Regnal Years


A few weeks ago I dashed off an e-mail wishing one of my new colleagues a Happy Chinese New Year.” I got back a note politely informing me that she is a big supporter of Taiwanese independence, and as such prefers to use the term Lunar New Year.” I politely replied that I completely understood and would accede to her preferences, while also pointing out that there are many lunar calendars, not all of them marking new year at that time. She replied once again that since not all lunar calendars marking the new year at that time were Chinese, why call them Chinese?

Well, I can think of some good historical reasons why one might wish to call it Chinese, but she is right. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

Other traditional East Asian calendars are similar to if not identical to the Chinese calendar: the Korean calendar is identical; the Vietnamese calendar substitutes the cat for the rabbit in the Chinese zodiac; the Tibetan calendar differs slightly in animal names, and the traditional Japanese calendar uses a different method of calculation, resulting in disagreements between the calendars in some years.

In Chinese Mandarin they distinguish the two calendars by calling the agricultural calendar” (農曆 nónglì), and the Gregorian calendar the standard calendar” (公曆 gōnglì), or Western calendar” (西曆 xīlì).

The subject of calendars resurfaced when Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) recently announced that the government is considering dropping the nation’s Republican (minguo, 民國) calendar in favor of the Gregorian calendar. Actually, the two calendars are identical except for the system of counting years. The lunar/agricultural/Chinese calendar is still in use for certain holidays and will continue to be after any such change.

Wikipedia explains the regnal system used in Taiwan:

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Traditional Chinese years were not continuously numbered in the way that the BC/AD system is. More commonly, official year counting always used some form of a regnal year. This system began in 841 BC during the Zhou dynasty. Prior to this, years were not marked at all, and historical events cannot be dated exactly.

… Subsequently, years were marked as regnal years, e.g. the year 825 BC was marked as the 3rd Year of the Xuan King Jing of Zhou (周宣王三年). This system was used until early in the Han dynasty, when the Wen Emperor of Han (汉文帝刘恒) instituted regnal names. After this, most emperors used one or more regnal names to mark their reign. Usually, the emperor would institute a new name upon accession to the throne, and then change to new names to mark significant events, or to end a perceived cycle of bad luck. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, however, each emperor usually used only one regnal name for their reign.

This sytem continued until the Republic of China, which counted years as Years of the Republic, beginning in 1912. Thus, 1912 is the 1st Year of the Republic, and 1948 the 37th. This system is still used for official purposes in Taiwan. For the rest of China, in 1949 the People’s Republic of China chose to use the Common Era system (equivalently, AD/BC system), in line with international standards.

As a result of this system, many foreigners are likely to think that dairy products are eleven years out of date, since the expiry date for a new carton of milk will read 95.” I have one friend who recently visited his parents in the states and needed to refill some medication he received just before leaving Taiwan. The American doctor nearly had a heart attack at the thought of someone using eleven year old antibiotics!

The decision to change the years to meet international standards is quite surprising, considering the governing DPPs continued insistence on Taiwan having its own romanization system. My suggestion is that they stick with the original concept of the regnal calendar, and simply start over at 00 with a new name. Perhaps A-Bien Year 01? Unfortunately, A-Bien’s years are already numbered.

(via Michael Turton)