Asian Calendars

Asian Calendars

In addition to the Gregorian , the solar, or sun-based, standard international calendar of today, a variety of traditional calendars are in common use throughout Asia, depending on the country as well as the religion of the users. The is used mainly for cultural and astrological purposes. Characteristic of lunar calendars generally, the date that marks the beginning of a new year can vary. For those who live in an agricultural society, a solar­based calendar is best suited so that events occur at the same each year according to planting/ harvesting. Yet most calendars were based on the lunar year, which follows the cycles of the moon. The Chinese calendar, and subsequently others in use on the Asian continent, became a lunisolar cal­endar, one that follows both the sun and the moon, so that, for example, the would num­ber the months, while the lunar calendar would be useful for marking dates such as holidays.

Differences among Asian calendars also reflect how cyclical dating and chronology were tied historically to the reign of an emperor or ruling dynasty in that country. Thus, the numbering of a year meant different things in different traditions. Another difference is that the lunar calendar is based on where the moon rises and the time when it rises, leading to different starts of the in various latitudes. Again, this can cause confusion when using the moon to determine the start of a day, a month, or even a year.

Some of the more common, or well-known, Asian calendars are the Chinese, Japanese, and Singaporean, as well as specific ones such as the Kali Yoga and Parasurama calendars used in Southeast Asia. Today, however, while cultures continue to use their tradi­tional calendars for marking holidays and cultural events, the day-to-day dating of events is based on the Gregorian calendar to ensure that time is observed consistently across cultures.

The Chinese calendar has survived intact for nearly 5 millennia, partially because until the mid- 1900s the calendar was considered sacred and thus one needed imperial authority to change it.

Over its long history, India has used many cal­endars and dating systems that can be split into two basic types—civil, which changed with each regime, and religious, as in the case of those maintained by the Hindus. Although each region had its own (over 30 different ones), there are some common components. The earliest calendars in India began with a solar year of 360 days split into 12 lunar months, corrected by an intercalating month every 60 months. In 1200 CE, the Muslim calendar came into use for administrative purposes; it was replaced in 1757 with the Gregorian calen­dar by the British. Yet, throughout this time, each state maintained its own calendar used in daily interactions. Even when an Indigenous government took control in 1947, the difficulties of date inter­pretation throughout the country continued. Two general Hindu calendars remain in use: the Northern or the Vishnu calendar, which is based on the lunar month beginning with the full moon, while in the Southern calendar the lunar month begins with the new moon. In northern India, the lunar month begins with the full or waning moon, while Hindus in the south of India, the Siva, measure the month from the new or waxing moon. To help avoid some of the date interpretation problems, the two halves of the month are numbered separately, with each half being called a paksha.

The Jain calendar has many similarities to the version of the Hindu calendar observed in Northern India. The month begins at the full moon, and month names are the same, although spelling varies. The Jain concept of how time cycles through pro­gressive and regressive eras also differs from that of the Hindus. Jains believe that a complete cycle of time consists of 12 separate units. Of these, 6 represent deteriorating conditions and 6 represent improving conditions. The 3rd and 4th units of both half-cycles represent times when neither extreme predominates.

The Sikh calendar is a lunar calendar that is based on the moon’s movement from one zodiac sign into the next, rather than on the phase of the moon, though the dates of some festivals are based on the phase of the moon. The beginning of a new moon is called the Sangrand. Sikh festivals are marked on a special calendar called the Sikh Gurupurab Calendar, which begins in March or April. This intercalates an extra lunar month whenever 2 new moons occur within the same solar month. The Sikh lunar calen­dar is called Birami and is 12 months long, with each month averaging 29.25 days.

Buddhism originated from within Hinduism in much the same way that Christianity was derived from Judaism. Similarities between the two include lunar and astrological aspects. Buddhists and Hindus hold similar views on the cyclical character of time. Buddhists view time as an extension of the ever-repeating sequence in nature. Because Buddhist calendars are not associated with a specific civil calendar, the variances among geographical locations are even more pronounced than in Hindu calendars. For example, the method for determining the new year is not uniform; some begin with the full moon of Taurus, while the Tibetan Buddhists, whose calendar has been heavily influenced by the Chinese, begin their calendar at the full moon nearest the midpoint of Aquarius. In Vietnam, they begin at the new moon in Capricorn. As Buddhism spread outside of India, the two dominant traditions, Mahayana (in the West of India) and Theravada (in the East of India), became prominent in separate regions.

The structure of certain traditional calendars can also vary according to the needs of the culture, such as fishing or traveling for trade. The fisher­men of Botel-Tobago Island (near Taiwan) had failed to observe the expected rising of the flying fish during a particular season. To solve the prob­lem of keeping a calendar in step with both the moon and the seasons, they inserted an intercalary month when their own lunisolar calendar fell too far behind. Their fishing season was then post­poned during this extra month.


See also Islamic Calendar; Islam; Phases of Moon; Measurements of Time; Zodiac

Further Readings

Bellenir, K. (Ed.). (1988). Religious holidays and calendars: An encyclopedic handbook (2nd ed.). Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics.

Holford-Strevens, L. (2005). The history of time. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Richards, E. G. (1998). Mapping time: The calendar and its history. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Schendel, W. v., & Nordholt, H. S. (2001). Time matters: Global and local time in Asian societies. Amsterdam: VU University Press.

Welch, P. B. (1997). Chinese new year. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Zachary, H. (1957). Wheel of time. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

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