Chinese era name

A Chinese era name is the regnal year, reign period, or regnal title used when traditionally numbering years in an emperor's reign and naming certain Chinese rulers. Some emperors have several era names, one after another, where each beginning of a new era resets the numbering of the year back to year one or yuán (). The numbering of the year increases on the first day of the Chinese calendar each year. The era name originated as a motto or slogan chosen by an emperor.

Chinese era name
Traditional Chinese年號
Simplified Chinese年号
Hanyu Pinyinniánhào
Literal meaningyear number(ing)


Emperor Wu of Han was conventionally regarded as the first emperor to declare an era name; however he was only the first to use an era name in every year of his reign. His grandfather and father also employed era names, though not continuously. Emperor Wu changed period titles every five years or so, going through a total of eleven reigning slogans during his reign from 140 BC to 87 BC.

Each era name has a literary meaning. For instance, the first era name of Emperor Wu was Jianyuan (, jiànyuán), literally meaning "establishing the Origin". Era names also reflected characteristics of political and other landscapes at the time. Jianzhongjingguo (建中靖國 jiànzhōngjìngguó), the first era name of Emperor Huizong of Song China, means "establishing middle, peaceful country", reflecting his idealism towards moderating the rivalry among the conservative and progressive parties on political and social reformation. The very first era name of the Qing was significant because it means "[the Manchus possess] the Mandate of Heaven". Popular phrases might be repeated, as with the numerous Taiping eras (lit. "Era of Great Peace").

The process of era name declaration was referred to in traditional Chinese history texts as jianyuan. Declaring a new era name to replace an old one during an emperor's reign was referred to as gaiyuan (改元, gǎiyuán), literally meaning "change the origin".

To name a year using an era name only requires counting years from the first year of the era. For example, 138 BC was the third year of Jianyuan (建元), since 140 BC was the first year. When more than one monarch used the same motto, the name of the specific monarch or dynasty has to be mentioned. For instance both Emperor Wu and Jin Kangdi picked Jianyuan as their motto. Thus AD 344 was the second year of Jianyuan of the Jin Dynasty (or of Jin Kangdi) whereas 139 BC was the second year of Jianyuan of the Han Dynasty (or of Emperor Wu). In traditional literature, one can therefore find references like "the first month of the thirteenth year of Jianyuan" (建元十三年元月).

Almost all era names have exactly two characters. Notable exceptions are from the non-Han Chinese Western Xia Dynasty (1032–1227). Of the 33 Western Xia era names, seven have more than three characters. For example:

  • Tiancilishengguoqing (天賜禮盛國慶 tiāncìlǐshèngguóqìng) (1070) "Heaven-given ritualistic richness, nationally celebrated"
  • Tianshoulifayanzuo (天授禮法延祚 tiānshòulǐfǎyánzuò}}) (1038) "Heaven-instructed rituals and laws, perpetually blessed"

Before the Ming dynasty, an emperor often changed his era name as often as he liked. The numbering of the year still increases on the first day of the Chinese calendar each year, regardless of the month in which the era name change took place. For example, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang changed his era name, Xiantian (先天, xiāntiān) to Kaiyuan (開元, kāiyuán) in the twelfth (i.e. last) month of the Chinese calendar. The second year of Kaiyuan (開元二年) began on the first day of the next month (i.e. Chinese New Year's Day); this made the first year of Kaiyuan (開元元年) consist of only the last few days in the twelfth month following the name change.


Ming and Qing emperors generally used only one era name during their reign, and it is customary to refer to Ming and Qing emperors by their era names. When an emperor died, his successor would adopt a new era name, but the numbering of the new era name would only begin on the next New Year's Day. For example, when the Kangxi Emperor of Qing acceded the throne in 1661, it was a few days after New Year's Day, so the Shunzhi era continued for the rest of the year, and the first year of Kangxi (康熙元年) would only start on New Year's Day the following year, in 1662. Exceptions to this are the Taichang Emperor of the Ming (being dead after reigning for only one month, his successor decreed that the Taichang era name be used for the rest of the year), the Emperor Yingzong of Ming and Hong Taiji of the Qing (both used two era names).

An era name was a symbol of imperial power. Declaration of another era name when one was already in use was regarded as a challenge to the current emperor. The existence of more than one era name at a time often reflected political unrest. In addition, using a particular era name was a political act implying recognition of a sovereign's right to rule, and one issue that traditional Chinese historians faced was which set of era names to use when dating a historical event. For example, when the Yongle Emperor of the Ming usurped his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor's throne in 1402, he ordered all records of the four-year-reign of the Jianwen Emperor to be dated as year 32 through year 35 of the Hongwu Emperor (the emperor preceding Jianwen Emperor)'s reign, in order to establish himself as the legitimate successor of the Hongwu Emperor.

Era names were also employed (under different naming conventions) in other East Asian countries such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam, mostly because of China's cultural influence. Imperial era names are still used in Japan. The Minguo calendar, used in Chinese mainland between 1912 and 1949, and still used in Republic of China (ROC), marks years as Minguo (i.e. the Republic), which is usually regarded as an era name. For example, the 1st year of the "Republic Era" was 1912. Therefore, 2019 is "the 108th year of the Republic Era" (民國108年). In Chinese mainland, era names were abolished with the adoption of the Common Era at the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Era system versus Western dating system

While the era system is a more traditional system of dating that preserves Chinese and Japanese culture, it presents a problem for the more globalized Asian society and for everyday life.

For example, even though within the nation people will know what era they are in, it is relatively meaningless for other nations. In addition, while Republic of China (ROC) and Japan only recognize documents dated in the Era System, their treaties with other countries are in the Dionysian Era (AD) system. In modern times, only Republic of China and Japan still continue to use the ancient Chinese era naming system.

Even in the domestic arena, the era system can present difficult dilemmas. For example, in Japan, it is difficult to keep track of the age of people who were born in the previous era. Also, while ROC and Japan both continue to use the ancient Chinese era system, since they have partially adopted the Gregorian calendar for non-governmental use, it is more difficult to track down dates that fall on February 29 leap year in the Western calendar.

Furthermore, in Japan, in theory it is difficult to mention future dates since it is sometimes hard to tell whether the current emperor will live long enough for its citizens to use that era name. However, in practice, documents like driver's licenses and 50-year leases use era dates without regard to this problem.

On the other hand, others suggest that the AD system has too much Christian connotation behind it and it is a form of cultural imperialism when an essentially European system of dating is forced upon other civilizations with their own long-used and equally legitimate dating systems. However, with globalization, the AD system is becoming more acceptable in Japan and the ROC.

Modern history researchers do not care about era names except for supporting other arguments, such as figuring out the biases and attitudes of a particular historian; however, era names are useful for dating events that were unique in Chinese history. Most Chinese dictionaries have a comprehensive list of era names, while booklets of more detailed and often searchable lists can be found in libraries.

See also

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