Earthly Branches

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A carving of the Chinese zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan, part of the East Asian cultural sphere. This zodiac is important in both certain ancient methods of time-keeping and in the directions of the compass.

The Animal Zodiac or Earthly Branches' (Chinese and Japanese: 地支; pinyin: dìzhī; Korean: 지지; Vietnamese: Địa Chi; or Chinese and Japanese: 十二支; pinyin: shí'èrzhī; Korean: 십이지; Vietnamese: Thập Nhị Chi; literally: "twelve branches") provide one Chinese system for reckoning time.


This system was built from observations of the orbit of The Moon. Chinese astronomers divided the celestial circle into 12 sections to follow the orbit of 歲星 Suìxīng (Jupiter, the Year Star). Astronomers rounded the orbit of Suixing to 12 years (from 11.86). Suixing was associated with 攝提 Shètí (η Boötis) and sometimes called Sheti.


In correlative thinking, the twelve years of the Jupiter cycle also identify the twelve months of the year, twelve animals (mnemonics for the system), directions, seasons, and Chinese hour in the form of double-hours. When a Branch is used for a double hour, the listed periods are meant. When used for an exact time of a day, it is the center of the period. For instance, 午 (the Horse) means noon or a period from 11am to 1pm. (The jie qi system provided single hours and 15-degree arcs in time and space.)

Chinese seasons are based on observations of the sun and stars. Many Chinese calendrical systems have started the new year on the second new moon after the winter solstice.

The Earthly Branches are today used with the Heavenly Stems in the current version of the "traditional Chinese calendar" and in Taoism. The Ganzhi (Stem-Branch) combination is a fairly new way to mark time; in the second millennium BC, during the Shang era, it was the ten Heavenly Stems that provided the names of the days of the week. The Branches are as old as the Stems (and according to recent archaeology may actually be older), but the Stems were tied to the ritual calendars of Chinese kings. They were not part of the calendrical systems for the majority of Chinese people.

The twelve branches

Arctic Side

Chinese Japanese Korean
Mongolian Manchu Vietnamese Chinese
Direction Season Lunar Month Double Hour
on'yomi kun'yomi
1 ㄗˇ zi2 し(shi) ね(ne) 자 (ja) ᠬᠤᠯᠤᠭᠠᠨ᠎ᠠ ᠰᡳᠩᡤᡝᡵᡳ tí (SV: tử)
0° (north) winter Month 11 11pm to 1am (midnight)
2 ㄔㄡˇ chǒu cau2 ちゅう(chū) うし(ushi) 축 (chuk) (SK: 추 (chu)) ᠦᠬᠡᠷ ᡳᡥᠠᠨ sửu

30° Month 12 1am to 3am
3 ㄧㄣˊ yín jan4 いん(in) とら(tora) 인 (in) ᠪᠠᠷᠰ ᡨᠠᠰᡥᠠ dần
60° spring Month 1 3am to 5am
4 ㄇㄠˇ mǎo maau5 ぼう(bō) う(u) 묘 (myo) ᠲᠠᠤᠯᠠᠢ ᡤᡡᠯᠮᠠᡥᡡᠨ mão (non-SV: mẹo)
90° (east) Month 2 5am to 7am
5 ㄔㄣˊ chén san4 しん(shin) たつ(tatsu) 진 (jin) (SK: 신 (sin)) ᠯᠤᠤ ᠮᡠᡩᡠᡵᡳ thìn (SV: thần) 龙(龍)
竜 (龍) 120° Month 3 7am to 9 am
6 ㄙˋ zi6 し(shi) み(mi) 사 (sa) ᠮᠣᠭᠠᠢ ᠮᡝᡳᡥᡝ tị
150° summer Month 4 9am to 11am
7 ㄨˇ ng5 ご(go) うま(uma) 오 (o) ᠮᠣᠷᠢ ᠮᠣᡵᡳᠨ ngọ 马(馬)
180° (south) Month 5 11am to 1pm (noon)
8 ㄨㄟˋ wèi mei6 び (bi) ひつじ(hitsuji) 미 (mi) ᠬᠣᠨᠢ ᡥᠣᠨᡳᠨ mùi (SV: vị)
210° Month 6 1pm to 3pm
9 ㄕㄣ shēn san1 しん(shin) さる(saru) 신 (sin) ᠪᠡᠴᠢᠨ ᠪᠣᠨᡳᠣ thân
240° autumn Month 7 3pm to 5pm
10 ㄧㄡˇ yǒu jau5 ゆう(yū) とり(tori) 유 (yu) ᠲᠠᠬᠢᠶ᠎ᠠ ᠴᠣᡴᠣ dậu 鸡(雞)
鶏 (鳥)
270° (west) Month 8 5pm to 7pm
11 ㄒㄩ seot1 じゅつ(jutsu) いぬ(inu) 술 (sul) ᠨᠣᠬᠠᠢ ᡳᠨᡩᠠᡥᡡᠨ tuất
300° Month 9 7pm to 9pm
12 ㄏㄞˋ hài hoi6 がい(gai) い(i) 해 (hae) ᠭᠠᠬᠠᠢ ᡠᠯᡤᡳᠶᠠᠨ hợi 猪(豬)
330° winter Month 10 9pm to 11pm

Some cultures assign different animals: Vietnam replaces the Ox and Rabbit with the water buffalo and cat respectively; Japan replaces the Pig () with the boar () as the character 猪 means Pig in Chinese but "boar" in Japanese; Tibet replaces the Rooster with the bird. In the traditional Kazakh version of the 12-year animal cycle (Kazakh: мүшел, müşel), the Dragon is substituted by a snail (Kazakh: ұлу, ulw), and the Tiger appears as a leopard (Kazakh: барыс, barıs).[1]


The 24 cardinal directions (ancient Chinese convention places the south (red) at the top).

Even though Chinese has words for the four cardinal directions, Chinese mariners and astronomers/astrologers preferred using the twelve directions of the Earthly Branches, which is somewhat similar to the modern-day practice of English-speaking pilots using o'clock for directions. Since twelve points were not enough for sailing, twelve midpoints were added. Instead of combining two adjacent direction names, they assigned new names as follows:

  • For the four diagonal directions, appropriate trigram names of I Ching were used.
  • For the rest, the Heavenly Stems were used. According to the Five Elements theory, east is assigned to wood, and the Stems of wood are (jiǎ) and (yǐ). Thus they were assigned clockwise to the two adjacent points of the east.

Following is a table of the 24 directions:

  Character Mandarin name Korean name Japanese name Vietnamese name Direction
1 ㄗˇ zǐ 자 (ja) ね (ne) tí (SV: tử) 0° (north)
2 ㄍㄨㄟˇ guǐ 계 (gye) (SK: 규 (gyu)) みずのと (mizunoto) quý 15°
3 ㄔㄡˇ chǒu 축 (chuk) (SK: 추 (chu)) うし (ushi) sửu 30°
4 ㄍㄣˋ gèn 간 (gan) うしとら (ushitora) cấn 45° (northeast)
5 ㄧㄣˊ yín 인 (in) とら (tora) dần 60°
6 ㄐㄧㄚˇ jiǎ 갑 (gap) きのえ (kinoe) giáp 75°
7 ㄇㄠˇ mǎo 묘 (myo) う (u) mão (non-SV: mẹo) 90° (east)
8 ㄧˇ yǐ 을 (eul) きのと (kinoto) ất 105°
9 ㄔㄣˊ chén 진 (jin) (SK: 신 (sin)) たつ (tatsu) thìn (SV: thần) 120°
10 ㄒㄩㄣˋ xùn 손 (son) たつみ (tatsumi) tốn 135° (southeast)
11 ㄙˋ sì 사 (sa) み (mi) tị 150°
12 ㄅㄧㄥˇ bǐng 병 (byeong) ひのえ (hinoe) bính 165°
13 ㄨˇ wǔ 오 (o) うま (uma) ngọ 180ㄑ° (south)
14 ㄉㄧㄥ dīng 정 (jeong) ひのと (hinoto) đinh 195°
15 ㄨㄟˋ wèi 미 (mi) ひつじ (hitsuji) mùi (SV: vị) 210°
16 ㄎㄨㄣ kūn 곤 (gon) ひつじさる (hitsujisaru) khôn 225° (southwest)
17 ㄕㄣ shēn 신 (sin) さる (saru) thân 240°
18 ㄍㄥ gēng 경 (gyeong) かのえ (kanoe) canh 255°
19 ㄧㄡˇ yǒu 유 (yu) とり (tori) dậu 270° (west)
20 ㄒㄧㄣ xīn 신 (sin) かのと (kanoto) tân 285°
21 ㄒㄩ xū 술 (sul) いぬ (inu) tuất 300°
22 ㄑㄧㄢˊ qián 건 (geon) いぬい (inui) càn (SV: kiền) 315° (northwest)
23 ㄏㄞˋ hài 해 (hae) い (i) hợi 330°
24 ㄖㄣˊ rén 임 (im) みずのえ (mizunoe) nhâm 345°

Advanced mariners such as Zheng He used 48-point compasses. An additional midpoint was called by a combination of its two closest basic directions, such as 丙午 (bǐngwǔ) for the direction of 172.5°, the midpoint between (bǐng), 165°, and (wǔ), 180°.

See also

PDF: A study of the cardinal directions chart


  1. ^ А. Мухамбетова (A. Mukhambetova), Казахский традиционный календарь The traditional Kazakh calendar (in Russian)

External links

  • Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches - Hong Kong Observatory
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