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12 Heavenly Stems 10 Earthly Branches

Mar. 23, 2021

Recently we went over the significance of “本命年 (Ben Ming Nian)” the 12 year curse in Chinese culture and what it means for the zodiac of the particular reigning year. Well let’s dive a little deeper to understand how time was divided by the ancient Chinese and how zodiac relations are formed.

From the unearthed inscriptions on bones of the Shang Dynasty of Yin Ruins, Gan-Zhi is used to record days and is also used in Feng Shui and divination. Now, it’s not only applied for counting hour, day, month and year but also greatly used in Chinese astrology for fortune-telling.

Basically, ancient Chinese people divided a day time into twelve parts based on sunrise. They matched those twelve parts with twelve earthly branches, which also match the twelve Chinese zodiacs. These three counting systems make up the unique ancient Chinese time. The ten Celestial Stems, called “天干-(tiān gān)”, pair with the Earthly Branches for a 60-year calendrical cycle.

Did you know that there were originally ten days of the week? “天干-(tiān gān)” were the original names for each day of the 10-day week.

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The 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches

Each stem is paired with an earthly branch, forming a ‘pillar’. It is important to note that only odd-numbered stems are paired with odd-numbered branches, and even-numbered stems with even-numbered branches. For example, the first heavenly stem can be paired with the first earthly branch, the third or the fifth one, but cannot be paired with the second or the fourth branch. Henceforth, instead of 120 combinations, we get 60.

The Earthly Branches “地支 (dì zhī)”

The original terms used for the years were actually “地支 (zhī) Earthly Branches”. These ‘branches’ are also assigned to the hours of the day based on solar time.

Essentially, the Twelve Earthly Branches are comprised of: 子 (), 丑 (chǒu), 寅 (yín), 卯 (mǎo), 辰 (chén), 巳 (), 午 (), 未 (wèi), 申 (shēn), 酉 (yǒu), 戌 (), 亥 (hài).

The Ten Celestial Stems include: 甲 (jiǎ), 乙 (), 丙 (bǐng), 丁 (dīng), 戊 (), 己 (), 庚 (gēng), 辛 (xīn), 壬 (rén), 癸 (guǐ).

HSK 3 quiz

Lastly, the five elements

The elements are the classics: 水 (shuǐ) water, 木 () wood, 火 (huǒ) fire, 土 () earth, and 金 (jīn) metal.

Later 12 animals of the zodiac were added as symbols and were categorized as either “阴 (yīn)” or “阳 (yáng)”. Then elements are added for each. These cycle through as well, but each zodiac also has a fixed element. This fixed element is what determines which sign you’re compatible with.

HSK 3 quiz

The Four Pillars of Destiny, also the Eight Characters of Birth Time or ‘ba zi’ in Chinese, was very popular and mostly used in fortune-telling. In four pairs of year, month, day, and hour of a person’s birth, each pair includes one of the Heavenly Stems and one of the Earthly Branchs. Among the stems and branches form compatibilities and incompatibilitis between the zodiacs.

The interpretation of one’s birth time using this method has always been vital for information when it is used for fortune telling. But that is another article on it’s own.

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