Remember that calendar we always use?

03 Feb 2006

With Chinese New Year comes many annoyances. Nonstop fireworks for a week ranks up there pretty high. But another thing that annoys me is that during the Chinese New Year season, Chinese people lose the ability to refer to dates using the normal calendar. I use the word “normal” not in an ethnocentric way, but in the sense that it is the calendar that all of China uses for the other 50 weeks out of the year. When Chinese New Year comes around, however, attempts to use non-lunar date nomenclature result in East-West communication breakdown.

Witness:

> Me: Let’s do it on February 2nd.

> Person: I’m not free on the 4th day of the lunar new year.

> Me: OK, so is February 2nd OK then?

> Person: Is that the 4th or the 5th day of the lunar new year?

> Me: I don’t know. It’s February 2nd. February. Second.

Even bizarrer:

> Me: So can you come next Wednesday?

> Person: Wednesday? What is that, the second day of the lunar new year?

> Me: Wednesday. You know, Wednesday.

> Person: Oh wait, I think that’s the fourth day of the lunar new year…

Call me culturally intolerant, but this is super annoying. The latest casualty of this phenomenon was me missing out on a meal cooked by my awesome ayi, Xiao Wang. Oh well. She deserves another day off for the holidays anyway.

One of these years I’ll get around to realigning my temporal frame of reference to the moon just two weeks out of every year. But until then I will be annoyed for those two weeks a year.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Yeah, that bit me too… was supposed to meet someone on 初四, and I misheard it and thought they wanted to meet on the 4th. Doh!

  2. Yeah, now that you mentioned it, I think it is kind of unusual to use lunar calendar for two weeks, and things could get messy because of that. Nonetheless, since all of the important holidays fall within these two weeks window such as 大年三十,初一,破五,正月十五…etc, it is much easier to memorize those fixed dates than remembering different sets of dates every year. People don’t want to think too much, if you know what I mean 😉 Plus, all Chinese tend to operate on those dates like on autopilot, and you don’t get a more Chinese experience than that, annoyance and all…

  3. What I liked best was when I asked the university not much more than a month before the New Year what day the New Year actually was, so I could plan my vacation. They didn’t know. I asked my friends, they didn’t know. I guess a lot of people don’t know when Easter is either, as it is always shifting. But New Year’s is so much more important. Perhaps you have discovered the reason why they don’t know- they use the lunar calendar for the holiday.

  4. Well, get ready for Persian New Year Day next month. It’s the 1st day of Spring.

  5. John,

    Take it easy. It’s kind of necessary to use lunar calendar during Spring Festival. You may already know that there are different conventions on each day of the holiday.

    First day, new year day. You know what to do.
    Second day and the third day, married woman goes back to her home with her husband and child.
    Forth day, take a break.
    Fifth day, welcome the god of money(plutus?). Shops celebrate this.
    ……..
    Until the fifteenth day, the end of the festival.

    It may differ from place to place. But people from the same place do the same thing every year. For example, I go to my grandpa’s on the third day of the new year. No matter it is Jan 27th or Feb 2nd, I do it on the third day of the new year. People use lunar new year so that they know what they should do.

    Another reason is you dont feel like you are celebrating Spring Festival if you use regular calendar. Spring Festival is important, not because we declare it as important. We really think it’s the beginning of a NEW Year. We mean it.

    By the way, I am in US right now. It’s my first Chinese new year without family. I really miss people say 初一 to me.

    Have a nice holiday,
    Ming

  6. Greg Pasden Says: February 3, 2006 at 11:13 am

    John,

    Maybe it’w when the Chinese use the rare Blonde calendar.

    Greg

  7. I wonder why you’re complaining about 2 weeks out of the year instead of being relieved that the Chinese has adopted a Gregorian calendar for 50 weeks out of the year.

  8. Awesome, you have a friend called Person? Or two friends? Same same or different?

  9. Beautiful post. My thoughts exactly…

  10. We don’t just use it for two weeks, adding 除夕 and 八月十五, we use it for 17 days!

  11. I’m sorry but I don’t understand why you, as understanding to Chinese culture as anybody I’ve seen based on your blog, is complaining about this subtlety (maybe it’s just another topic you can write on your blog–if so I guess there’s nothing wrong). But what’s the big fuss? You are in this country in this most cultually important period of the year where everything revolves around the lunar calendar–for these two weeks, every single person’s work (vacation) schedule is based on the Spring Festival, not to mention all the traditions, however few we have left, also are lunar-calendar-based. If there is a tradition that has withstood the challenge of capitalism, this is it. (Although people my age would complain that the atmosphere now is really not on par with what it used to be.) So instead of frowning on the trivial inconvenience the lunar calendar has brought to you, I suggest you sit back and forget the Gregorian calendar just for two weeks, like the Chinese do, because that is how 99% of the people think in China.

  12. Drove me nuts when I was there too. I remember a conversation with someone in which I was asking if we could meet “the day after tomorrow” and they insisted on asking if it was the 3rd or 4th day of the Lunar New Year….

  13. I don’t think John was annoyed that Chinese are using the lunar calendar during Spring festival. He’s annoyed and baffled by the fact that Chinese seem to lose the ability to use the Western calendar (which they use the other 50 weeks of the year) during those 2 weeks. So things like “Wednesday” and “Feb. 2nd” suddenly lose all meaning during those 2 weeks. Anyway, it baffles me.

  14. Shamu, John is not the only one who finds these practices unacceptable. The WTO is currently considering a proposal that would place severe economic sanctions on member nations which do not comply fully with the international (Gregorian) calander, and specifically would compensate foreign nationals living in China for economic losses and emotional damages suffered because of calendrical confusion around the new year.

  15. shamu: certainly, the traditional festivals are (mostly) based on the lunar calendar, but the fact that “99% of the people think” that way doesn’t make the conversions between the calendars logical or easy, even for Chinese people themselves. Practically every morning this holiday in the home where I was staying, someone would ask “What day is it today?” and people would give different answers.

    The original post is a valid observation, especially in a year like this where the difference between the two systems is only a few days. 初一 and the like are manageable, but when people throw around 三十 with no qualifier, it can be risky to make an assumption either way. Add (Gregorian-based) return-journey ticket purchasing into the mix, and even people who’ve dealt with the switch their whole lives take a few extra moments to work things out.

  16. zhwj, I agree this year may be challenging. But when people mention 三十, it’s almost certain they are referring to the lunar calendar–it would be 三十号for Gregorian calendar. I would also say that the only occasion you need any Gregorian calendar thinking during the period is for train schedules, as pretty much everything else is in lunar calendar. Because they know, if it wasn’t on lunar calendar, people will get confused.

    And Jim, I don’t think this “inability” should be a big deal since, like I said, everything (except maybe train schedules) revolves around the lunar calendar. If it drives you nuts as a foreigner, then remember it’s a unique Chinese tradition and maybe you’ll feel better.

    shamu on 初七

  17. Ming and shamu,

    My cultural understanding prevents me from ever making a big deal of this issue. If you’ll reread my last paragraph, you’ll see that I do realize that I am the one who should adapt.

    My cultural background, however, ensures that this issue annoys me every damn year.

  18. John,
    I hear you. I’ve been in the US for more than ten years, and I’m still not sure how to estimate length in yards, or feet. Only thing easy for me is pound, as it’s just 0.9 jin!

  19. Amen John.

    For extra mind-boggling fun, read up on how the lunar calendar used to work in Imperial times. Basing the dating system on a combination of lunar years and Imperial accessions meant that the calender would occasionally come full circle before the year ended…. which meant that some years would have two of exactly the same dates.

  20. Shamu, I might be wrong, and I frequently am, but I think it’s a bit disingenious on your part to simply blame capitalism for the disappearance of Chinese traditions (it’s definitely s been a factor–I don’t deny it– but the Cultural Revolution, etc., didn’t help either). Plenty of traditions that disappeared a while ago in mainland China remain alive and well in Taiwan, for instance.

  21. John, you’re such a whiner!

  22. John,
    The solution to your annoyance is to create and market a Gregorian calendar that clearly marks each day of the seventeen days of the New Year celebration with the proper day of the lunar calendar. Make them in both wall style and pocket/purse sized calendars each year, and voila! End of confusion.

  23. To get back at Chinese civilization for all the hassle I have to suffer around new year I insist on using the lunar calander all year round. Warms my cockles to see the look of exasperation that comes over people’s faces when they are forced to look up the lunar date for everything. “I’m sorry, is that 廿四 or 廿五?” “Can I work tomorrow? Let’s see…芒种…No, I’m afraid that’s an auspicious day for weaving fishing nets, so sorry, no can do.”

  24. I enjoy a lot to celebrate my two birthday each year. One is based on Gregorian calendar, which is for my friends and the other is based on lunar calendar, which is for my family.

  25. […] causes temporal cognitive chaos. I’ve talked about this before. Around CNY, Chinese people refuse to use the solar calendar for a week or two and cognitively […]

  26. […] confusing?? No, not at all. I’m a big fan of Chinese New […]

  27. The dialogues are funny, but it all makes sense when you think of it. The lunar calendar is not really used like a calendar here, it’s just a way of referring to days of moveable feasts. Perhaps Easter is equally annoying for the Chinese who live among Christians:

    Chinese: Let’s do it on April 2nd.

    Person: I’m not free on Easter Monday.

    Chinese: OK, so is April 2nd OK then?

    Person: Is that the Easter Monday or the day after?

    Chinese: I don’t know. It’s April 2nd. April. Second.

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