Earthly Branches

The twelve Earthly Branches or Terrestrial Branches[1] are an ordering system used throughout East Asia in various contexts, including its ancient dating system, astrological traditions, and zodiac.

Earthly Branches
A carving of the Chinese zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
VietnameseĐịa Chi
Korean name
Japanese name
12 Branches
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
VietnameseThập Nhị Chi
Korean name
Japanese name


This system was built from observations of the orbit of Jupiter. Chinese astronomers divided the celestial circle into 12 sections to follow the orbit of 歲星 Suìxīng (Jupiter, the Year Star). Astronomers rounded the orbit of Suixing to 12 years (from 11.86). Suixing was associated with 攝提 Shètí (η Boötis) and sometimes called Sheti.


In correlative thinking, the 12 years of the Jupiter cycle also identify the 12 months of the year, 12 animals (mnemonics for the system), directions, seasons, and Chinese hour in the form of double hours. When a Branch is used for a double hour, the listed periods are meant. When used for an exact time of a day, it is the center of the period. For instance, 午時 wǔshí means noon or a period from 11 am to 1 pm. (The jiéqì system provided single hours and 15-degree arcs in time and space.)

Chinese seasons are based on observations of the sun and stars. Many Chinese calendrical systems have started the new year on the second new moon after the winter solstice.

The Earthly Branches are today used with the Heavenly Stems in the current version of the "traditional Chinese calendar" and in Taoism. The Ganzhi (Stem-Branch) combination is a fairly new way to mark time; in the second millennium BC, during the Shang era, the 10 Heavenly Stems provided the names of the days of the week. The Branches are as old as the Stems (and according to recent archaeology may actually be older), but the Stems were tied to the ritual calendars of Chinese kings. They were not part of the calendrical systems for the majority of Chinese people.

Twelve branches

Chinese Japanese Korean
Mongolian Manchu Vietnamese Chinese
Direction Season Lunar Month Double Hour
on'yomi kun'yomi
1ㄗˇzi2chúし(shi)ね(ne)자 (ja)ᠬᠤᠯᠤᠭᠠᠨ᠎ᠠᠰᡳᠩᡤᡝᡵᡳtí (SV: tử)
0° (north)winterMonth 1111pm to 1am (midnight)
2ㄔㄡˇchǒucau2thiúちゅう(chū)うし(ushi)축 (chuk)ᠦᠬᠡᠷᡳᡥᠠᠨsửu

30°Month 121am to 3am
3ㄧㄣˊyínjan4înいん(in)とら(tora)인 (in)ᠪᠠᠷᠰᡨᠠᠰᡥᠠdần
60°springMonth 13am to 5am
4ㄇㄠˇmǎomaau5báuぼう(bō)う(u)묘 (myo)ᠲᠠᠤᠯᠠᠢᡤᡡᠯᠮᠠᡥᡡᠨmão (non-SV: mẹo)
90° (east)Month 25am to 7am
5ㄔㄣˊchénsan4sînしん(shin)たつ(tatsu)진 (jin)ᠯᠤᠤᠮᡠᡩᡠᡵᡳthìn (SV: thần)龙(龍)
竜 (龍)120°Month 37am to 9 am
6ㄙˋzi6し(shi)み(mi)사 (sa)ᠮᠣᠭᠠᠢᠮᡝᡳᡥᡝtị
150°summerMonth 49am to 11am
7ㄨˇng5ngó͘ご(go)うま(uma)오 (o)ᠮᠣᠷᠢᠮᠣᡵᡳᠨngọ马(馬)
180° (south)Month 511am to 1pm (noon)
8ㄨㄟˋwèimei6び (bi)ひつじ(hitsuji)미 (mi)ᠬᠣᠨᠢᡥᠣᠨᡳᠨmùi (SV: vị)
210°Month 61pm to 3pm
9ㄕㄣshēnsan1sinしん(shin)さる(saru)신 (sin)ᠪᠡᠴᠢᠨᠪᠣᠨᡳᠣthân
240°autumnMonth 73pm to 5pm
10ㄧㄡˇyǒujau5ゆう(yū)とり(tori)유 (yu)ᠲᠠᠬᠢᠶ᠎ᠠᠴᠣᡴᠣdậu鸡(雞)
鶏 (鳥)
270° (west)Month 85pm to 7pm
11ㄒㄩseot1sutじゅつ(jutsu)いぬ(inu)술 (sul)ᠨᠣᠬᠠᠢᡳᠨᡩᠠᡥᡡᠨtuất
300°Month 97pm to 9pm
12ㄏㄞˋhàihoi6hāiがい(gai)い(i)해 (hae)ᠭᠠᠬᠠᠢᡠᠯᡤᡳᠶᠠᠨhợi猪(豬)
330°winterMonth 109pm to 11pm

Some cultures assign different animals: Vietnam replaces the Ox and Rabbit with the water buffalo and cat, respectively; Tibet replaces the Rooster with the bird. In the traditional Kazakh version of the 12 year animal cycle (Kazakh: мүшел, müşel), the Dragon is substituted by a snail (Kazakh: ұлу, ulw), and the Tiger appears as a leopard (Kazakh: барыс, barıs).[2]


Though Chinese has words for the four cardinal directions, Chinese mariners and astronomers/astrologers preferred using the 12 directions of the Earthly Branches, which is somewhat similar to the modern-day practice of English-speaking pilots using o'clock for directions. Since 12 points were not enough for sailing, 12 midpoints were added. Instead of combining two adjacent direction names, they assigned new names:

  • For the four diagonal directions, appropriate trigram names of I Ching were used.
  • For the rest, the Heavenly Stems (1-4, 7-10) were used. According to the Five Elements theory, east is assigned to wood, and the Stems of wood are (jiǎ) and (). Thus, they were assigned clockwise to the two adjacent points of the east.

The 24 directions are:

  Character Mandarin name Cantonese name Hokkien name Korean name Japanese name Vietnamese name Direction
1 ㄗˇ zǐzi2chú자 (ja)ね (ne)tí (SV: tử) 0° (north)
2 ㄍㄨㄟˇ guǐgwai3kúi계 (gye) (SK: 규 (gyu))みずのと (mizunoto)quý 15°
3 ㄔㄡˇ chǒucau2thiú축 (chuk) (SK: 추 (chu))うし (ushi)sửu 30°
4 ㄍㄣˋ gèngan3kùn간 (gan)うしとら (ushitora)cấn 45° (northeast)
5 ㄧㄣˊ yínjan4în인 (in)とら (tora)dần 60°
6 ㄐㄧㄚˇ jiǎgaap3kap / kah갑 (gap)きのえ (kinoe)giáp 75°
7 ㄇㄠˇ mǎomaau5báu묘 (myo)う (u)mão (non-SV: mẹo) 90° (east)
8 ㄧˇ yǐjyut3it을 (eul)きのと (kinoto)ất 105°
9 ㄔㄣˊ chénsan4sîn진 (jin) (SK: 신 (sin))たつ (tatsu)thìn (SV: thần) 120°
10 ㄒㄩㄣˋ xùnseon3sùn손 (son)たつみ (tatsumi)tốn 135° (southeast)
11 ㄙˋ sìzi6사 (sa)み (mi)tị 150°
12 ㄅㄧㄥˇ bǐngbing2péng병 (byeong)ひのえ (hinoe)bính 165°
13 ㄨˇ wǔng5ngó͘오 (o)うま (uma)ngọ 180ㄑ° (south)
14 ㄉㄧㄥ dīngding1teng정 (jeong)ひのと (hinoto)đinh 195°
15 ㄨㄟˋ wèimei6미 (mi)ひつじ (hitsuji)mùi (SV: vị) 210°
16 ㄎㄨㄣ kūnkwan1khun곤 (gon)ひつじさる (hitsujisaru)khôn 225° (southwest)
17 ㄕㄣ shēnsan1sin신 (sin)さる (saru)thân 240°
18 ㄍㄥ gēnggang1keng경 (gyeong)かのえ (kanoe)canh 255°
19 ㄧㄡˇ yǒuyau5유 (yu)とり (tori)dậu 270° (west)
20 ㄒㄧㄣ xīnsan1sin신 (sin)かのと (kanoto)tân 285°
21 ㄒㄩ xūseotsut술 (sul)いぬ (inu)tuất 300°
22 ㄑㄧㄢˊ qiánkin4khiân건 (geon)いぬい (inui)càn (SV: kiền) 315° (northwest)
23 ㄏㄞˋ hàihoi6hāi해 (hae)い (i)hợi 330°
24 ㄖㄣˊ rénjam4jîm임 (im)みずのえ (mizunoe)nhâm 345°

Advanced mariners such as Zheng He used 48-point compasses. An additional midpoint was called by a combination of its two closest basic directions, such as 丙午 (bǐngwǔ) for the direction of 172.5°, the midpoint between (bǐng), 165°, and (), 180°.

Current usage

The terrestrial branches are still commonly used nowadays in Chinese counting systems similar to the way the alphabet is used in English. For example, names in legal documents and contracts where English speakers would use K, L, M, etc. Korea and Japan also use terrestrial branches on legal documents in this way.

Since the celestial stems and terrestrial branches combined only consist of 22 characters, the four final alphabets – W, X, Y, and Z – cannot be represented by any of the celestial stems and terrestrial branches, and those four alphabets are represented by ‘物’, ‘天’, ‘地’, and ‘人’, respectively, instead.[3]

In case of upper-case letters, the radical of ‘口’ (the ‘mouth’ radical) may be added to the corresponding terrestrial branch or any of ‘物’, ‘天’, ‘地’, and ‘人’ to denote an upper-case letter.[4]

See also


  1. Yuval Blum. "Introduction to the "STEMS AND BRANCHES" theory". Mahaya Forest Hill Integrative Health Clinic, Toronto. Archived from the original on 2018-08-27. Retrieved 2018-08-27.
  2. А. Мухамбетова (A. Mukhambetova), Казахский традиционный календарь The traditional Kazakh calendar (in Russian)
  3. (pages 147 and 148)
  4. (pages 147 and 148)
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