Earthly Branches

In the last post, I introduced the Heavenly Stems. Now for the Earthly Branches. That’s right; there are two sets of these damned things. If you recall, there were 10 Heavenly Stems; there are 12 Earthly Branches.

Interesting number, twelve. Twelve months in the year, twelve hours in the day, twelve disciples, twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve animal years, twelve inches in a foot, twelve pence in a shilling…er have I forgotten any?


How come twelve is so important?

Obviously, dividing a circle into twelve is relatively easy, and twelve is conveniently divided – a half, a third, a quarter, a sixth, a twelfth – but is there any other reason it should have become so widely used?

Anyway, here are the twelve Earthly Branches:


Recall that in the last post I suggested counting on the fingers. This is known in Chinese as 掐指一算 qiāzhǐyīsuàn – counting by pinching the fingers. If you learned the Heavenly Stems without following the contortions in the accompanying picture; no great matter. But with this set, I strongly recommend following the picture and trying to press your thumb against the joints as shown. This certainly seems to aid memory, but it also should be useful when you read the final post in this sequence.

Start with 子 zǐ at the base of the ring finger of your left hand and work clockwise:

子 zǐ
丑 chǒu
寅 yín
卯 mǎo
辰 chén
巳 sì
午 wǔ
未 wèi
申 shēn
酉 yǒu
戌 xū
亥 hài

This really is worth spending a little time on. Learn them forwards, backwards and any which way. Getting them down only takes a few minutes and then you carry them with you wherever you go. Knowledge at your finger tips.

If you didn’t already know it, the sequence might still sound kind of familiar. Ever noticed that when you ask someone which animal comes before or after another in the Chinese ‘zodiac’, they start mumbling…zǐshǔ chǒuniú, yínhǔ?

Each of these characters is paired with an animal – 属相 shǔxiàngr, or 生肖 shēngxiào. I never could remember that sequence. You know, when you’re having dinner with someone and they tell you their animal sign without giving the year, and you’re hopelessly disadvantaged because they’ve already calculated your age and every personality defect?

Well, it’s not that difficult. Once you have the twelve branches down, adding the animals is easy. The sounds and the tones and even the characters quickly start forming connections, and maybe a rhythm. In no time there’ll be a pattern that you’ll grasp.

子鼠    zǐ-shǔ
丑牛 chǒu-niú
寅虎    yín-hǔ
卯兔    mǎo-tù
辰龙    chén-lóng
巳蛇    sì-shé
午马    wǔ-mǎ
未羊    wèi-yáng
申猴    shēn-hóu
酉鸡    yǒu-jī
戌狗    xū-gǒu
亥猪    hài-zhū

Amongst other things, the Earthly Branches were used for the time of day. Each marked a two-hour period. 子 the middle of the night, and 午 the middle of the day.

Of these twelve characters, eight occur frequently in their own right, as well as cropping up as components all over the place; the other four show up in a further 35 of the most commonly used 3000 characters. No wasted knowledge here.

In the next post, I’ll explain how the Earthly Branches combine with the Heavenly Stems to denote the year according to the sexagenary cycle..

One response to “Earthly Branches”

  1. Carl says:

    In Japanese, AM is 午前; PM is 午後.

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