Date and Time in Chinese

Once you have mastered the numbers 0 to 9 you are well on the way to telling the date and time in Chinese.

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Day of month

Western Arabic numbers (0 to 9) are now used for the names of the days of the week and also the months (with a couple of exceptions). Before 1912 a different system of characters was used and in the distant past China even had a ten day week.

Weekdays are simply the two characters for ‘weekday’ followed by the number of the day in the week.

star : xīng

星, star Sounds like: hshing this has no direct equivalent in English. (1st tone)
The character for star is a combination of (see following) above the character for shēng produce. It gives the idea of stars as stellar fragments suggesting the long tradition of using astronomical observations to measure time.
phase :

期, phase Sounds like: tchee, an identical sound to for 7. (1st tone)
This is linked to the ‘phase of the moon’ and so appropriate for weekdays (the traditional calendar synchronized dates with the moon). The moon yuè forms the second part of the character. Putting this together xīng qī is a weekday. There are no special weekday names to learn except for Sunday. As in Latin, French, English and nearly all cultures the seventh day of the week in China is named after the sun.
sun :

日, sun Sounds like: ruh the ‘r’ sound is not the same as in English. (4th tone)

The character for sun is an ancient pictogram, it is derived from a round circle with an all seeing eye in the middle. Following the simplifying convention for drawing characters this has become a box with the dot becoming a line. When combined with the characters rì qī means ‘date’, a day in the year.

The sun is a potent symbol, and is the embodiment of ‘yang’ in nature. Associated with the east (from where it rises) and the emperor. Solar eclipses were important events, and were often seen as showing heaven’s displeasure at the emperor’s rule. The continuing importance of the sun in China can be appreciated from its place in the anthem associated with Chairman Mao ‘The East is red; the Sun rises ’.

heaven; sky; day : tiān

天, heaven, sky, day Sounds like: tyan as in Christian. (1st tone)
The character looks like large, big with an extra line to indicate the sky above it. tiān xià (all below heaven) has been used as a name for China from the earliest days. The character for sky can be used in place of ri for Sunday.

So the complete set of weekdays is:

xīng qī yī

xīng qī èr

xīng qī sān

xīng qī sì

xīng qī wǔ

xīng qī liù

xīng qī rì

xīng qī tiān

There is an alternative way to give the weekdays.

week : zhōu

周, week Sounds like: joe (1st tone)
The character for ‘cycle’ or ‘circuit’ is a combination of kǒu ‘mouth’ below the character for ‘earth’ inside a box.

So Monday can also be (and the rest of the week as before just by changing the day number):

zhōu yī

Days and months in Chinese

China adopted the Gregorian / western calendar at the foundation of the Republic of China on 1st January 1912 but it took many years before the traditional Chinese calendar fell out of use and it is still used to fix the date for many festivals. Days of the month used to be given different names but are now expressed as Arabic numbers.

moon; month : yuè

月, moon, month Sounds like: you-eh. (4th tone)

The character is derived from the shape of the crescent moon on its side. The Chinese character for month is named after moon just as in English and all other cultures as a month is the lunar cycle. It is the opposite to sun in the yin-yang system. The moon is the epitome of ‘yin’ - cool and feminine. It symbolizes the empress rather than the emperor. The autumn Moon Festival is widely observed when many moon cakes are consumed.

The Chinese written character for ‘day’ is but in speech the alternative hào is used for day. The order for dates in Chinese is to give the year followed by month and then day.

3rd February
èr yuè sān rì

24th November
shí yī yuè èr shí sì rì

Hong Kong, park, modern housing
A pavilion located at Nan Liang Garden in Hong Kong


In the modern calendar, years are given as numbers without the units for ‘thousands’, ‘hundreds’ and ‘tens’, the digits are just read out in turn with the addition of the character for ‘year’ after the complete number. In the dynastic past, years were recorded as the sexagesimal number year number within the emperor's reign.

year : nián

年, year Sounds like: start of nyan (2nd tone)
Originally the character was of a man carrying a sheaf of harvested corn - the culmination of a year of toil in the fields. Over the years the character nian for year has changed so the symbolism is not so easy to see. The nián monster is the subject of the legend of the foundation of the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).
yī jiǔ liù liù nián

èr líng èr sì nián

Telling the Time in Chinese


Hours and minutes can be given as numbers as in English. All Chinese clocks show the time in Arabic numerals and it is written down this way too. However just as in English there are some special phrases for half hours, quarters and expressing time to the next hour. Originally the Chinese had twelve divisions of a day shí chen and the double hours were named after the twelve earthly branches. There was also an early system of dividing the day into 100 divisions of 14.4 minutes : a kè but this has now changed to follow the worldwide convention of 15 minutes ‘quarter of an hour’.

The simplest way to give the time is as a decimal number hours ‘.’ minutes. The dot character in Chinese is diǎn, it is short for the full term diǎn zhōng clock. The time is followed by the character fēn to indicate minutes. If the context makes it clear that it is a time of day then fen can be left out.

dot; spot : diǎn

点, dot, spot Sounds like: dyan with a drop of tone in the middle (3rd tone)
The origin of the character goes back to the method of divination using the splits of tortoise shells to foretell the future. The modern form retains the idea of fire symbolized by the four dots underneath the character for divination.
division; part : fēn

分, division, part Sounds like: fun rather than fen. (1st tone)
The character is made up of two parts (divide and knife) both giving the idea of cutting and division. Fen is also used for the smallest division of currency.

quarter; carve :

刻, quarter, carve Sounds like: kur . (4th tone)
The character is made up of two parts (pig year and knife) which also giving the idea of cutting and division. Ke represents 15 minutes – one quarter of an hour.
short; differ : chà

差, short, differ Sounds like: char . (4th tone)
Just as in English you can say ‘quarter to’ for example 3:45 can be expressed as 4 hours less one quarter.

Here are some examples of times in Chinese.

shí diǎn sì liù fēn

shí yī diǎn yī bā fēn

7:45 can be said in any of these three ways:
qī diǎn sì wǔ fēn
qī diǎn sān kè
bā diǎn chà yī kè

One more little strange rule is needed, there are two forms of the number 2 : èr and liǎng. As two hours are considered a couple of hours rather than 2 hours it is written with liǎng rather than èr.

liǎng diǎn líng wǔ fēn

Time of Day in Chinese

The Chinese do not use the 24 hour clock, so afternoon, morning or evening is needed to give the time of day. These phrases include:

Early morning (before 8a.m.) zǎo shàng
it means early up
Morning (8a.m. to midday) shàng wǔ
it means above noon
Lunchtime (midday to 1p.m.) zhōng wǔ
it means middle noon
Afternoon (1p.m. to 6p.m.) xià wǔ
it means below noon
Evening (7p.m. to midnight.) wǎn shàng
it means late up

Full date and time

Here is an example putting together a full date and time. The order is always longest units first, and the time of day is put before the hours.

4:23 p.m. on 17th August 2023

èr líng èr sān nián bā yuè shí qī rì xià wǔ sì diǎn èr sān fēn


chà short; differ
diǎn dot; spot
fēn division; part
quarter; carve
nián year
shàng wǔ上午 Morning (8a.m. to midday)
tiān heaven; sky; day
wǎn shàng晚上 Evening (7p.m. to midnight.)
xià wǔ下午 Afternoon (1p.m. to 6p.m.)
xīng star
yuè moon; month
zǎo shàng早上 Early morning (before 8a.m.)
zhōng wǔ中午 Lunchtime (midday to 1p.m.)
zhōu week

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See also