Each year in the Chinese calendar is defined by two characters – a ‘Heavenly Stem’ and an ‘Earthly Branch’. First, let us look at the Heavenly Stem. The Ten Heavenly Stems are a group of the oldest Chinese characters recorded. They originally represent the names of the days of the week (the traditional Chinese week has ten days), which are also names of the planets, which are also names of the gods. This is much like our English language convention which mixes Greco-Roman with Norse traditions – Saturday/Saturn-day/Saturn; Thursday/Thor’s-day/Jupiter etc. The Heavenly Stems cycle continuously, and this year is designated the 7th the Stem, called 庚 ‘Geng’. It is not so clear in the traditional character (pictured right) but the ancient pictogram (pictured left) was of two hands holding a tool for threshing grain.
The Shiji Book of History describes it as such – 《史記。律書》 庚者，言陰氣庚萬物，故曰庚。 Shiji 25: ‘Geng, the character is the Yin Qi threshing the Myriad Things, therefore it is called Thresh.’ In the sequence of the Heavenly Stems this is the Yang aspect of the Metal element. Metal is a contracting of things and movement toward Yin, it is Autumn, hence the time of threshing the grain. The Hanshu History of the Han Dynasty describes it simply as – 《漢書。律曆志》斂更於庚。 Hanshu 21: ‘There is more restraint in Geng.’ The meaning is that in the past people began to move indoors and limited there activities in this season.
The Heavenly Stem could also be called the ‘trunk’ of the year, it is the foundation. Now we add to that a branch. The second character of the year is from another (slightly less) ancient group of characters, the Twelve Earthly Branches. These characters originally represented the twelve ‘Conjunctions’ of the sun and moon each year. This is the time when the moon cannot be seen, what is now known as a ‘New Moon’. Therefore, these characters represent the twelve months of the year and correlate to Jupiter’s the twelve year orbit. The Earthly Branches also cycle continuously, and this year is the 1st the Branch called 子 ‘Zi’ (pronounced with a Zer sound as in ‘Sanitizer’ not Zee as in ‘Zero’). Again, the ancient pictogram (pictured left) provides a clearer picture of its original meaning, a the birth of a baby or sprout coming up from the ground.
In the Hanshu History of the Han Dynasty – 《漢書。律曆志》故孳萌於子。 Hanshu 21: ‘Therefore sprouts propagate in Zi.’ And similar in the Shiji Book of History 《史記。律書》子者，滋也。滋者，言萬物滋於下也。 Shiji 25: ‘Zi, Growth. Growth, the character means the Myriad Things Grow from below’. The month indicated by Zi is December, midwinter, Water element, the very beginning of the rise of Yang seen as the white dot in the black fish of the Yin Yang diagram. The corresponding direction as indicated by the handle of the Northern Dipper constellation, is the cold North.
As for the Rat, the animals were not historically associated with the Earthly Branches, they were a much more modern addition that can be misleading. When we apply our culturally biased understanding of animal traits this can lead to misinterpretation. In the case of the Rat we think of disease and waste, things that have nothing to do with Zi. Another example would be the dog – where a westerner might say ‘loyal’, some parts of south east Asia may say ‘food’.
Leaving the golden rodents aside, this year at our trunk we have 庚 Geng the image of the contraction of Yin coming to a close, a consolidation. For our branch we have Zi the image of the first signs of Yang coming out of Winter, before the expansion. Without much hyperbole, it would be fair to say this year we could expect the end of some cycles in nature and the very early signs of the beginning of others.