Coming to terms with the changing seasons

Chinese people have long been used to dividing a year into 24 solar terms. The calendar is believed to have originated with just eight solar terms created in ancient times. 
Coming to terms with the changing seasons

When Shaohao whistled, four birds immediately emerged — the blue bird, the dark bird, the red bird and the shrike.

In order to predict the changing seasons, ancient Chinese invented a calendar based on a study of the climate and how it affected plant and animal life. It is made up of “solar terms,” each of which arrives at times of significant changes.

While Chinese people have long been used to dividing a year into 24 solar terms, it’s said that only eight terms were created by the Shaohao tribe — Beginning of Spring, Spring Equinox, Beginning of Summer, Summer Solstice, Beginning of Autumn, Autumn Equinox, Beginning of Winter and Winter Solstice.

Different tribes developed their own way of marking seasonal changes based on their observations. The tribe of Emperor Huang in the center observed the clouds, the tribe of Emperor Yan in the south watched fire, the tribe of Shaohao (Zhi) in the west watched migrant birds, the tribe of Zhuanxu in the north studied water changes, while the tribe of Taihao (Fuxi) in the east predicted seasonal and weather changes by observing the Chinese dragons.

One day, Fuxi called all the tribe leaders together to discuss the marking of seasons.

Shaohao was invited to introduce their bird calendar. He first briefed about the four seasons based on star observation discovered by Fuxi. The period when the handle of the Big Dipper points to the east, the south, the west and the north corresponds to the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter respectively. One cycle makes a year. And by counting days with knots of ropes, they found 360-366 days in a year.

As Shaohao whistled, four birds came to him ─ the blue bird, the dark bird, the red bird and the shrike. These four birds fly and sing along with different winds, which helped his tribe distinguish eight solar terms in the four seasons.

Shaohao drew a light stripe in the air, decorated by 12 bars, black or white.

“The black bars represent the night, while the white are for the day. A year of 360 days is divided into eight sections. With the sky as their backdrop, the four birds will demonstrate how the eight solar terms change. Each bird is active in two sections,” Shaohao said.

He left eight black bars and four white bars on the stripe and started the demonstration with Winter Solstice featuring the shortest day and longest night of the year.

“The northeast wind, please blow,” Shaohao shouted to the northeast.

Coming to terms with the changing seasons

As the northeast wind blew, the blue bird began to chirp. The day was called the Beginning of Spring.

With his blue face emerging from clouds, the god of the northeast wind puffed out his cheeks to blow hard. The blue bird took off with the wind and chirped. Meanwhile, solid ice melted, otters jumped into the water for fish and bears walked out of their caves. The number of white bars grew to five, while that of the black bars decreased to seven.

“As the northeast wind blows, the blue bird begins to sing. It has been 45 days since the longest night. This day is called the Beginning of Spring, which marks the start of another spring,” said Shaohao.

He turned eastward and hailed: “The east wind, please blow.”

As the god of the east wind showed his blue round face, the dark bird soared to the sky with joyful chirps, spreading its wing to fly up amid the light wind and drizzling rain.

“When the dark bird begins to fly with the east wind, another 45 days have passed. This day is called Spring Equinox, which means day and night are of equal length,” said Shaohao, pointing at the light stripe equally divided by black and white.

While people were still amazed at the wonder, Shaohao asked the god of the southeast wind with purple face to show his magic. The blue bird stopped singing, frogs in the pond clamored and wheat ears turned yellow. There came the Beginning of Summer.

At another request by Shaohao, the god of the south wind showed his red face, and the shrike flew to the northeast. The land soon got covered with lush greenery, spotted deer shed their antlers and cicadas started to sing.

“As the shrike flies southward with the south wind, there comes the day of Summer Solstice, featuring the longest day of a year and the start of the hottest period in a year. Then things will reverse themselves as reaching the extreme.” 

Shaohao turned to the southwest: “The southwest wind, now please help us relieve summer heat!”

With the cool breeze made by the southwest wind god with the pink face, the red bird flew to the west, and the first yellow leaf fell. Shaohao marked it the Beginning of Autumn, with a seven-to-five proportion of day and night on the light stripe.

Then, as the god of the west wind showed his silver white face, the dark bird returned from the north, with grass and trees beginning to wither. It was the day of the Autumn Equinox when day and night became equal in length again.

Later, a wind came from the northwest. The red bird flies to the east, while thin ice covered the river and trees withered. There came the Beginning of Winter, which ushered in the severe cold.

Shaohao shouted to the due north: “North wind, you rise from the vast desolated plain. The eight sections start with you, and will also end with you. Come, please!” The god of the north wind exhibited his power recklessly, freezing the land and driving animals to hide.

Despite the extreme cold, a drift of warm vapor began to rise from the horizon. Grass broke through the soil, and elks shed their antlers.

“The shrike flaps its wings when the north wind blows. It is the Winter Solstice. Forty-five days later, we will greet the Beginning of Spring again,” said Shaohao.

Everything disappeared as Shaohao finished his demonstration.

Though it was not necessarily invented by legendary Shaohao, there is evidence of Chinese identifying the four seasons by the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-771 BC) and eight solar terms by the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). 

The 24 solar terms recorded in “Huainanzi” in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) were exactly the same as those used in China today.

Coming to terms with the changing seasons

Shaohao's theory of the cycle of the eight sections demonstrated the rise and fall of yin and yang in a year.

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