Heavenly Stems

The ten Heavenly Stems or Celestial Stems (Chinese: ; pinyin: tiāngān) are a Chinese system of ordinals that first appear during the Shang dynasty, c. 1250 BCE, as the names of the ten days of the week. They were also used in Shang-period ritual as names for dead family members, who were offered sacrifices on the corresponding day of the Shang week. The Heavenly Stems were used in combination with the Earthly Branches, a similar cycle of twelve days, to produce a compound cycle of sixty days. Subsequently, the Heavenly Stems lost their original function as names for days of the week and dead kin, and acquired many other uses, the most prominent and long lasting of which was their use together with the Earthly Branches as a 60-year calendrical cycle. The system is used throughout East Asia.


Sinitic Japanese Korean Manchu Vietnamese Yin and yang
Standard Mandarin Nankinese Sichuanese Cantonese Teoswa Hokkien Hokchiu Shanghainese Suzhounese Middle Chinese Old Chinese on'yomi kun'yomi
Zhuyin Pinyin Langjin Pinin Sichuanese Pinyin Jyutping Peng'im POJ BUC Wugniu Zhengzhang Romaji Revised Möllendorff
1 ㄐㄧㄚˇ jiǎ ja⁵ jia² gaap³ gah⁴ kap gák ciaq⁷ ciaeq⁷ kˠap *kraːb コウ (kō) きのえ (kinoe) 갑 (gap) ᠨᡳᠣᠸᠠᠩᡤᡳᠶᠠᠨ (niowanggiyan, "green") giáp 陽 (yang) 木 (wood) 東 East
2 ㄧˇ i⁵ yi² jyut⁶ ig⁴ it ék iq⁷ iq⁷ ʔˠiɪt *qriɡ オツ (otsu) きのと (kinoto) 을 (eul) ᠨᡳᠣᡥᠣᠨ (niohon) ất 陰 (yin)
3 ㄅㄧㄥˇ bǐng bin² bin³ bing² bian² péng bīng pin⁵ pin³ pˠiæŋX *pqraŋʔ ヘイ (hei) ひのえ (hinoe) 병 (byeong) ᡶᡠᠯᡤᡳᠶᠠᠨ (fulgiyan, "red") bính 陽 (yang) 火 (fire) 南 South
4 ㄉㄧㄥ dīng din¹ din¹ ding¹ dêng¹ teng dĭng tin¹ tin¹ teŋ *teːŋ テイ (tei) ひのと (hinoto) 정 (jeong) ᡶᡠᠯᠠᡥᡡᠨ (fulahūn) đinh 陰 (yin)
5 ㄨˋ u⁴ wu⁴ mou⁶ bhou⁷ bō͘ muô wu⁶ vu⁶ məwH *mus ボ (bo) つちのえ (tsuchinoe) 무 (mu) ᠰᡠᠸᠠᠶᠠᠨ (suwayan, "yellow") mậu 陽 (yang) 土 (earth) 中 Middle
6 ㄐㄧˇ ji³ ji³ gei² gi² ci⁵ ci³ X *kɯʔ キ (ki) つちのと (tsuchinoto) 기 (gi) ᠰᠣᡥᠣᠨ (sohon) kỷ 陰 (yin)
7 ㄍㄥ gēng gen¹ gen¹ gang¹ gên¹ keng gĕng kan¹ ken¹ kˠæŋ *kraːŋ コウ (kō) かのえ (kanoe) 경 (gyeong) ᡧᠠᠨᠶᠠᠨ (šanyan, "white") canh 陽 (yang) 金 (metal) 西 West
8 ㄒㄧㄣ xīn sin¹ xin¹ san¹ sing¹ sin sĭng shin¹ sin¹ siɪn *siŋ シン (shin) かのと (kanoto) 신 (sin) ᡧᠠᡥᡡᠨ (šahūn) tân 陰 (yin)
9 ㄖㄣˊ rén ren² ren² jam⁴ rim⁶ lîm ìng gnin⁶ gnin² ȵiɪm *njɯm ジン (jin) みずのえ (mizunoe) 임 (im) ᠰᠠᡥᠠᠯᡳᠶᠠᠨ (sahaliyan, "black") nhâm 陽 (yang) 水 (water) 北 North
10 ㄍㄨㄟˇ guǐ guei³ gui⁴ gwai³ gui³ kúi gúi gue⁶ kue³ kiuɪX *kʷilʔ キ (ki) みずのと (mizunoto) 계 (gye) ᠰᠠᡥᠠᡥᡡᠨ (sahahūn) quý 陰 (yin)

The Japanese names of the Heavenly Stems are based on their corresponding Wuxing elements (e.g. ki for "wood", mizu for "water"), followed by the possessive/attributive particle の (no) and the word え (e, "older sibling") or the word と (to, "younger sibling", originally おと oto). The Manchu names are based on their respective elements' colors.


The Shang people believed that there were ten suns, each of which appeared in order in a ten-day cycle (旬; xún). The Heavenly Stems (tiāngān 天干) were the names of the ten suns, which may have designated world ages as did the Five Suns and the Six Ages of the World of Saint Augustine. They were found in the given names of the kings of the Shang in their Temple Names. These consisted of a relational term (Father, Mother, Grandfather, Grandmother) to which was added one of the ten gān names (e.g. Grandfather Jia). These names are often found on Shang bronzes designating whom the bronze was honoring (and on which day of the week their rites would have been performed, that day matching the day designated by their name). David Keightley, a leading scholar of ancient China and its bronzes, believes that the gān names were chosen posthumously through divination. Some historians think the ruling class of the Shang had ten clans, but it is not clear whether their society reflected the myth or vice versa. The associations with Yin-Yang and the Five Elements developed later, after the collapse of the Shang Dynasty.

Jonathan Smith has proposed that the heavenly stems predate the Shang and originally referred to ten asterisms along the ecliptic, of which their oracle bone script characters were drawings; he identifies similarities between these and asterisms in the later Four Images and Twenty-Eight Mansions systems. These would have been used to track the moon's progression along its monthly circuit, in conjunction with the earthly branches referring to its phase.

The literal meanings of the characters were, and are now, roughly as follows. Among the modern meanings, those deriving from the characters' position in the sequence of Heavenly Stems are in italics.

Original Modern
shell first (book I, person A etc.), methyl group, helmet, armor, words related to beetles, crustaceans, fingernails, toenails
fishguts second (book II, person B etc.), ethyl group, twist
fishtail third, bright, fire, fishtail (rare)
nail fourth, male adult, robust, T-shaped, to strike, a surname
lance (not used)
threads on a loom self
evening star age (of person)
to offend superiors bitter, piquant, toilsome
burden to shoulder, to trust with office
grass for libation (not used)

Current usage

The Stems are still commonly used nowadays in East Asian counting systems similar to the way the alphabet is used in English. For example:

  • Korea and Japan also use heavenly stems on legal documents in this way. In Korea, letters gap (甲) and eul (乙) are consistently used to denote the larger and the smaller contractor (respectively) in a legal contract, and are sometimes used as synonyms for such; this usage is also common in the Korean IT industry. The 11th to 22nd letters (k to v) are represented by the terrestrial branches, and the final four letters (w to z) are represented by '物', '天', '地', and '人', respectively. In case of upper-case letters, the radical of '口' (the 'mouth' radical) may be added to the corresponding celestial stem, terrestrial branch, or any of '物', '天', '地', and '人' to denote an upper-case letter.
  • Choices on multiple choice exams, surveys, etc.
  • Organic chemicals (e.g. methanol: 甲醇 jiǎchún; ethanol: 乙醇 yǐchún). See Organic nomenclature in Chinese.
  • Diseases (Hepatitis A: 甲型肝炎 jiǎxíng gānyán; Hepatitis B: 乙型肝炎 yǐxíng gānyán)
  • Sports leagues (Serie A: 意甲 yìjiǎ)
  • Vitamins (although currently, in this case, the ABC system is more popular)
  • Characters conversing in a short text (甲 speaks first, 乙 answers)
  • Students' grades in Taiwan: with an additional Yōu ( "Excellence") before the first Heavenly Stem Jiǎ. Hence, American grades A, B, C, D and F correspond to 優, 甲, 乙, 丙 and 丁 (yōu, jiǎ, yǐ, bǐng, dīng).
  • In astrology and Feng Shui. The Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches form the four pillars of Chinese metaphysics in Qi Men Dun Jia and Da Liu Ren.

See also

This page was last updated at 2023-07-23 16:08 UTC. Update now. View original page.

All our content comes from Wikipedia and under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.


If mathematical, chemical, physical and other formulas are not displayed correctly on this page, please useFirefox or Safari