Heavenly Stems

地支 天干

The ten Heavenly Stems, sometimes called the Celestial Stems, date back to the very earliest records of writing in China. These characters appear to be very old indeed and seem to have marked the days of a ten day week. The characters themselves are not terribly common in modern Chinese, with only one appearing in the first 1000 characters, and five more appearing in the 3000 most common characters.1

As noted in Ban on Building B, these characters do perform the role of an alternative ordinal system, in much the same way that A,B,C do in English. They are also a crucial component of the system of dates used for a good chunk of Chinese history which I’ll touch upon in a future post.

My own reaction to these words, when I first encountered them, was to largely ignore them; after all, they seemed to be largely useless and irrelevant when I was grappling with much more important things.

I could just get by with a vague sense that the first three or four were some kind of sequence, and I’d work any such sequence out from context when I needed to.

I now think that was a mistake. It was a mistake for two fairly obvious reasons (and one more):
1) Most of these characters crop up pretty regularly as components of more common characters.
2) This is just the sort of cultural information which is likely to either be useful at some point, or simply enhances ones understanding of the language and environment.
3) Learning them is easy.

Try counting on the fingers of your left hand, as pictured above.


Just go round the cycle and you’ll have them down in no time.

In the following list, the Heavenly Stem, with its frequency rank in brackets, is followed by other common (top-3000) characters in which it features.

甲 (1167) 鸭/鴨,押,闸/閘
乙 (1658) 也, 艺/藝, 亿/億,忆/憶,挖,乞
丙 (1967) 病,陋,柄,炳
丁 (1070) 打,订/訂,宁/寧,灯/燈,顶/頂,厅/廳,亭,盯,钉/釘,叮,贮/貯
戊 (—-) 成,岁/歲,威,灭/滅,戚,咸,茂,蔑
2(138) 起,记/記,改,纪/紀,配,异/異,凯/凱,岂/豈,忌
庚 (—-) 康,唐,庸
辛 (1313) 亲/親,办/辦,辩/辯,辞/辭,辟,辣,宰,瓣,僻,辫/辮,辜
壬 (—-) 任,庭,凭/憑,廷,淫
癸 (—-) No common characters, though I guess 向日葵 appears often enough, and both 登 and traditional 發 employ 癶. The lower part was originally 矢 but is the first stroke was dropped leaving 天.

Now I’m not trying to suggest that the student should learn these characters at the very beginning of their studies. There are plenty of more useful, simple characters that occur much more frequently than these. Two radicals that are learned early in any Chinese programme, I presume, are 木 mù and 日 rì, and each of these crops up in over 150 of the 3000 most commonly used characters.

As I didn’t go through a formal programme at the beginning of my Chinese studies, I’d be most interested to hear from students and teachers when such characters are introduced and whether they think memorising a ‘set’ like this would be helpful and worthwhile.

If, like me, you never bothered to learn them, why not invest ten or twenty minutes in locking them away now? You never know when they might come in useful.

In the next post I’ll be looking at the Earthly Branches.

1The frequency numbers used throughout this post are taken from the Wenlin dictionary. The producers of Wenlin point out that these numbers are only a guide and not to be taken too seriously.

2Note that 己 jǐ,已 yǐ,巳 sì, are classified under the same radical, though recognising the difference might yet be useful.

19 responses to “Heavenly Stems”

  1. Steve (Syz) says:

    Naturally Steve would show up to claim pole position and beg to differ. I crammed 1-10 (甲到癸?) into my Anki flashcard deck a few years back and now duly recognize them, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say they’ve helped me not one iota. Although I see they do appear in many other characters I know, the fact that I didn’t really recognize that before makes me think they were of little use (for me) in actually learning those characters.

    Anxiously awaiting future posts that will enlighten this benighted soul 😀

    • Sima says:


      You didn’t notice them as you learned a bunch of characters in which they appeared? I guess you really weren’t interested in writing.

      Don’t you think it would have helped the process if you’d known them earlier so that, when you came to characters which used them, you’d have just been able to ‘drop them in’?

      How would learning these compare with an English learner identifying a handful of common prefixes and suffixes early in their studies?

    • Kai Carver says:

      That’s an interesting example where a flash card program may not be effective. These are a sequence. I presume studying them as isolated, randomly presented cards makes you lose 90% of what makes such lists valuable. The context-killing of flash cards is one of their main drawbacks.

  2. Harland says:

    And yet nobody ever wonders why they have such a bizarre name as heavenly stems. It never gets addressed in these sorts of articles.

  3. Brendan says:

    The mnemonic I learned for distinguishing between 己/已/巳 was “已出头 and it’s never ever 巳.” So far that’s worked pretty well for me.

  4. Karan says:

    I never made a conscious decision to learn or not learn them. Even though I’m generally a knowledge hoarder I left a lot of my Chinese character learning to the programmer style “read in when used” and apart from the lunar calendar I really haven’t seen these characters pop up anywhere else and I rarely need to look up anything in the lunar calendar.

    I did learn just upto 甲已丙丁 but that was only because it frequently popped up in Chinese documents and was also the title of a song I had.

    A lot of the examples that you’ve posted in which they appear as components I personally find highly questionable in their utility to any learner of Chinese characters since they are mostly in rarer characters or don’t actually have a simple phonetic value that they convey which is usually what makes the task of memorisation easier.

    • Karan says:


    • Sima says:

      To be fair, Karan, all of the examples I’ve given are amongst the 3000 most commonly occurring characters and good proportion are phonetic components. Even so, I’m not sure it’s necessary for them to be phonetic to be useful. Isn’t learning to recognise components is an essential part of learning to read?

      • Karan says:

        Well, I will give you that most of them are common, but although 丙 → 病 I would place under the useful category, 丁 → 打 and 丙 → 陋 would not have been helpful to me because of the lack of a phonetic clue.

        And except for 癸, most of these characters are so simple, that memorising them for their shape value alone wouldn’t be useful to me.

        One of the questions that I think comes up is: at exactly what stage is learning these going to be useful to the Chinese beginner? Clearly, most will (and should, I think) learn 打 before 丁 and 病 before 丙. Should they learn 丙 somewhere between 病 and 柄? When I learnt 柄, I immediately drew the connection with 病 and realised that 丙 (even though I might not have known what it was) must have something to do with the sound “bing”. Would explicitly learning 丙 have helped me? I think that, for me, the answer would be “no”.

        Similarly for “乙” which I learned must be pronounced “yi” by proxy of 忆, 亿, 艺.

        So, I guess, after rambling for a couple of paragraphs, my point would be that, for me:
        1. I recognised the patterns in the common characters on my own such as 壬甲乙丙丁 without needing to learn them separately and adding them to my vocabulary.
        2. I don’t regret adding them to my vocabulary sooner because really I’ve only ever used the 甲乙丙丁 — in documents, as a song name, and also as the phrase itself meaning “X, Y and Z” usually used dismissively – and I find that learning beyond that would not be of any practical use to anyone.

        With all this said though, clearly *I* would learn these regardless because if you’re interested enough in Chinese to read Sinoglot, you’re probably interested enough to learn all the 天干地支.

        • Steve (Syz) says:

          I think Karan actually answered the question you posed to me too, Sima.

          I certainly did notice the commonality between, say, 病 and 柄 (which I think I learned before 丙 itself), but I agree with Karan that these sorts of commonalities can be noticed without worrying about whether the common component actually exists as a separate character. I agree it makes it easier to talk about if you know that, but that doesn’t seem like much of a priority to me.

        • Steve (Syz) says:

          if you’re interested enough in Chinese to read Sinoglot, you’re probably interested enough to learn all the 天干地支

          I’ll take that as praise! (with 厚脸皮, considering how many posts I’ve contributed this year…)

  5. Sima says:

    Mmm, yes. Good comment.

    Certainly during the process of learning to read one comes across familiar-looking elements and begins to make inferences about sound or meaning of those elements.

    I guess my feeling is that because, as you point out, they are so simple (except for 癸, and perhaps 庚)that learning to write/recognise them isn’t too demanding. The possible benefit is that one then ‘has a name’ for them. So instead of remembering, ‘oh, yes, it’s that component from dǎ and dēng, next to whatever,’ the student is more easily able to remember ‘oh, yes, it’s dīng next to whatever.’ Obviously, where there is a phonetic relationship, that’s more likely to be helpful.

    Erm, maybe this is more revealing about how my mind works than about how best to learn Chinese in general. Anyway, I hope you find the 天干 stuff of some interest. I should have the final (third) post up sometime next week.

    • Karan says:

      I will be attempting to memorise them, but given that I don’t use them (ever), I’m guessing at some point I’ll regress to just rememebering 甲乙丙丁 again.

  6. Eric says:

    I think I’m one more voice in this small chorus of ‘meh’ about learning these things early on. Anyone who sticks with characters long enough to care about these and find them useful will have made many inferences about character components–many or even most of which happened without any explicit learning of useful phonetic components. In fact, I would think that in the case of something like 病, the memory aid could run the other way. I first learn 病–a useful word–and later on get 丙 for free. Apart from some of the obvious basic radicals, I am pretty skeptical of the value of committing a rare character to mind in order to aid in learning common characters. It seems like it’s probably a more memory-intensive way to go at the task as it adds one more layer of arbitrary connections to the process.

    In any case, I like these posts a lot. I find the finger counting interesting and useful–perhaps more useful than the characters themselves.

  7. Chad says:

    I would say the first four of these — 甲, 乙, 丙, 丁 — would be useful to learn when starting to read native materials, as they are frequently used for enumeration. Other than those, I don’t feel I’m missing anything by not knowing the rest. 己 is something everyone learns from 自己, but otherwise these aren’t even useful to know for their phonetic value, since they often aren’t phonetic.Sure, the shapes are useful, but there are other component shapes much more common.

    On the other hand, if your interested in them for historical or aesthetic purposes, there’s nothing wrong with learning them. In that sense, I would say that learning the 12 earthly branches and the 8 trigrams are just as important.

  8. exploer says:


    • Sima says:



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