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The Chinese Sexagenary Cycle and the Ritual Origins of the Calendar

Smith, Adam Daniel

From the earliest appearance of literacy in East Asia, around 1300 B.C., there is evidence of the routine use of a system for recording dates using cycles of named days of fixed length. In addition to their role in the calendar, terms in the 10-cycle, at the time of their first appearance and for several centuries after, were employed in names referring to dead kin. The 10-cycle and 60-cycle also underlay the calendrical apparatus that was used to schedule sacrificial performances directed towards these same dead kin, a central religious preoccupation of elites, and probably the early Chinese population more broadly, during the late second millennium. The use of the 60-cycle to record dates was retained after the practice of naming dead kin with cyclical terms came to be abandoned, and the legacy of its role in scheduling ritual events continued to be felt, in elite funeral arrangements for example, into the mid first millennium B.C. However, this break with the earlier ritual significance of the cyclical terms, as a means of referring to and commemorating dead family members, allowed them to be reinterpreted as a more abstract system of ordinals, one that could be creatively redeployed to label sequential or cyclical phenomena of many kinds in addition to days. Many of these new uses in their turn attracted a religious or magical focus.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Published Here
November 3, 2010


Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World, ed. John M. Steele (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010).