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Timekeeping in Ancient China

A Chinese sundial in black and white
Photo by 泽新 李 on Unsplash

I was looking into ancient Chinese timekeeping and found this fantastic video by Ally of Five Thousand Years on Youtube. She gives a great explanation of the different methods ancient Chinese people used to keep time.

The time system used in Why Harem Intrigue is the 时-刻 system where time is divided into roughly two-hour intervals called 时辰 (shíchén) and quarter-hour units called 刻 (kè). Each 时辰 corresponds to one of the twelve Earthly Branches and one animal of the Chinese zodiac. The animals were used as a mnemonic for the system.

Here is a list of the 时辰 along with their pinyin, time, and zodiac animal. Beneath each, I include their literal meaning, pictographic forms (where definitions aren’t available), the reason for their zodiac connection, and my own musings. I had to infer quite a bit since almost every character is only used in the context of the 12 earthly stems, with no secondary meaning.

  • 子时 (zí shí) | 11 pm to 1 am | rat 
    • The only 时辰 that is divided into two:
      • 下子时 (xià zí shí) or 夜子时 (yè zí shí)| 11 pm to midnight
        • the end of the day
      • 子正 (zí zhèng) | midnight to 1 am
        • the start of a new day
    • Literal meaning: Hour of the child
    • Rats have the highest amount of activity during this time.
    • Getting it on~
  • 丑时 (chǒu shí) | 1 am to 3 am | ox
    • Literal meaning: Hour of the clown
    • Oxen ruminate and rest at night.
    • The time when all the drunks stagger home
  • 寅时 (yín shí) | 3 am to 5 am | tiger
    • Literal meaning: Hour of respect
    • Tigers are known to be the most active and ferocious at this time
    • Wives might need to wake up around this time to cook breakfast for their families (and doing so would be a way of demonstrating filial piety to their in-laws) – gotta respect that tiger mom! Monks may get up around this time for morning prayers as well.
  • 卯时 (māo shí) | 5 am to 7 am | rabbit
    • Literal meaning: Hour of the mortise (and tenon) – two pieces of wood that connect together in architecture. A mortise hole connects with a tenon tongue.
    • Rabbits represent 卯时 because the moon has yet to fade. This relates to the Legend of Chang’e and how she plucked a nearby rabbit as she was pulled towards the moon.
    • Umm… is it just me who can think of something else rabbits are known for?
  • 辰时 (chén shí) | 7 am to 9 am | dragon
    • Literal meaning: Hour of vibration
    • 辰时 is the time when dragons would make rain
    • The breakfast hour
    • Pictogram forms of 辰 show a kind of agricultural tool used for tiling the fields and removing weeds.
    • Time to plow the fields! Another way to pronounce 辰 is “cháng,” meaning “long” (like a dragon!). A third way to pronounce 辰 is “zhǎng,” as in “growth.”
  • 巳时 (sì shí) | 9 am to 11 am | snake
    • Literal meaning: Hour of the snake
    • Snakes apparently don’t attack and hide in the bushes during this time.
    • The pictogram form of this word shows a snake.
    • You learn something new every day.
  • 午时 (wǔ shí) | 11 am to 1 pm | horse
    • Literal meaning: Hour of noon / Noon hour
    • Horses are the only animal who remain standing during this time while the rest nap.
    • This explanation reminds me of the English phrase, “as strong as a horse.”
  • 未时 (wèi shí) | 1 pm to 3 pm | sheep
    • Literal meaning: Hour of the future [Hour yet to come]
    • Sheep urinate the most during未时 
    • I didn’t think the zodiac link would be sort of gross, but it’s certainly memorable. I thought it might be called “the hour of the future” because this might be when people are hard at work, working for their future.
  • 申时 (shēn shí) | 3 pm to 5 pm | monkey
    • Literal meaning: Hour of declaration
    • The pictogram of this word was a bolt of lightning.
    • A monkey’s calls are the longest and loudest during this time.
    • The literal meaning makes me think of afternoon tea and chatting with friends.
  • 酉时 (yǒu shí) | 5 pm to 7 pm | chicken
    • Literal meaning: Hour of the wine flask
    • Roosters head back to their cages during 酉时 when night falls.
    • Dinner time 🙂 This is the time ancient people might hold banquets (and drink wine).
  • 戌时 (xū shí) | 7 pm to 9 pm | dog
    • Literal meaning: Hour of the staple
    • The pictogram of this word was based on an axe.
    • Dogs guard the home and are most alert at night.
    • I’m guessing this is the hour where people took the time to fix things in the home.
  • 亥时 (hài shí) | 9 pm to 11 pm | pig
    • Literal meaning: Hour of the beast; Also known as the hour of stillness or rest when humans go to sleep.
    • The pictogram of this word originated from an animal with four legs.
    • Pigs snores are the loudest during this time.
    • Sleeping soundly like a beast~ Other kinds of beasts may come out during this time! Beware~ <3



If you reached the bottom of this post, **congratulations!!**
I’d love to know your thoughts! Do you have any questions?

I might add more later about the 更-點 system which was used to tell time at night.
I find it interesting that in modern times we’ve sort of combined the two systems
and say ‘#小时’ or ‘#點/点’ to tell time~

Thank you for reading~



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