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January 22, 2012

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Cosmic sundial of solar terms

WHEN the Chinese Lunar New Year begins, the year's cycle of 24 solar terms is not far behind. This year the new year begins on January 23 and the solar "start of spring" is February 4.

Solar terms are based on the changing positions of the sun and natural phenomena (first dew, insects awaken, ripening grain), guiding ancient farmers about the seasons, the rains, when to plant and when to reap.

Along with the planting there are other customs, such as what to eat, what to do and what not to do.

The terms developed over time, beginning as early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). At the end of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), there were eight key solar terms marking four seasons. The other terms were developed in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD).

For example, the start of four seasons, or li, are marked by lichun (spring) , lixia (summer), liqiu (autumn) and lidong (winter).

Three major temperature changes are marked by xiaoshu (minor heat), dashu (major heat) and dahan (major cold).

Precipitation is indicated by yushui (rain water) and xiaoxue (minor snow).

Growing seasons are marked by xiaoman (grain ripe ) and mangzhong (bristles on grain).

Weather conditions are marked by jingzhe (insects awaken) and qingming (clear and bright).

The four li (Beginnings)

Lichun 立春

(Start of Spring: February 3-5)

Lichun, the first solar term, means the start of spring. From that day, the days get longer and warmer. It is not the same as the Vernal Equinox. In the ancient times, lichun, instead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, was considered the beginning of a year. The beginning is said to predict the year; if the weather on lichun is fair, the harvest will be bountiful; if it rains, farmers will have to work harder for their harvest.

The folklore also applies to individuals. Never quarrel or fight with anyone on this day, otherwise the whole year will involve disagreement and conflicts. On this day it's supposed to bring good luck to walk in an open field or park to welcome the spring. It's not a good day to visit a doctor, get a haircut (it's the season to grow, not shear) or shift household.


(Start of Summer: May 5-7)

Lixia is when summer heat (and yang or hot energy) starts to increase and prevail in the universe.

The custom on the day is to eat eggs, beans and bamboo to fight the upcoming heat.

Protein-rich eggs mean strength; those who eat bamboo are said to have strong legs like bamboo; beans are good for the eyes because they are shaped like the eye. In traditional Chinese medicine, the shape and appearance of a food represents its properties. Thus, eating heart is good for the heart, eating brain-shaped food (like walnuts) are good for mental acuity, and so on.


(Start of Autumn: August 7-9)

Liqiu is the day to weigh oneself because people often lose weight in summer due to heat and poor appetite. Tradition calls for eating all kinds of meat on liqiu.

Lidong 立冬

(Start of Winter: November 7-8)

Lidong is the first break for farmers, who are busy for the whole year, following the advice to "plant in spring, grow in summer and harvest in autumn." Now it is time to "preserve in winter," especially to preserve energy. But before they start storing and preserving food, they reward themselves with a hearty meal on lidong.

The two zhi (Extremes or Solstice)

Xiazhi 夏至

(Summer Solstice: June 21-22)

This is the longest day of the year. Yang energy reaches its peak on xiazhi and yin (cold) energy begins to ascend. It's a tradition to worship the gods for good luck on this day.


(Winter Solstice: December 21-23)

Dongzhi arrives when the night is the longest in the year and the day is the shortest; days get longer after dongzhi. There's a traditional Chinese belief that yin and yang energies reverse when one reaches the extreme. Dongzhi is when yin energy reaches its extreme. After the particular day, yin energy declines and yang energy starts to rise. In ancient times, dongzhi was a big festival and in some areas it was even more significant than the Chinese Lunar New Year because it marks the rising of yang energy. Today on dongzhi, many people still observe the tradition and get together with the family to eat dumplings.

The two fen (Even or Equinox)

Chunfen 春分

(Vernal Equinox: March 20-22)

This is the middle of spring when day and night are the same length.


(Autumnal Equinox: September 22-24)

This is the middle of autumn when day and night are of equal length.


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