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Celestial Stems and Earthly Branches

To say that Chinese culture is old, is to state the obvious. Same goes for dwelling on the fact, that on every turn there, we stumble upon elements that were constituted ages ago. And it is also a false truism, as those elements were oft razed, repainted, refurnished and reconstructed manifold, just as the vast majority of historical landmarks in China, bearing a "wet paint" plaque. Nonetheless, one would ask, whether (and if so, how) this antiquity of Chinese culture manifest itself in everyday life, most notably in a translator's everyday life. One way it actually does, is the usage of two sets of characters, 10 piece set called Celestial (or Heavenly) Stems (天干 tiāngān), and to lesser extent a 12 piece set called Earthly Branches (地支 dìzhī) in modern Chinese, for example in legal contracts as the ways to denote the parties, as page numeration in legal documents, in tests as the available answers and so on. Those Stems and Branches are an ancient astrological symbols, that were and are used for measuring the steady flow of time, and of course for deciphering and fathoming the twisted threads of fate. In this text we'll try and determine when have the symbols appeared, how were they originally used and why were they so important, that they remained in use till this very day.

First, let's have a look at the Celestial Stems:
1. 甲 jiǎ
2. 乙 yǐ
3. 丙 bǐng
4. 丁 dīng
5. 戊 wù
6. 己 jǐ
7. 庚 gēng
8. 辛 xīn
9. 壬 rén
10. 癸 guǐ

And these are the Earthly Branches:
1. 子 zǐ
2. 丑 chǒu
3. 寅 yín
4. 卯 mǎo
5. 辰 chén
6. 巳 sì
7. 午 wǔ
8. 未 wèi
9. 申 shēn
10. 酉 yǒu
11. 戌 xū
12. 亥 hài

 24 cardinal directions chart. The south, in accordance with ancient Chinese canon, is on the top side.

24 cardinal directions chart. The south, in accordance with ancient Chinese canon, is on the top side.

Do they hold any meaning? Yes and no. Of course, some of those characters on their own, when put out of the context of the discussed systems, do have some meaning (for example, 甲 is a shell, armor), except that we actually are interested in said context. In historical and modern fortune calculating systems (like the nowadays most popular Four Pillar / Eight Character system) they do have an attached more or less sensible meanings. The obvious one is applying 12 animal zodiac signs to the Earthly Branches. And yet, when we look upon the first time they were written down, their sole meaning is just being the ordinals. Now, for the record, according to the latest hypotheses, 10 Stems primarily stood for 10 constellations, and 12 Branches stood for 12 lunar phases (and it must be noted, that in the earliest versions of the Branches, the one from the oracle bones, 巳 was written as 子, and 子 as 甾 [zī]; thus 午 was the full moon, 子辰卯寅丑were transitional phases till the甾, being the new moon, 亥戌酉申未 were the transitional phases from the new moon to full moon - so it is easy to see, that the earliest, pre-Shang order of the Branches was like this: 亥戌酉申未午子辰卯寅丑甾). But as soon as they started to be used to denote the days in the calendar,  all those meanings were insignificant. Stems and Branches combined produce a sexagenary cycle (it's 60, because only pairs constituted are even-even and odd-odd, from甲子 to 癸亥) of days or years. Divinatory systems add to this the 5 elements, splitting the year to 72 day periods, and the most interesting version would connect autumn with metal, winter with water, spring with wood, summer with fire, and the last 18 days of every season wouldbe connected with earth. The characters could be auspicious or inauspicious as well, they themselves might have connection with the elements and independently comes the yin and the yang... Still, what we're interested in, is the calendar usage.

 Combinations of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches constitute a sexagenary system.

Combinations of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches constitute a sexagenary system.

The oldest ways of measuring the time were varied, primarily the months (or to be specific, year's intervals) didn't have to be evenly distributed in the year, the ruins of Taosi, the oldest Chinese astronomical observatory that is dated on the end of Longshan culture, can attest to that. The shortest months might have had only 8 days, and of course it didn't have to be exatly 12 months as well. Longshan is a culture dated for circa 3000-1900 b.c., so it is a period a few hundred years earlier than the first examples of Chinese writing (the oracle bones). How was the time flow measured before writing? Aside of the fact, that it is possible, that the writing system was existing before the relics we were able to uncover (and noting the fact, by the way, that there is a hypothesis that the writing system itself was devised from the Stems and Branches), we do have one clue. In Xici Zhuan, a commentary to the Book of Changes it is written: "In ancient times they tied the ropes and [thus] made order; wise men of the later generations changed it for writing the engravings" [上古結繩而治,後世聖人易之以書契。]. Perhaps some other method was in use, method that was employed a bit later in another culture: Inca. Quipu, of which mayhaps our readers have heard, the talking knots, were used also as a calendar. Despite the fact that Inca calendars were devoutly burned by Christians, as a visible sign of idolatry and demonic practices, one reproduction of those was saved. Every rope denoted a month, every knot was a month's day, and just as in ancient China, weeks (or in this case knot groups separated by a longer intervals) were made of 10 days (a 10 day period in Chinese is旬xún; naturally days in xuns were noted with Celestial Stems), important days and holidays were signified by a proper color of the knot. Mayhaps in China it was done the same way, unfortunately the rope is not a material that would stand the test of time particularly well.

So, when exactly do our Stems and Branches appear? According to the traditional historiography, already during the Shang dynasty period (1558 - 1046 b.c.) there was no one who knew their primary function, the only thing known was that they were used as designations of the each Xia dynasty kings (around 2070 - 1600 b.c.) and the same practice was continued with the deceased Shang rulers, for example in order to burn the offerings for them during the days assigned to them, exerting the ancestor worship that way - thus they were used as a calendar even before Shangs. The first calendar tablets also are from the Shang period, and what's interesting, the days on the oracle bones were written differently, mere numbers were used, so gan-zhi calendars were made for a special purpose.

We could ask, why exactly did Chinese built those observatories, why did they put so much effort in time measurement and "ordering" of the year. Of course they did so for the same reason as for example aforementioned Incas. To know when to start a specific agricultural work. Nowadays time measuring seems to be a trivial matter, most of us live in the cities, so we don't even pay attention to agrarian calendar. Holidays, mostly devised in the heathen times, seem for us to be placed in the calendar totally at random, and we have to order our year, manage on our annual leaves and so on in relation to those holidays. So a certain inversion is in place, as primarily it was the year's course that determined agrarian (or pastoral) holidays. Besides in archaic societies the knowledge of agriculture was more often than not an arcane knowledge, and the calendar was a tool of power. Grasping the movement of the stars indeed have determined the societies' well-being, particularly the agrarian ones. Perhaps this is the origin of so great a passion of the Chinese for astrology and reading the fate.