by Yan Gaofei and Todd Plager
On February 1st, celebrations for the Chinese New Year will be seen and enjoyed world wide. Each year on the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar, the LiChun Festival (Beginning of Spring Festival) is recognized and celebrated. However, historically, the festival began on February 4th. If this is the case, then why is the holiday currently recognized by the Chinese government on February 1st? It wasn’t always this way. As a matter of fact, it was quite different for thousands of years. If you had lived in China prior to the late Qing Dynasty, you would have celebrated the New Year on February 4th. Additionally, you may have heard that this holiday is the “Lunar New Year”, but in fact it is based upon the solar (sun) year.
For three thousand years, the Chinese calendar was a detailed and splendid tool to monitor the passage of time and seasons. It wasn’t one calendar, but actually two separate calendars that meshed seamlessly to guide people throughout the year. Traditionally, the length of a month was based upon the moon and the length of a year upon the sun. A lunar calendar along with a separate solar calendar provided accurate and intricate information that many used to guide their ships, plant their crops, and travel. Separating the calendars into the lunar and solar allowed for a more detailed understanding of how these two celestial bodies would interact and affect the Earth’s seasons and weather.
Today, most people identify the Chinese calendar as a “lunar” calendar, but now you know that it wasn’t always this way. So what changed – and when? Just after the Qing Dynasty came to an end (approx. CE 1912), a man named Yuan Shikai came to power. Shikai was an uneducated man, a very powerful warlord, and he claimed to be the emperor of a new dynasty. As such, he tried to reinstate a monarchy – but his attempt was short lived and he was deposed. However, during his rule, he decreed that the new year would hence forth be celebrated on the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar (Spring) and would no longer take into account the differences between the lunar and solar calendars. The holiday would no longer start on the same day each year, typically February 4th, but would vary. As an example, the Chinese New Year in 2014 was on January 31st. And unfortunately, it has remained that way to this day.
This change represented a great loss of culture and science. The calendar’s solar component was removed and is now based purely upon the lunar system. The calendar lost the influence and meaning of a “year” – the time it takes for the Earth to go around the Sun one time. Thousands of years of Chinese experience and wisdom were abandoned and an understanding that could be traced back to the stone age was lost.
At one time, the Chinese people had very precise knowledge of the actual length of a year. This understanding existed a couple of hundred years before the advent of the Gregorian calendar that we currently use. In CE 1276, the Gaocheng astronomical observatory was constructed near Dengfeng in Henan province, China. It was an amazing a scientific feat which allowed for the measurement of the length of a year down to the second. The knowledge to do so was accumulated over a vast period of time. On one of his group trips to China, Sifu Yan took the group to visit this observatory which is now over 750 years old. You can find more information about the site here: Gaocheng Observatory