇㄠˇ mǎomaau5báu묘 (myo)う (u)う (u)mão (non-SV: mẹo)90° (east)
8ㄧˇ yǐjyut3it을 (eul)きのと (kinoto)ちぬとぅ(chinutu)ất105°
9ㄔㄣˊ chénsan4sîn진 (jin) (SK: 신 (sin))たつ (tatsu)たち (tachi)thìn (SV: thần)120°
10ㄒㄩㄣˋ xùnseon3sùn손 (son)たつみ (tatsumi)たちみー (tachimii)tốn135° (southeast)
11ㄙˋ sìzi6사 (sa)み (mi)みー (mii)tị150°
12ㄅㄧㄥˇ bǐngbing2péng병 (byeong)ひのえ (hinoe)ふぃにー (finii)bính165°
13ㄨˇ wǔng5ngó͘오 (o)うま (uma)うま (uma)ngọ180° (south)
14ㄉㄧㄥ dīngding1teng정 (jeong)ひのと (hinoto)ふぃぬとぅ (finutu)đinh195°
15ㄨㄟˋ wèimei6미 (mi)ひつじ (hitsuji)ふぃちじ (fichiji)mùi (SV: vị)210°
16ㄎㄨㄣ kūnkwan1khun곤 (gon)ひつじさる (hitsujisaru)ふぃちじさーるー (fichijisaaruu)khôn225° (southwest)
17ㄕㄣ shēnsan1sin신 (sin)さる (saru)さーるー (saaruu)thân240°
18ㄍㄥ gēnggang1keng경 (gyeong)かのえ (kanoe)かにー (kanii)canh255°
19ㄧㄡˇ yǒuyau5유 (yu)とり (tori)とぅい (tu'i)dậu270° (west)
20ㄒㄧㄣ xīnsan1sin신 (sin)かのと (kanoto)かぬとぅ (kanutu)tân285°
21ㄒㄩ xūseotsut술 (sul)いぬ (inu)いん (in)tuất300°
22ㄑㄧㄢˊ qiánkin4khiân건 (geon)いぬい (inui)いんいー (in'yii)càn (SV: kiền)315° (northwest)
23ㄏㄞˋ hàihoi6hāi해 (hae)い (i)いー (yii)hợi330°
24ㄖㄣˊ rénjam4jîm임 (im)みずのえ (mizunoe)みんにい (minnii)nhâm345°

Advanced mariners such as Zheng He used 48-point compasses. An additional midpoint was called by a combination of its two closest basic directions, such as 丙午 (bǐngwǔ) for the direction of 172.5°, the midpoint between (bǐng), 165°, and (), 180°.

Current usage

The terrestrial branches are still commonly used nowadays in Chinese counting systems similar to the way the alphabet is used in English. For example, names in legal documents and contracts where English speakers would use K, L, M, etc. Korea and Japan also use terrestrial branches on legal documents in this way.

Since the celestial stems and terrestrial branches combined only consist of 22 characters, the four final letters – W, X, Y, and Z – cannot be represented by any of the celestial stems and terrestrial branches, and those four letters are represented by ‘物’, ‘天’, ‘地’, and ‘人’, respectively, instead. [4]

In case of upper-case letters, the radical of ‘口’ (the ‘mouth’ radical) may be added to the corresponding terrestrial branch or any of ‘物’, ‘天’, ‘地’, and ‘人’ to denote an upper-case letter. [5]

See also

PDF: A study of the cardinal directions chart Chinese cardinal directions study panel.pdf
PDF: A study of the cardinal directions chart

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  2. Smith, Jonathan M. (2011). "The Di Zhi 地支 as Lunar Phases and Their Coordination with the Tian Gan 天干 as Ecliptic Asterisms in a China before Anyang". Early China. 33: 199–228. doi:10.1017/S0362502800000274. S2CID   132200641 . Retrieved January 29, 2022.
  3. А. Мухамбетова (A. Mukhambetova), Казахский традиционный календарь The traditional Kazakh calendar (in Russian)
  4. (pages 147 and 148)
  5. (pages 147 and 148)