Mass media often present Chinese astrology in simplified but inaccurate forms. For instance, the birth years of the Dragon may be approximated according to the Western, or Gregorian, calendar as:
Some go further, and list the beginning and end dates of the Chinese lunar year:
- Jan. 23, 1928 – Feb. 9, 1929
- Feb. 8, 1940 – Jan. 26, 1941
- Jan. 27, 1952 – Feb. 13, 1953
- Feb. 13, 1964 – Feb. 1, 1965
- Jan. 31, 1976 – Feb. 17, 1977
- Feb. 17, 1988 – Feb. 5, 1989
- Feb. 5, 2000 – Jan. 23, 2001
- Jan. 23, 2012 – Feb. 9, 2013
- Feb. 10, 2024 – Jan. 28, 2025
Astrologically speaking, both are inaccurate. A baby born in 2012 before February 4 is a Rabbit (the annual symbol preceding the Dragon). A baby born in 2013 before February 4 is still a Dragon (and not a Snake, the annual symbol following the Dragon). Astrology is as profound as it is complex. Here, we are focused on the birth year’s animal symbol. In fact, there are also monthly, daily, and hourly animal symbols that are equally important. This discussion will deal solely with the correct identification of the birth year for an animal symbol, using the Dragon as a timely example.
We expect the Gregorian calendar year to be just an approximation because it is a solar calendar, different from the Chinese lunar calendar. But why is the Chinese lunar calendar also inaccurate?
Before there were clocks and watches, people observed the changing positions of the sun, the moon, and the stars to mark the passage of time. The Earth revolves counterclockwise around the sun in an elliptical path, making a complete cycle in 365.25 days, not the neater 365 days. At the same time, the Earth rotates around an axis that is tilted 23.5° from the perpendicular. The Earth’s rotation makes day and night, while the tilt of its rotational axis toward and away from the sun during its annual course creates the four seasons. The basic unit of a solar calendar is day. The beginning of a solar year is marked by one specific position of the sun. It takes one solar year for the sun to return to that exact position.
The moon repeats four phases regularly: new moon, first quarter, full, and last quarter. The basic unit of a lunar calendar is lunar month, which is the time from one new moon to the next. The exact duration varies, but it averages 29.53 days. Compared to the sun cycle, the moon cycle is much easier to count. So even when a solar calendar is used, the moon cycle is still used to keep track of the passage of time. The tricky part is that, as we have seen, the sun and moon cycles are not synchronized:
Solar year: 365.25 days
Lunar year: 12 x 29.5 = 354 days
The lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year. And even the solar year is an odd 365.25 days. The many calendars that existed throughout human history offer different solutions to reconcile these incongruities. The Gregorian calendar adds the leap day, while the Chinese calendar adds a leap month every few years.
Now, let’s return to our question: Why is the Chinese lunar calendar inaccurate for describing the birth year for astrological symbols? The answer is simple: It is the wrong calendar to use for astrology. The so-called Chinese lunar calendar is not a pure lunar calendar. Strictly speaking, it is a lunisolar calendar because it incorporates both sun and moon cycle elements in its calculation. The calendar used in Chinese astrology is actually a solar calendar named Li Chun (立春), meaning ‘beginning of Spring’. The Li Chun calendar starts at the moment when the sun reaches the celestial longitude of 315°. That day usually falls on February 4 or 5 of the Gregorian calendar. The Li Chun calendar divides a year into 24 segments called Jie Qi (節氣), each lasting about 15 days. The 24 Jie Qi represent different energetic patterns that describe climatic conditions and specify timing for important agricultural tasks. Li Chun, ‘beginning of Spring’ is also the name of the first Jie Qi that starts a new year. The Li Chun calendar birth year for the Dragon symbol is as follows:
- 09:16 Feb. 5, 1928 – 15:07 Feb. 4, 1929
- 07:07 Feb. 5, 1940 – 12:48 Feb. 4, 1941
- 04:52 Feb. 5, 1952 – 10:44 Feb. 4, 1953
- 03:04 Feb. 5, 1964 – 08:45 Feb. 4, 1965
- 00:39 Feb. 5, 1976 – 06:32 Feb. 4, 1977
- 22:42 Feb. 4, 1988 – 04:26 Feb. 4, 1989
- 20:40 Feb. 4, 2000 – 02:27 Feb. 4, 2001
- 18:22 Feb. 4, 2012 – 00:12 Feb. 4, 2013
The Chinese lunar calendar, on the other hand, starts at the first new moon of the year, and each complete moon cycle makes a lunar month. The start of the lunar new year is usually the day of the new moon closest (before or after) to Li Chun. It can fall on any day between January 20 and February 21, and marks the beginning of the celebration of the Spring Festival (春節). It falls on January 23 this year.