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Earthly Branches

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Earthly Branches
A carving of the Chinese zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetĐịa Chi
Chữ Hán地支
Korean name
Japanese name
12 Branches

The twelve Earthly Branches or Terrestrial Branches[1] are a Chinese ordering system used throughout East Asia in various contexts, including its ancient dating system, astrological traditions, zodiac and ordinals.


This system was built from observations of the orbit of Jupiter. 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.

Jonathan Smith has proposed that the first meanings of the earthly branches, predating the Shang dynasty, were phases of the moon, with the heavenly stems at that point referring to divisions of the ecliptic. After being adopted as a calendar these would have lost their clear lunar reference, permitting their repurposing for Jupiter stations.[2]


In correlative thinking, the 12 years of the Jupiter cycle also identify the 12 months of the year, 12 animals (mnemonics for the system), cardinal directions, seasons, and the 12 traditional Chinese units of time in the form of two-hour periods that each day was divided into. In this case an Earthly Branch can refer to a whole two-hour period, or to the exact time at its center. For instance 午時 wǔshí can mean either noon or 11 am – 1 pm. (The jiéqì 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, the 10 Heavenly Stems 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.

Twelve branches[edit]

Chinese Japanese Ryukyuan (Okinawan) Korean
Mongolian Manchu Vietnamese Chinese
Direction Season Lunar Month Double Hour
Middle Chinese
Old Chinese
on'yomi of
Earthly Branch
of Animal / Zodiac
on'yomi of
Earthly Branch
Japanese-based kun'yomi
of Animal / Zodiac
native kunyomi of animal zodiac
1 ㄗˇ zi2 chú tsiX *[ts]əʔ し (shi) ね (ne) し (shi) にー (nii) えんちゅ (enchu) 자 (ja) ᠬᠤᠯᠤᠭᠠᠨ᠎ᠠ ᠰᡳᠩᡤᡝᡵᡳ tí (SV: tử)

0° (north) winter Month 11 11pm to 1am (midnight)
2 ㄔㄡˇ chǒu cau2 thiú trhjuwX *[n̥]ruʔ ちゅう (chū) うし (ushi) ちゅー (chuu) うし (ushi) うし (ushi) 축 (chuk) ᠦᠬᠡᠷ ᡳᡥᠠᠨ sửu

30° Month 12 1am to 3am
3 ㄧㄣˊ yín jan4 în yin *[ɢ](r)ər いん (in) とら (tora) いん (in) とぅら (tura) とぅら (tura) 인 (in) ᠪᠠᠷᠰ ᡨᠠᠰᡥᠠ dần

60° spring Month 1 3am to 5am
4 ㄇㄠˇ mǎo maau5 báu maewX *mˤruʔ ぼう (bō) う (u) ぼー (boo) うー (uu) うさじ (usaji) 묘 (myo) ᠲᠠᠤᠯᠠᠢ ᡤᡡᠯᠮᠠᡥᡡᠨ mão (non-SV: mẹo)

90° (east) Month 2 5am to 7am
5 ㄔㄣˊ chén san4 sîn dzyin *[d]ər しん (shin) たつ (tatsu) しん (shin) たち (tachi) りゅー (ryuu) 진 (jin) ᠯᠤᠤ ᠮᡠᡩᡠᡵᡳ thìn (SV: thần) 龙(龍)
竜 (龍)
120° Month 3 7am to 9 am
6 ㄙˋ zi6 ziX *s-[ɢ]əʔ し (shi) み (mi) し (shi) みー (mii) はぶ (habu) 사 (sa) ᠮᠣᠭᠠᠢ ᠮᡝᡳᡥᡝ tị

150° summer Month 4 9am to 11am
7 ㄨˇ ng5 ngó͘ nguX *[m].qʰˤaʔ ご (go) うま (uma) ぐ (gu) うま (uma) んま ('nma) 오 (o) ᠮᠣᠷᠢ ᠮᠣᡵᡳᠨ ngọ 马(馬)

180° (south) Month 5 11am to 1pm (noon)
8 ㄨㄟˋ wèi mei6 mjɨjH *m[ə]t-s び (bi) ひつじ (hitsuji) び (bi) ふぃちじ (fichiji) ふぃーじゃー (fiijaa) 미 (mi) ᠬᠣᠨᠢ ᡥᠣᠨᡳᠨ mùi (SV: vị)

210° Month 6 1pm to 3pm
9 ㄕㄣ shēn san1 sin syin *l̥i[n] しん (shin) さる (saru) しん (shin) さーるー (saaruu) さーるー (saaruu) 신 (sin) ᠪᠡᠴᠢᠨ ᠪᠣᠨᡳᠣ thân

240° autumn Month 7 3pm to 5pm
10 ㄧㄡˇ yǒu jau5 yuwX *N-ruʔ ゆう (yū) とり (tori) ゆー (yuu) とぅい (tu'i) とぅい (tu'i) 유 (yu) ᠲᠠᠬᠢᠶ᠎ᠠ ᠴᠣᡴᠣ dậu 鸡(雞)
鶏 (鳥)
270° (west) Month 8 5pm to 7pm
11 ㄒㄩ seot1 sut swit *s.mi[t] じゅつ (jutsu) いぬ (inu) じゅつ (jutsu) いん ('in) いん ('in) 술 (sul) ᠨᠣᠬᠠᠢ ᡳᠨᡩᠠᡥᡡᠨ tuất

300° Month 9 7pm to 9pm
12 ㄏㄞˋ hài hoi6 hāi hojX *[ɡ]ˤəʔ がい (gai) い (i) げー (gee) いー (yii) やましし (yamashishi) 해 (hae) ᠭᠠᠬᠠᠢ ᡠᠯᡤᡳᠶᠠᠨ hợi 猪(豬)

Wild boar
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; 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).[3] In Thailand, the Dragon is replaced with the Thai legendary snake, the Nāga.


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

Though Chinese has words for the four cardinal directions, Chinese mariners and astronomers/astrologers preferred using the 12 directions of the Earthly Branches, which is somewhat similar to the modern-day practice of English-speaking pilots using o'clock for directions. Since 12 points were not enough for sailing, 12 midpoints were added. Instead of combining two adjacent direction names, they assigned new names:

  • For the four diagonal directions, appropriate trigram names of I Ching were used.
  • For the rest, the Heavenly Stems (1–4, 7–10) were used. According to the Five Elements theory, east is assigned to wood, and the Stems of wood are (jiǎ) and (). Thus, they were assigned clockwise to the two adjacent points of the east.

The 24 directions are:

  Character Mandarin name Cantonese name Hokkien name Korean name Japanese name Ryukyuan (Okinawan) Vietnamese name Direction
1 ㄗˇ zǐ zi2 chú 자 (ja) ね (ne) にー (nii) tí (SV: tử) 0° (north)
2 ㄍㄨㄟˇ guǐ gwai3 kúi 계 (gye) (SK: 규 (gyu)) みずのと (mizunoto) みんぬとぅ (minnutu) quý 15°
3 ㄔㄡˇ chǒu cau2 thiú 축 (chuk) (SK: 추 (chu)) うし (ushi) うし (ushi) sửu 30°
4 ㄍㄣˋ gèn gan3 kùn 간 (gan) うしとら (ushitora) うしとぅら (ushitura) cấn 45° (northeast)
5 ㄧㄣˊ yín jan4 în 인 (in) とら (tora) とぅら (tura) dần 60°
6 ㄐㄧㄚˇ jiǎ gaap3 kap / kah 갑 (gap) きのえ (kinoe) ちにー (chinii) giáp 75°
7 ㄇㄠˇ mǎo maau5 báu 묘 (myo) う (u) う (u) mão (non-SV: mẹo) 90° (east)
8 ㄧˇ yǐ jyut3 it 을 (eul) きのと (kinoto) ちぬとぅ(chinutu) ất 105°
9 ㄔㄣˊ chén san4 sîn 진 (jin) (SK: 신 (sin)) たつ (tatsu) たち (tachi) thìn (SV: thần) 120°
10 ㄒㄩㄣˋ xùn seon3 sùn 손 (son) たつみ (tatsumi) たちみー (tachimii) tốn 135° (southeast)
11 ㄙˋ sì zi6 사 (sa) み (mi) みー (mii) tị 150°
12 ㄅㄧㄥˇ bǐng bing2 péng 병 (byeong) ひのえ (hinoe) ふぃにー (finii) bính 165°
13 ㄨˇ wǔ ng5 ngó͘ 오 (o) うま (uma) うま (uma) ngọ 180° (south)
14 ㄉㄧㄥ dīng ding1 teng 정 (jeong) ひのと (hinoto) ふぃぬとぅ (finutu) đinh 195°
15 ㄨㄟˋ wèi mei6 미 (mi) ひつじ (hitsuji) ふぃちじ (fichiji) mùi (SV: vị) 210°
16 ㄎㄨㄣ kūn kwan1 khun 곤 (gon) ひつじさる (hitsujisaru) ふぃちじさーるー (fichijisaaruu) khôn 225° (southwest)
17 ㄕㄣ shēn san1 sin 신 (sin) さる (saru) さーるー (saaruu) thân 240°
18 ㄍㄥ gēng gang1 keng 경 (gyeong) かのえ (kanoe) かにー (kanii) canh 255°
19 ㄧㄡˇ yǒu yau5 유 (yu) とり (tori) とぅい (tu'i) dậu 270° (west)
20 ㄒㄧㄣ xīn san1 sin 신 (sin) かのと (kanoto) かぬとぅ (kanutu) tân 285°
21 ㄒㄩ xū seot sut 술 (sul) いぬ (inu) いん (in) tuất 300°
22 ㄑㄧㄢˊ qián kin4 khiân 건 (geon) いぬい (inui) いんいー (in'yii) càn (SV: kiền) 315° (northwest)
23 ㄏㄞˋ hài hoi6 hāi 해 (hae) い (i) いー (yii) hợi 330°
24 ㄖㄣˊ rén jam4 jîm 임 (im) みずのえ (mizunoe) みんにい (minnii) 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 (), 180°.

Current usage[edit]

The terrestrial branches are still commonly used nowadays in Chinese counting systems similar to the way the alphabet is used in English. For example, names in legal documents and contracts where English speakers would use K, L, M, etc. Korea and Japan also use terrestrial branches on legal documents in this way.

Since the celestial stems and terrestrial branches combined only consist of 22 characters, the four final letters – W, X, Y, and Z – cannot be represented by any of the celestial stems and terrestrial branches, and those four letters are represented by '物', '天', '地', and '人', respectively, instead.[4]

In case of upper-case letters, the radical of '口' (the 'mouth' radical) may be added to the corresponding terrestrial branch or any of '物', '天', '地', and '人' to denote an upper-case letter.[4]

See also[edit]

PDF: A study of the cardinal directions chart


  1. ^ Yuval Blum (22 February 2011). "Introduction to the "STEMS AND BRANCHES" theory". Mahaya Forest Hill Integrative Health Clinic, Toronto. Archived from the original on 2018-08-27. Retrieved 2018-08-27.
  2. ^ Smith, Jonathan M. (2011). "The Di Zhi 地支 as Lunar Phases and Their Coordination with the Tian Gan 天干 as Ecliptic Asterisms in a China before Anyang". Early China. 33: 199–228. doi:10.1017/S0362502800000274. S2CID 132200641. Retrieved January 29, 2022.
  3. ^ А. Мухамбетова (A. Mukhambetova), Казахский традиционный календарь The traditional Kazakh calendar (in Russian)
  4. ^ a b [1] (pages 147 and 148)

External links[edit]