Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (part 1 of 4)

I was born and raised in a traditional fishing village on the east coast of China. Over just a few short decades, from my birth in the 1960s to the 1980s, the villagers underwent massive change, going from living a very traditional lifestyle—without electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, motorized vehicles, bicycles, roads, and manufactured goods—to residing in a modern small town. 

       My father was a fisherman. The fishing boats in the area at that time were still of an ancient variety. My father worked on a small hand-crafted wooden sailboat, equipped with long oars, baskets of strings lined with fishing hooks, and an old navigating system called Luopan 羅盤 or cosmograph, a classical Chinese compass that is still commonly used in Daoist Fengshui consultation today.

       Every time a new Luopan was installed on the boat, a village ceremony was held. The first time I participated in this ceremony, I was fascinated by my neighbor, a practicing shaman, chanting over the Luopan in an ancient orally transmitted language. I remember feeling astonished that I could not understand a single word. I was also so curious about the written symbols on the Luopan that I asked him about it after the ceremony and was told that the symbols were something called stems and branches (ganzhi 干支). This vivid memory about ganzhi remains with me from my early childhood and I have never stopped feeling this excited state of childlike curiosity. 

       Since the early 1970s, I have studied and practiced many arts from the tradition of Chinese shamanism (wu 巫 ) and Daoism, gradually coming to understand that the system of stems and branches represents the most essential knowledge. In fact, it provides the fundamental the building blocks of all of the traditional arts I have learned. The stems and branches are the celestial time river, which carries the past, changes the present, and creates the future for both us as individual human beings and the universe as a whole. A skillful practitioner can rightfully apply their knowledge for use in divination, fortune-telling, and the general improvement of destiny.

Fig. 1.  An old wooden Luopan from the author’s personal collection

I have used the system for cosmological forecasts, predictions based on the Yijing (Book of Changes), Fengshui analyses, and astrological consultations that involved the eight characters over several decades. In 2005, I started sharing this information with the English-speaking world through quarterly newsletters aimed at supporting subscribers on the path of Daoist inner cultivation and peaceful living. In each newsletter, I provide cosmological forecasts that describe upcoming changes in weather patterns and their effects on health, together with basic guidance on relevant cultivation practices. I base my predictions on the ancient system of ganzhi cosmology as richly preserved in the Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經 (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon), the main source for Chinese medicine for over two thousand years. 

       In the following, I introduce some fundamental information on the system of stems and branches, following an earlier publication (Wu and Wu 2014). After that, I discuss Daoist concepts of the universe in conjunction with time and its division. Finally, I introduce a Daoist internal cultivation method that allows practitioners to experience the time river of the universe and, with continued practice, improves health and your trajectory. Throughout, information presented is based in the energetics and directions of the northern hemisphere, but both principles and methods are universal. 


The term “stems and branches” (ganzhi) is the common abbreviation of heavenly stems (tiangan 天干) and earthly branches (dizhi地支). Their earliest known record appears in archaic dragon bones (longgu 龍骨). For centuries, traditional Chinese doctors used them as ingredients in herbal formulas. Only in the early 20th century were they identified as oracle bones, whose mystical symbols were in fact an ancient form of Chinese characters. Archaeological evidence proves that the stems and branches have been in use in Chinese imperial calendar and divination systems at least since the Shang dynasty, that is, the 3rd millennium BCEAs yet, no one has been able to ascertain who invented the system, but most people believe that it existed long before the invention of Chinese writing. One theory, prevalent in the field of Yijing prediction, notes that heaven released the ten stems on Yuanqiu 圜丘 (Rotund Hill) during the time of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝), traditionally dated to 2700-2600 BCE. In order to understand the way of heaven and outline the best way of following the rhythms of nature, he instructed his minister, Darao 大橈 to create twelve complementary branches to complete the calendar. He duly set up a system called Jiazi after the first heavenly stem Jia 甲 and the first earthly branch Zi 子.        The Han-dynasty historian Sima Qian 司馬遷, author of the Shiji 史記 (Historical Records), maintains that it was the Yellow Emperor who invented the system of stem and branches for the purpose of ordering the Chinese calendar. Other books, such as Xiao Ji’s 蕭吉 (ca. 525-614) Wu-xing dayi 五行大義 (The Great Meaning of the Five Phases) and Cai Yong’s蔡邕 (133-192) Yueling zhangju 月令章句 (Interpretation of the Monthly Commandments), too, credit Da Rao with the creation of the stems and branchs as a major system within the Chinese calendar. The Integrated SystemFrom my experience practicing and teaching the arts of traditional Daoist cultivation, a most powerful method is figuring out the hidden influence or heavenly workings (tianji 天機), that is the way vital or cosmic energy (qi) works in life and can be manipulated and refined through the methods of internal alchemy. Doing so, we can make decisions that optimize our lives and accelerate our process of inner transformation. In Chinese medicine, too, understanding the heavenly workings opens ways of finding the best way to support and heal patients and clients. How then does it work?To begin, stems and branches originated in ancient Chinese cosmological sciences and form part of a complex calendrical system created to codify the patterns of the universe. For thousands of years, it has been held that those who master the system hold the keys to the sublime (Wu, Zhongxian, and Karin Taylor Wu. 2014. TianGan DiZhi—Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom Traditions. London: Singing Dragon). More specifically, the ten heavenly stems are Jia甲, Yi 乙, Bing 丙, Ding 丁, Wu 戊, Ji 己, Geng 庚, Xin 辛, Ren 壬, and Gui 癸. These go back to names of the ten-day week under the Shang and embody the way of heaven (tiandao 天道), which flows continuously and is envisioned as circle—round, spinning, circular, spiraling, reverting—never ceasing motion (Wu and Wu 2014, 188-89). It can be depicted as follows:

Fig. 2. The way of heaven with the ten stems. Diagram by the author

Similar to the heavenly stems, the earthly branches are a collection of twelve specific Chinese characters: Zi 子, Chou 丑, Yin 寅, Mao 卯, Chen 辰, Si巳, Wu 午, Wei 未, Shen 申, You 酉, Xu 戌, and Hai 亥. They go back to Jupiter stations, marking the years of its progress around the sun and are matched by twelve zodiac animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. They represent the way of earth (didao 地道) and are envisioned as still and stable: square, cornered, solid, firm, strong, and entirely without movement.

Fig. 3. The way of earth with the twelve branches. Diagram by the author

Although we use the heavenly stems and earthly branches separately on certain occasions, it is most common to use them in combination, matching one stem and one branch into a complete unit. This is especially true in cosmology and astrology, based essentially on the Chinese calendar and heavily relying on the system.

The basic rule when combining stems and branches is to couple only yang stems with yang branches and yin stems with yin branches. There are five yang stems and six yang branches, which means that there are thirty possible yang combinations. The same holds also true for the combination of yin stems and branches, which means that there is a chronological sequence of sixty possible stem-branch pairs. Altogether they are known as the sexagenary cycle (liushi huajia 六十花甲) and matched to the ongoing cycle of the five phases (wuxing 五行), characteristic of the dynamics of yin and yang and their never-ceasing flow.

Table 1: The Full Sexagenary Cycle 

These sixty form the basic structure of the Chinese sexagenary calendar. The number in the front of each combination shows the overall order: the cycle always starts with number one, that is, Jiazi, and ends with sixty, i. e., Guihai, from where the entire round begins anew. While the first ever Jiazi year may go back as far as Yellow Emperor and match 2697 BCE in the Western calendar, historically the earliest documented first year of the cycle is 4 CE. Either way,  the world is currently in the 79th cycle (1984–2043), and 2020 is number 37th or Gengzi, the Year of the Metal Rat. 

In part 2 of this article, I will share some of the practical applications of the GanZhi – stay tuned!

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