The 24 Solar Terms

Written by Sally Guo Updated Aug. 2, 2022

The 24 Solar Terms were developed by farmers in ancient China through observation of the sun's annual motion.

These terms are used to mark the seasons, weather, and natural variations. The year is divided into twenty-four equal periods. This thus provides a time frame for farmers to plan crop production and farming as well as daily life and festivals.

During the Shang Dynasty (商朝 1650 BC), a year consisted of four Solar Terms. The Zhou Dynasty (周朝1046-256 BCE) used eight.

During the Western Han Dynasty (汉朝 206BC–220AD), 24 Solar Terms were identified and integrated into the Gregorian Calendar. And it continues to be used today.

Solar Terms are divided according to the sun's annual motion in the ecliptic plane (the Earth's orbit around the Sun). It is part of the traditional Chinese calendar zodiac.

The calendar takes into account the longest and shortest days of the year, as well as the two days of the year when the length of the day is the same as the night.

The days that reflect the changes of the season are Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox, and Winter Solstice.

24 Solar Terms reflect the seasonal characteristics of natural phenomena and agricultural production each year.

This illustrates the wisdom of the Chinese in dividing the seasons. They influence commerce and the livelihoods of the people. These livelihoods contribute to basic human necessities (housing, food, clothing, transport) and play an important role in daily life.

It is interesting to note, that in 2016, 24 Solar Terms were inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Origin and History of the 24 Solar Terms

Eight key solar terms were established according to the moving position of the sun and the moon in the beginning and middle of a month, and the climate and natural phenomena.

White Dew, Cold Dew, and Frost's Descent embody the course and degree of the gradual decrease of temperature.

awakening insects
Awakening Insects

Chart of the 24 Solar Terms

Season Solar Terms Chinese Date in 2021 Remark
Spring Spring Starts 立春 Li Chun Feb 4 Beginning of Spring in the South of China
Rain Water 雨水 Yu Shui Feb 18 Rainfall increases from then on.
Awakening Insects 惊蛰 Jing Zhe Mar 5 Hibernating insects start to awaken with spring thunder.
Spring Equinox 春分Chun Fen Mar 20 The mid-spring, day, and night are equally long.
Pure Brightness 清明 Qing Ming Apr 4 It is warm and bright (when not raining) vegetation turns green.
Grain Rain 谷雨 Gu Yu Apr 20 Rainfall increases greatly and is helpful to grain.
Summer Summer Starts 立夏Li Xia May 5 Beginning of Summer in the South of China
Grain Full 小满Xiao Man May 21 The grain gets plump but is not yet ripe.
Grain in Ear 芒种Mang Zhong Jun 5 Grain grows ripe and summer farming begins.
Summer Solstice 夏至 Xia Zhi Jun 21 Daytime is the Shortest and nighttime is the Longest day of the year.
Slight Heat 小暑 Xiao Shu Jul 7 It is hot.
Great Heat 大暑 Da Shu Jul 22 The start of the Hottest time of the year and when rainfall is the greatest
Autumn Autumn Starts 立秋 Li Qiu Aug 7 Beginning of Autumn
Limit of Heat 处暑 Chu Shu Aug 23 Marks the end of hot summer days.
White Dew 白露 Bai Lu Sep 7 Temperatures begin to drop and it turns quite cool.
Autumn Equinox 秋分 Qiu Fen Sep 23 Mid-Autumn, day, and night are equally long.
Cold Dew 寒露 Han Lu Oct 8 Turns a bit cold.
Frost's Descent 霜降 Shuang Jiang Oct 23 Turns colder and frost appears.
Winter Winter Starts 立冬 Li Dong Nov 7 Beginning of Winter
Light Snow 小雪 Xiao Xue Nov 22 Starts to snow.
Heavy Snow 大雪 Da Xue Dec 7 Snows heavily for the first time of the year.
Winter Solstice 冬至 Dong Zhi Dec 21 The shortest day of the year.
Slight Cold 小寒 Xiao Han Jan 5, 2022 Gets colder.
Great Cold 大寒 Da Han Jan 20, 2022 The coldest time of the year.

The Three Most Popular Solar Terms

1. Start of Spring – Welcoming Spring

The Start of Spring is usually around February 3rd, 4th, or 5th during the period of Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival, and marks the beginning of the spring season.

On this day, people from the south of China traditionally welcome spring by setting off firecrackers and eating Spring Rolls (Chun Juan or Chun Bing in Chinese), crisply fried pastry rolls filled with shredded pork, mushrooms, cabbage, and slightly crunchy bamboo shoots.

Read Chinese Food to learn more about Chinese Cuisine.

spring equinox
Spring Equinox

2. Pure Brightness – Remembering Ancestors

Pure Brightness is not only a solar term but also a traditional festival, Qingming Festival. It is also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day (清明节, Qīngmíng jié), and has been celebrated in China for centuries. The day is meant to commemorate and pay respect to a person's ancestor.

Qingming Festival can fall on any day between April 4th and April 5th. There are many classic ways Chinese people celebrate Qingming Festival:

start of summer
Start of Summer

3. Winter Solstice – Ancestor Worship – and Family Reunions

Winter Solstice marks the first official day of winter. The solstice happens at the same time in every place on Earth. It's when the sun on the sky's dome reaches its farthest southward point for the year.

At this solstice, the Northern Hemisphere has its longest night and shortest day of the year.

Winter Solstice Festival (冬至 Dōngzhì) also referred to as Winter Festival, is one of the most important festivals in China. It begins on December 21st or 22nd. The date is dependent upon the tilt of the Earth.

It's winter in the Northern Hemisphere when the South Pole tilts toward the Sun. The origins of Winter Solstice can be traced back to the Yin and Yang Philosophy of Balance and Harmony in the cosmos.

light snow
Light Snow

Traditionally, Winter Festival is a time for friends and extended families to socialize and enjoy delicious foods. The kinds of foods eaten during festivals vary from region to region.

Dumplings (饺子 jiǎo zi), sometimes dipped in a small bowl with a mixture of vinegar and soy sauce before being eaten, are a popular and essential food for many people in Northern China.

While in Southern China, it's customary for families to make and eat Tangyuan (汤圆 tāng yuán) during Winter Festival.

In other regions of China, people eat hot foods to celebrate Winter Festival and to stay warm!

For example, Mutton Paomo (or mutton soup) is a popular food eaten in Xi'an, home to the Terracotta Army. It's a spicy soup made with slices of mutton and small peanut-sized hunks of unleavened flatbread, often eaten with noodles.

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