When looking up individual characters in modern dictionaries, I often come across descriptions such as "one of the ten Heavenly Stems", "nth Earthly Branch", "one of the Eight Trigrams", etc.

  • Is it something relevant for modern Chinese?
  • Do people generally know that 甲 is the first heavenly stem, 丑 is the second earthly branch, and so on?
  • Are they used in modern expressions?

Edit: I can see that 天干, 地支 and 八卦 are still important and serious learners should know about them. One more question: how about the 64 hexagrams (易經六十四卦)? Are they also used for counting or enumeration, or in some fixed expressions?

2 Answers 2


Brief answer.

  • Yes. Some modern Chinese words are developed from these conceptions.

坤 in 八卦 represents the earth, female, Yin.

From these meanings, words like 乾坤 (the world. lit. Heaven and earth), 坤角 ( female characters in Beijing Opera, but not necessarily played by a woman) developed.

甲 is the first element in heavenly stems, and 子 is the first element in earthly branches. The heavenly stems and earthly branches were popular to record the year in ancient times.

we have a word 甲子 which means 60 years, because the cycling length of combinations of heavenly stems and earthly branches is LCM(12, 10) =60.

  • Yes, all most Chinese know these characters, however, some (at least some people I know ) can not remember the order exactly. It would take them few seconds to think of, for example, what the next element after 未? Today, in Chinese calendar, we still use this system to record the year. For example, this year is the year of 丙申 ( 申 indicates it's the monkey year).

  • Yes. You can see them in some idioms (成语) .

寅吃卯粮 To consume resources prepared for or available in the future. Not planned well. Not prepared well. Lit. In the year of tiger, consume food prepared for the year of rabbit.

you can also see them in list bullets in articles. In English, you use a, b, c, d …, while in Chinese, you use 甲乙丙丁

in organic chemistry, 甲乙丙丁 … are used to express the number of carbon atoms in the nomenclature of substance. We have 甲烷 CH4, 乙烷 C2H6, 丙烷 C3H8…

  • 2
    As well as bullets in articles, there’s also the legal use where parties in a contract, for example, are named 甲方,乙方,丙方, etc. (though of course, as contracts are usually between exactly two entities, the first two are most common). Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 22:08
  • 1
    the HSK dictionary 汉语水平考试词典 uses 甲、乙、丙、丁 for the 4 classes 级 of 8821 commonly used words,
    – user6065
    Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 22:31
  • Thanks for your answer, it's very helpful! One more question: how about the 64 hexagrams (易經的六十四卦)? Are they also used for counting or enumeration, or in some fixed expressions?
    – 米好 '-'
    Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 23:25
  • 1
    @米好'-' no, they are not used for enumeration, perhaps because 64 is a big number. Most people can't list the names of the hexagrams, unless they are a good fortune teller :). There are few idioms derived from these names. For example, 否(pi 3)极泰来,无妄之灾. You can consult the dictionary to understand these idioms. Comment section is not a good place for an expanded explanation. Sorry.
    – Huang
    Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 23:41
  • 1
    the flag of South Korea,大韩民国国旗 (又名太极旗), contains 4 of the 8 trigrams 八卦: 乾、坤、坎、离。
    – user6065
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 4:35

If you inspect it carefully, you will learn Heavenly Stem and Earthly Branch is similar to ordinal number. It is a matrix [10] x[12]. The combination are still use in traditional Lunar Calendar, esp. during Chinese new year celebration. While like all ordinal number, it is found in everyday use.

You can check dictionary for all proverb, verb and noun associate with each character.

8 Trigrams are actually using word with particular attributes. In fact, the character come first before the Trigrams meaning are invented. You can check the dictionary to confirm this fact. The trigrams also associate it with 8 different position(e.g. 乾 = East, 坤 = West ).

The symbol are represent by binary number. However, the sequence are named as in ordinal number sequence, start from the biggest number i.e. 乾 = first.

64 Hexagrams are mostly used for literature study such as I-Ching and fortune telling It has little use nowadays. The hexagrams is the square of (math) of 8 Trigrams, 8 x 8 . It is octal number actually.

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