Welcome to the Year of the Water Rabbit! If you've ever wondered about Chinese New Year, here's some background information on the 'stems-and-branches' calendrical system and traditions celebrated throughout China at this special time of the year.

On 22 January 2023, many people in the world will be welcoming the arrival of the Year of the Water Rabbit. If you’re celebrating, Happy New Year (to) you, (too) (1) 

But why rabbit, and a water rabbit at that? 

Traditional Chinese calendrical system

Like most countries in the world, China now adopts the Gregorian calendar, but the traditional Chinese calendrical system, known as 干支 (gānzhī, stems-and-branches), is used in parallel.

This system informs us of traditional holidays like the Chinese New Year, now also known as 春节 (chūnjié, Spring Festival).  In this system, the New Year will begin on 22 January 2023 and is known as 癸卯年 (guǐ mǎo nián), i.e. the Year of the Water Rabbit.  

“Hang on a minute”, you might say if you speak some Chinese, “I see neither (shuǐ, water) nor ( tù, rabbit) in 癸卯 (guǐ mǎo). What’s going on?”  

Let’s see how the 干支 (gānzhī) system works. 

Ten heavenly stems and twelve earthly branches 

The 干支 (gānzhī) system adopts 10 天干 (tiāngān, heavenly stems) and 12 地支 (dìzhī, earthly branches).  

The 10 stems were first recorded during the (Shāng) dynasty (c. 1250 BC). Ancient Chinese people divided each month into three 10-day cycles called (xún), and the 10 stem terms were used to represent the different days in each cycle.

Today people still use (xún) to refer to the first, second or third 10-days of the month, alongside the more widely used seven-day week system.  

The earthly stems are also linked with 五行 (wǔxíng, five cosmic agents of change). (2)









1 甲 jiǎ 木 mù


A 子 zǐ 鼠 shǔ


2 乙 yǐ 木 mù


B 丑chǒu 牛 niú


3 丙 bǐng 火 huǒ


C 寅 yín 虎 hǔ


4 丁 dīng 火 huǒ


D 卯 mǎo 兔 tù


5 戊 wù 土 tǔ


E 辰 chén 龙 lóng


6 己 jǐ 土 tǔ


F 巳 sì 蛇 shé


7 庚 gēng 金 jīn


G 午 wǔ 马 mǎ


8 辛 xīn 金 jīn


H 未 wèi 羊 yáng


9 壬 rén 水 shuǐ


I 申 shēn 猴 hóu


10 癸 guǐ 水 shuǐ


J 酉yǒu 鸡 jī


K 戌 xū 狗 gǒu


L 亥 hài 猪 zhū


The 12-branch system was built from observations of Jupiter's duodecennial orbital cycle. The 12 branches are commonly represented by 12 animals, which are familiar to many of us.

The 12 years of the Jupiter cycle also identify the 12 months of the year and the 12 traditional Chinese units of time in the form of two-hour periods. For example, the period of 11:00pm-1:00am is known as 子时 (zǐ shí, the hour of the rat). 

The stems and branches are combined to represent years in this fashion: 1A, 2B, 3C, 4D … 9I, 10J, 1K, 2L, 3A, 4B … and so on.

Using the table above you will see that 癸卯 (guǐ mǎo, 10D) represents “water rabbit” in common parlance.  

Some Chinese New Year traditions 

China has many unique traditions, but some Chinese New Year customs are not that different from certain European ones. 

回家 (huí jiā) Returning home

This custom is very similar to the UK tradition of travelling home for Christmas.

China is a large country; it’s almost as big as the whole of Europe or 39 UKs put together. For some people who work or study away from home, travelling back for Chinese New Year may be the only time they see their family in the entire year. 

Some commentators have described this annual home-bound journey as the largest internal migration in the world. 

吃年夜饭 (chī nián yè fàn) Family gatherings on New Year’s Eve

Food plays an important role in many cultures on special occasions, and Chinese New Year is no exception.

In northern China, the traditional food is 饺子 (jiǎozi), which some say is so named because it signifies the change (jiāo) of time at midnight 子时 (zǐ shí, the hour of the rat).

In the south of China where I grew up, a whole fish (yú) is usually placed on the table on New Year’s Eve 除夕 (chúxì) and left untouched until New Year’s Day to indicate “having surplus (yú) year after year 年年有余 (niánnián yǒu yú)”.  

拜年 (bài nián) Visiting and paying respect to friends and extended family members

Traditionally, from the first day of the New Year 初一 (chū yī) until the Lantern Festival 元宵节 (yuánxiāo jié) two weeks later, people would visit family and friends, exchange auspicious greetings and consume lots of delicious food.

Nowadays, people tend to meet in restaurants rather than at home. 

压岁钱 (yāsuì qián) Giving or receiving lucky money

Chinese people tend not to exchange presents on New Year’s Day as people do on Christmas Day in the UK.

Instead, parents and older relatives give 红包 (hóngbāo, small red envelopes) containing cash to the young. These days, electronic 红包 (hóngbāo) are rapidly replacing traditional paper ones. 

 Final thoughts 

  • Do you celebrate the arrival of spring or New Year at the same time as the Chinese people? If so, what do you call this occasion and what traditions do you follow? 
  • Do you know what year it will be next year in the traditional Chinese calendar? 
  • Do you know when you’ll meet the next Water Rabbit? 
  • Do you know which animal and cosmic agent represent your birth year?  
  • Do you know how to convert a Gregorian year into a Chinese year? I have a simple formula - please get in touch if you'd like to know! 
  • Do you celebrate New Year on a different day? If so, when and how do you celebrate it? 

Please share your thoughts and comments below and do get in touch if you’d like to know more about the language courses the Skills Centre offers.  


(1) The Chinese word for rabbit,  (tù) is pronounced like twoo as in an owl’s hoot “twit twoo”. Therefore, a little like “to” and “too” in English.

(2) 五行 (wǔxíng) originally refers to the five major planets, or 行星 (xíngxīnglit. 'moving star) in Chinese: Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Venus.  (xíng) indicates movement and each  (xíng) interacts with one another. 五行 (wǔxíng) is often translated into English as the five elements, which is not accurate.  

Image created by author based on a graphic licensed under CC BY-SA-NC.

Posted in: foreign languages, intercultural competence, reflective learning

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