Happy Birthday Baobei: Chinese calendar be damned!

It was Maggie’s birthday on the weekend. Actually, it was last week sometime. She turned 27. Wait, no it was 28.

Despite what you may think of her husband, I am not as inconsiderate as may be gleaned from the above collection of confusion. You see, Maggie’s Chinese (for those not following along), and as such she is caught in that horrible limbo of Eastern tradition verse Western practicality.

For some cruel reason there are two calendars widely used in China. Like most Chinese, Maggie uses a migraine-inducing mix of dates from whatever calendar suits best for the moment. Getting paid, use the Western (Gregorian); planning Spring Festival, switch to the traditional Chinese calendar; May holiday, Western; Mid-Autumn, Chinese; work week, Western; birthdays, Chinese…

God forbid that the Chinese you’re trying to plan things with speaks a bit of English, and then you’ve got them calling months of the Chinese calendar by their Western counterpart. As Chinese months (in either calendar) are simply denoted by a numeral and the word “month“, it can become quite confusing when people start saying ‘this year has two Augusts’.

Further mix into this the sexagenary cycle with its seductive title and curiosity piquing “heavenly” and “earthly” branches, it’s easy to see why one might get frustrated by the whole damn thing.

As I usually do when I’m confused, I decided to see what Wikipedia had to say on the matter.

With the introduction of Western astronomy into China via the Jesuits, the motions of both the sun and moon began to be calculated with sinusoids in the 1645 Shíxiàn calendar (時憲書, Book of the Conformity of Time) of the Qing dynasty, made by the Jesuit Adam Schall. The true motion of the sun was now used to calculate the jiéqì, which caused the intercalary month to often occur after the second through the ninth months, but rarely after the tenth through first months. A few autumn-winter periods have one or two calendar months where the sun enters two signs of the zodiac, interspersed with two or three calendar months where the sun stays within one sign.

Please take some chopsticks and kick them into my skull.

Now, if through some amazing feat I get her birthday nailed down, there’s still a question of how old she is. The Chinese, as a bit of a reward for being the lucky one and dodging a trip to the trashcan, award you with a year’s worth of age the scream-induced second you pop out.

Further, as most Chinese (Confucius knows why) simply count themselves a year older come Spring Festival, if you happen to be born just prior to the new year, you instantly become two years old.

maggiebday01.jpgFortunately, Maggie’s not in the second group, so only has a mildly retarded age calculation.

And so it was when ordering her cake and asked how old she was, I simply shrugged and asked how many number candles they could throw in.

We ended up with a “2” and a “7”. This happens to match her age going by the Western system, so we went with it – celebrating her birthday on the proper Chinese calendar day, of course.

15 Responses

  1. Good luck keeping the calendars in order. My father law was adamant that he only turned 60 last year, yet he was surely 62 by my count. I’ll never understand.

  2. Happy Birthday!

    I have the same problem with my better half. I told her if we get paid, and pay bills with the Western Calendar then we’re going to do b’days the same way…. TOO MANY fights over the last 6 years about ‘when’ her B’day IS……

    I share your pain… 🙂

  3. Water on my mill!

    Same prob here. My wife have birthday on the 12. February. Guess if that gives me a headache. So I solemnly decided that since she is now in Denmark, she will be celebrated according to the western calendar.

    I put my foot down, damn it! 🙂 (well, at least that one time)

  4. happy birthday to maggie! i’ve decided to stick with the western calendar for personal events, and the lunar one for cultural events, although i realise that to my gf her chinese birthday is of more signifigance than the western date :-S

  5. I agree with Chris, she’s beautiful no mater how old she “should be”!
    I am a Chinese married to Lao-Wei(I hate that when my sibs refer to him as such!) residing in Central NY now. My Lao-gong always thought I was trying to be evasive about my age when I was truely confused.

    Growing up in Taipei in the 60s, 70s, , it was awful never having a Birthday cake on the special day it really counted. You see, my B-day happened to be on the day before Moon Festival. Weeks prior to that, all the Bakeries already notified their customers that, they would all be devoted to baking Moon cakes and Moon cakes alone! No other orders would be accepted. This was, of course, before any household has it’s own oven. (Even these days, not so many Chinese kitchen would bother with the stove-top with ovens. Microwave plus convectional is as good as it gets. That’s why many of us have hilarious experience cooking our first turkey or even chicken in the States. But that’s another story …)

    Where am I? Well, I’m happy to have stumbled upon your blog while digging for info about Survivor: China. Nice to read about your life in SuZhou, Ryan. My parents are from NanKing and ShangHai(pardon the spelling, I’d learned it differently from you guys.). They “ran” to Taiwan w/Chiang 1949 as young teens.

    I’m not even sure if I were allowed to post comments on your site yet, so here goes …

    Ta for now!

  6. Of course you can post comments on the site 😉 Nice to have you as a reader ChynS. Sorry to hear about your early birthday woes… hopefully it’s much improved, as I know no bakery limitations in NYC 😉

  7. Except I’m more than 4hr drive from NYC. These days I have a hard time getting Moon cakes on the Moon Festival. Serves me right since I’d wish it never existed as a little girl.

    I’d left comments for you under that Survivor: China of yours.
    Neobie on realityfanforum.com found this news:

    So, 柘林湖风景区 it is. That reporter doesn’t really know about Survivor as a reality show, he’s calling it a 纪录片(duccumantery) (don’t know why some of the characters won’t c&p, I don’t have the Chinese key ability …) Let me try again: 柘林湖鹿角尖景点. Funny how some time the 4th character is “deer” and sometimes it’s “six”. I know they sound alike, but shouldn’t there be an official name? This is fun, I think yours is the first blog I could post bi-lingual!

  8. Haha, hopefully they show up. This blog is UTF-8 encoded, so it should be able to handle any foreign writing systems we throw at it.

    You’ll still need the Asian language packs installed to view them (which ChynS, you obviously do).

    As for an input method for Chinese… check out the Google one

    PS: Sorry about the NYC/NY-central mixup… read it too fast.

  9. Thanks!
    I think I have some sort of Traditional Chinese soft ware. I have trouble understand simplified Chinese, let alone the pinyin system!

    I read that you’re about to start your serious study in the language soon. Lots of luck to you, and I hope you’d have prof. who respects the traditional ones.

    In my days, I’ve been able to communicate with Japanese and Korean scholars through my traditional Chinese writing. I don’t see giving that up ever!

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