Secrets of Ancient China: How to Tell Time

Nowadays, most of countries adopt 24-hour timekeeping convention, dividing a day into 24 hours. Do you know how to say time in Mandarin? Please check our Lesson,

However, in ancient China, people divided a day into twelve 2-hour periods, and they called each 2-hour period “时辰 shí chén”.

At first, the naming of 12 时辰 is closely related to natural phenomenon and Chinese people’s daily life. For example, ancient Chinese often ate their breakfast during 7am-9am. Then the 时辰 from 7am-9am is named as “食时 shí shí”, which literally means “the time to eat” (as  “时shí” means “time” and “食shí” means “food” as a noun or “to eat” as a verb). You can find the time period and name of each 时辰 from the chart below:

Name of 时辰 Period of the Day Meaning of the Name
夜半 yè bàn11pm-1amMidnight
鸡鸣 jī míng1am-3amCockcrow
平旦 píng dàn3am-5amDawn
日出 rì chū5am-7amSunrise
食时 shí shí7am-9amMeal time
隅中 yú zhōng9am-11amMid-morning
日中 rì zhōng11am-1pmMidday
日昳 rì yì1pm-3pmSun-decline
晡时 bū shí3pm-5pmDinner time
日入 rì rù5pm-7pmSunset
昏时 hūn shí7pm-9pmDusk
人定 rén dìng9pm-11pmPeople still
Ancient Chinese Twelve 时辰 (shí chén) Details

In Song Dynasty, each时辰 was further divided into two 1-hour slots. The first slot is called “初chū”, and the second slot is called ”正zhèng”. People then called the new half as “小时”, which literally means ”small hour” to differentiate with 时辰. 

Each 小时 indicates 1 hour, and until present days, we still use “小时” to mean “hour”. Therefore, if you hear Chinese people say “一个小时” ,  they mean “one hour”. If you hear “两个小时”, they mean “two hours”. Do you know what does "半小时" mean? Ask your teacher and comment below!

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