The Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches are ancient China’s systems of keeping time. Originally based on observations of the sky, these two counting systems later became very influential in many aspects of daily life in China, spreading beyond its borders to other parts of Asia.
These two systems are known for combining to designate years within a 60-year cycle in the traditional Chinese calendar, or a sexagenary cycle.
Origins of the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches
These two systems have been in use for a long time, since practically the beginning of recorded history in China in the Shang Dynasty. Archaeologists found a piece of oracle bone dating back to 1000 BC, where the complete sexagenary cycle—composed of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches—had been carved.
They believe this to be a rudimentary calendar used by the Shang rulers. There is also evidence to suggest that these systems were used for divination and Feng Shui as they still are in modern day Chinese fortune telling .
Even though the two systems of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches are almost always mentioned in the same breath these days, they evolved separately and were used in different ways in the beginning.
The 10 Heavenly Stems once formed the 10 days of the week thousands of years ago, before the more sophisticated lunar calendar came into being. But to this day in China and other Chinese speaking countries, the Heavenly Stems are often used to denote orders, ratings and categories. For example, they are used in biochemistry to denote the numbers of carbon atoms a chemical compound contains.
Chart of the Heavenly Stems with Pronunciation
Remember the 12 zodiac animals in Chinese astrology? They correspond to the 12 Earthly Branches. In fact, some historians believe the zodiac animals were designed to help people remember the order of the Earthly Branches.
There is a mnemonic that Chinese children learn even before they learn the multiplication table that pairs the Earthly Branches with the matching zodiac animals. Together, they make up a cycle of 12 years.
Chart of the Earthly Branches with Pronunciation
The Chinese Calendar
The most well-known usage of the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches is the designation of years in ancient China. Though they evolved separately, the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches have long since been combined to form the 60-year sexagenary cycle.
In ancient China, the year was identified by two characters, the first from one of the 10 Stems, the second from one of the 12 Branches. The first combination is always Jia-Zi, while the last is always Gui-Hai. You may also recall that there are 60 Gods of Tai Sui . As you would suspect, each of those Tai Sui oversees one of the 60 years, just like each of these years have been designated one of the elements according to the Five Elements .
You can find the years as denoted by Stems and Branches of our current sexagenary cycle, along with the zodiac animal and element associated with them. It’s worth noting that months, days and even hours are also recorded using Stems and Branches. This will come in handy if you ever want a more comprehensive look at your fortune with Chinese fortune tellers.
If your birth year does not fall in this range, go back another cycle, which started in 1924, and follow this list in the same order since the cycles repeat themselves.