Learn the 24 Chinese solar terms (I)

(Yoyo Chinese) | Mar 09, 2023

The 24 solar terms play a very important role in Chinese culture, as they show how the Chinese people used the calendar to manage the relationship between people and nature. They also make a strong association between the change of seasons (季节变化,jì jié biàn huà) and agricultural production (农业生产,nóng yè shēng chǎn), diet (饮食,yǐn shí), philosophy on health (健康哲学,jiàn kāng zhé xué), and folk culture (民俗文化,mín sú wén huà).

Learning and understanding the 24 solar terms can be said to be fundamental to really knowing the Chinese culture (中国文化,zhōng guó wén huà), lifestyle (生活方式,shēng huó fāng shì), and way of thinking (思维方式,sī wéi fāng shì).

What Are the 24 Solar Terms?

You may have noticed that the English name "24 Solar Terms" doesn't quite match up to the Chinese name for them. 24节气 (èr shí sì jié qì) could be more literally translated as "the 24 periods of weather," and were first established by the Chinese people to keep track of the changes of seasonal weather and manage the relationship between people and nature. They originally didn't base them off of the sun, but instead according to the clockwise rotation of the Big Dipper's (北斗七星,běi dǒu qī xīng) handle in the night sky, since each full rotation of the handle marked the passing of a year.

Spring Solar Terms & Folk Culture

Each year has four seasons, and each season has three months and thereby six different solar terms. These solar terms were closely bound with the lives and farming of the Chinese people. The spring season consists of the following six solar terms:

立春 (lì chūn) - Beginning of Spring
雨水 (yǔ shuǐ) - Rain Water
惊蛰 (jīng zhé) - Awakening of Insects
春分 (chūn fēn) - Spring Equinox
清明 (qīng míng) - Pure Brightness
谷雨 (gǔ yǔ) - Grain Rain

From these six solar terms, we'll introduce a few of them that hold the most cultural meaning.

First is 立春 (lì chūn) - Beginning of Spring. In our article Western New Year vs. Chinese New Year we talked a bit about the history of Chinese New Year. Chinese people celebrate the coming of the new year on the first day of 立春 (lì chūn), which is where it gets it's other name: 春节 (chūn jié) - Spring Festival. There's a saying in Chinese that goes:

yì nián zhī jì zài yú chūn

It's used to express the sentiment that one should start planning for the new year in spring. This shows how important the idea of spring is to the people of China. Even though at this time of year the regions of Northern China are still experiencing temperatures that are quite low, regions in Southern China have already started to warm up. 立春 (lì chūn) is the start of a new year, and on this day Chinese people have the custom of eating 春饼 (chūn bǐng) - spring pancakes - and 春卷 (chūn juǎn) - spring rolls. 春联 (chūn lián) - Spring Festival couplets - also can trace their origin back to the ancient custom of posting the characters 宜春 (yí chūn) on the first day of 立春 (lì chūn).

春分 (chūn fēn) - Spring Equinox, is the fourth solar term of the year. On this day, the day and night are of equal length throughout the world; and China lies above the equator so this means that Spring has truly arrived. The most popular activity on this day is 立蛋 (lì dàn) - standing eggs upright. This is a custom that's not just followed in China, but has also become a challenge that's enjoyed by many people around the world. Besides 立蛋 (lì dàn), 春分 (chūn fēn) also opens the curtains for activities like 踏青 (tà qīng) - spring outings, 放风筝 (fàng fēng zheng) - flying kites, and 出游 (chū yóu) - traveling. In Chinese culture, if it rains on the Spring Equinox, it indicates that the crops will bring forth a good harvest that year. 春雨贵如油 (chūn yǔ guì rú yóu) is a line that almost every Chinese person is familiar with, and it means "spring rain is as precious as oil."

After 春分 (chūn fēn) is 清明 (qīng míng) - Pure Brightness. During 清明 (qīng míng) the weather begins to clear up. Since 清明 (qīng míng) occurs between April 4 and April 6 each year, the Chinese festival 清明节 (qīng míng jié) - Qingming Festival / Tomb Sweeping Day - is set for April 5. On this day, the most important activity is to pay respects to the graves of one's ancestors.


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