How Does the Chinese Calendar Count Years?

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Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which counts years infinitely, the traditional Chinese calendar is lunisolar and rotates on a 60-year cycle. This means that the years on a Chinese calendar don't ascend in chronological order, and instead its years are named with words rather than numbers. The year names are based on a combination of one of 10 prefixes, or stems, and one of 12 suffixes, or branches.

Each of the stems correspond to an element such as wood, water, earth or fire, and each of the branches translating to the name of an animal, such as the horse, rabbit, snake, monkey or rat. People who are familiar with the Chinese zodiac or the Chinese New Year might know the animal suffix that goes with their birthday, like the Year of the Pig or the Year of the Dog.

During the 60-year cycle, each of the stems will be matched with each of the branches, with the years proceeding in order until each stem is matched with each branch. At this point, the cycle starts again. For example, a 60-year cycle began in 1924, with the year name translating to "rat wood," and ended in 1983, with the year name translating to "pig water."