The Chinese Calendar & its relevance today

Celebrating Chinese New Year with a different perspective

Why do the Chinese have a different ‘new year’? The Gregorian calendar is the internationally used calendar for convenience’s sake. Yet, in China the Shixian calendar regulates observances and festivities, sometimes simply called the Chinese Calendar. It plays an important role in people’s lives. Guiding them in observing the most propitious dates for getting married, having children, starting endeavours, and even funeral ceremonies.

From ancient times, the calendar was a sign of power and authority. Emperors used it in the prediction of celestial occurrences. It was a way of showing their people that they had the mandate of heaven (Tian Ming), to rule. Regularity and the accurate predictions of these occurrences, among other things, showed the emperor’s authority to rule.

But what does this have to do with Project 22? In the late 1500’s there was a Jesuit in China, who loved the Chinese people and everything about them – Matteo Ricci SJ. He was a mathematician and had studied astronomy. One of his desires was to help this people be the best people they could be, the best Chinese they could be. But first he had some prejudices to overcome. When he had first arrived in China in 1583 he sought to build the first house there in Zhaoqing. He was quite adamant to ignore the Chinese calendar observances for suitable days to begin construction. Against the Chinese official’s warning. Fortunately, the weather made it impossible to start the work.

As time went by he noticed that there were some inaccuracies in the Chinese calendar. Thus the prediction of eclipses and celestial occurrences were inaccurate at times. This caused some unsettlement. The rulers were concerned that this was a sign from heaven that they no longer had their favour. The Minister of Rites, Wang Zhongming, who had heard of the Jesuit’s reputation planned to meet Ricci while travelling. One evening in 1594 he invited Ricci on his boat. Amongst other things,  he mentioned to Ricci the remote possibility of helping the Chinese improve their calendar. This struck a chord with Ricci. The desire, like a seedling, began to take its first roots within his heart.

The Julian calendar in the west had its own errors and it was being reformed, with the help of Cristopher Clavius SJ, when Ricci left Europe for China in 1578. Matteo Ricci had studied under Clavius while at the Roman College, and because of this he was up to date with the methods used in preparing the new calendar, the Gregorian calendar.

The turning point

Since the Chinese calendar was going through these difficulties, Matteo Ricci could have simply proposed to discard the Chinese calendar and use the western one, this would have probably made organisation and communicating between countries more straight forward… But Matteo Ricci wanted more, he wanted better. He did not want to impose a foreign system. He wanted to save what they already had, and serve in helping them improve it.

In 1600, in Nanjing, Matteo Ricci had a fleeting encounter with a Chinese scholar Xu Guangqi. He thought nothing special of it at the time. Yet this relationship later flourished and was destined to bear much fruit. Matteo Ricci died on 11th May 1610, without much progress in improving the Chinese calendar. On December 15th 1610, Xu Guangqi submitted the first official memorial to the Minister of Rites. He proposed to use the Jesuits’ knowledge to improve the calendar. It was met with suspicion and opposition.

In 1629 emperor Zhu Youjian had been ruling for almost 2 years. The consequences that another mistake in the prediction of the solar eclipse on the 21st June of that year would bring about troubled him. He asked two Jesuits at the time to run their own calculations. These ended up being more accurate than those of the imperial astronomers. After this instance, Xu Guanqi felt confident in submitting a new memorial. Again proposing to make use of the Jesuit’s knowledge in making the calendar more accurate.

35 years after the desire first took root. 19 years after his death. On 1st September 1629, one of Matteo Ricci’s dreams was brought to reality. Emperor Zhu Youjian announced the official review of the Chinese calendar. This review was to make use of the knowledge brought from the west by the Jesuits, with Xu Guangqi as the director.

When I celebrate the Chinese New Year, I like to remember the human sensibility that Matteo Ricci taught me. To be more ready to save, and serve, my neighbour and their proposition, rather than condemn it. The Matteo Ricci who wanted to disregard the Chinese calendar in 1583 was the same person who died with the desire to serve in its reform. But his sensibility was refined. His sensibility may have not come naturally. Rather, Matteo Ricci’s sensibility came from a respect and appreciation of the Chinese people.

Photo by Lisheng Chang

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