by Ely Finch


Many temple objects have dates on them. However, these dates are generally not expressed according to the Western Gregorian calendar, but in traditional Chinese fashions. The year, for example, can be written either as the first, second, third year, etc., of a particular imperial era, or according to the Sexagenary System.

Imperial Era Dating

Imperial eras are the names of long periods of time. During the Tsing (Qīng) dynasty, a new imperial era was begun with the first day of the new lunar year following the ascension of a new emperor to the throne, and thereafter not changed again during that emperor’s reign. Each year of an imperial era corresponds to a Chinese lunar year.

The name of each Chinese era holds a significance. For instance 同治 T῾ung-chih (Tóngzhì) is composed of the character 同 t῾ung, meaning “together”, which can function somewhat like the English prefix “co-”, and of the character 治 chih, which means “to rule or govern”. The name was reportedly chosen by the empress dowagers Tz῾ŭ-hsi and Tz῾ŭ-an (Pinyin: Cíxī and Cí’ān), to mark the period within which the new child emperor, 清穆宗 Tsing Mu Tsung (Qīng Mùzōng), was assisted by them and court officials in the governing of the country. The meaning of T῾ung-chih 同治 is therefore close to that of the English word “regency”. This “Regency Era” began on January 30th 1862 and ended on February 5th 1875.

Modern and English-language reference works often give the dates of Chinese eras incorrectly, or use era names as if they were the titles or names of individual emperors, because of confusion with respect to the distinction between eras on the one hand, and imperial reigns, names and titles on the other. While Chinese eras may correspond closely to Chinese reigns (the periods in which emperors ruled), they are nonetheless different. Chinese eras are the names of time periods that began and ended with the start and end of Chinese years. New eras were generally begun on the first day of the new year following the ascension of a new emperor to the throne, and in some Chinese dynasties the era was also changed additional times during an individual emperor’s reign, though this was not done during the Tsing (Qīng) dynasty, the last imperial dynasty.

The Sexagenary System

Sometimes the year on a temple inscription, or a date on Chinese gravestone inscriptions, is expressed by means of characters that designate a specific “sexagenary year”. These sexagenary years are the sixty years of a Chinese cyclical calendar that begins again at year 1 after year 60. Within the time relevant to Chinese migration to Australia, the first year of each 60-year cycle began early in 1804, 1864, 1924 and 1984.

The Chinese sexagenary cycle is composed of sixty pairs of Chinese characters, which correspond to the numbers 1 through to 60. These are used to record years, months, days and hours on the Chinese calendar, chapters in books, etc. When they designate years, the pair of characters representing the year is typically preceded by the expression “歲次“ or followed by the character “歲“, although there are numerous  variant forms of this character.

In each pair of characters in the cycle, the first character is one of ten so-called “heavenly stems” (天干) and the second character one of twelve so-called “earthly branches” (地支). The ten stems repeat six times during a 60 year cycle (10 x 6), and the twelve branches repeat five times during the same 60 years (12 x 5). Because of this, the same pair of characters is only repeated every 60 years.

Months and Days

Often in an inscription, the precise month and day are not recorded. It may instead say something like:

• “an auspicious day in the ninth year of the Kuang Hsu Era”,

• “an auspicious day in late spring”,

• “an auspicious day in the first winter month of the fifth year of the T’ung-chi Era, which is the sexagenary year III-iii” (孟冬 “the first winter month” is a literary expression for the 10th month on the Chinese lunar calendar. Note that as such it does not necessarily correlate with the first true month of Winter on the Chinese solar calendar),

• “an auspicious day in the last Winter month of the twelfth year of Kuang Hsü Era”, or

• “under a rising sun in the last Autumn month of the sexagenary year …”.

The dates inscribed on temple objects correspond to whichever verb or verb phrase is used in connection with it in the inscription. Generally, this is something like “respectfully presented”, which means the date refers to the time of presentation/installation.

Sometimes the vagueness of date is due to the inscription being commissioned or carved weeks or months in advance of an object being installed in the temple. It would not have been known at that stage what the exact date of the opening of the temple or the installation of the object would be.

This is a continually evolving website, and new content will be added as further research is conducted.