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Days of the Week in Chinese: Three Different Words for 'Week'

Days of the Week in Chinese: Three Different Words for 'Week'

The modern Chinese names for the days of the week are based on a simple numerical sequence. The word for 'week' is followed by a number indicating the day: 'Monday' is literally 'week one', 'Tuesday' is 'week two', etc. The exception is Sunday, where tiān or , both meaning 'day', are used instead of a number ( is somewhat more formal than tiān).

This pedestrian method of naming the days is made a little more interesting by the existence of three different words for 'week':

  • The official term for 'week' is 星期 xīngqī (literally 'star period'), said to be derived from the ancient Chinese seven-day planetary cycle.
  • 禮拜 lǐbài (礼拜 in its simplified form) meaning 'worship' is a common term for 'week' in everyday speech.
  • zhōu ( in simplified form) meaning 'cycle is a slightly more formal term that is gaining ground as a compact alternative to the other two.

All three can be heard in daily conversation, often alternating in the speech of the same person. 星期 xīngqī is the 'officially correct' term that is taught to foreign learners of Chinese. It and zhōu are the only forms acceptable in normal Chinese prose, in official announcements, and in other situations where 'standard Chinese' is required.

禮拜 lǐbài (we'll continue to use the traditional form of the character / below) is very common in informal conversation but is much less used in writing or print. 禮拜 lǐbài is also said to be more popular in the south of China -- some southern dialects use only the cognate of 禮拜 lǐbài -- and 星期 xīngqī is said to be more popular in the north. Interestingly, however, Cantonese speakers speaking Mandarin may consciously use 星期 xīngqī as the 'correct' Mandarin form, in preference to the 禮拜 lǐbài cognate that is more common in their own dialect.

Using 星期 xīngqī , the days of the week in Chinese are:

  Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Ch orthography

星期日 or

星期一 星期二 星期三 星期四 星期五 星期六
Ch pronunciation xīngqīrì

xīngqīyī xīngqī'èr xīngqīsān xīngqīsì xīngqīwǔ xīngqīliù
Rough meaning 'star period day'
'star period one' 'star period two' 'star period three' 'star period four' 'star period five' 'star period six'

Using 禮拜 / 礼拜 lǐbài:

  Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Ch orthography (traditional) 禮拜日 or
禮拜一 禮拜二 禮拜三 禮拜四 禮拜五 禮拜六
Ch orthography (simplified) 礼拜日
礼拜一 礼拜二 礼拜三 礼拜四 礼拜五 礼拜六
Ch pronunciation lǐbàirì
lǐbàiyī lǐbài'èr lǐbàisān lǐbàisì lǐbàiwǔ lǐbàiliù
Rough meaning 'worship day' 'worship one' 'worship two' 'worship three' 'worship four' 'worship five' 'worship six'

Using / zhōu:

  Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Ch orthography (traditional) 週日


週二 週三 週四 週五 週六
Ch orthography (simplified) 周日 周一 周二 周三 周四 周五 周六
Ch pronunciation zhōurì zhōuyī zhōu'èr zhōusān zhōusì zhōuwǔ zhōuliù
Rough meaning 'cycle day' 'cycle one' 'cycle two' 'cycle three' 'cycle four' 'cycle five' 'cycle six'

While most days of the week have three possible names, Sunday has five. What's more, tiān or is sometimes dropped, leaving 星期 xīngqī and 禮拜 lǐbài to mean 'Sunday' by themselves. That makes a total of seven words for 'Sunday'!

So how did the modern Chinese names come about, and why are there so many?

Before they adopted the Western-style week, the Chinese originally used a ten-day cycle known as a xún in ordering their daily lives and activities. Although the Christian week was not unknown (it was known, for instance, from contact with the Jesuits in the 16th-18th centuries), the seven-day week as we know it first became widely familiar in the 19th century with the coming of traders and missionaries from Western powers. It was finally officially adopted by the Chinese government in 1912, after the fall of the last Imperial dynasty.

Although the Western-style week is a modern phenomenon in China, the names of the Western days of the week were known from antiquity. The nomenclature of the seven planets -- naming of the days after the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn -- had come overland from the West in the first millennium AD, resulting in a system of names translated into Chinese. The Chinese names, based on the 'seven luminaries' or 七曜 qīyào, went as follows:

  Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Orthography 日曜日 月曜日 火曜日 水曜日 木曜日 金曜日 土曜日
Ch pronunciation yào-rì yuèyào-rì huǒyào- shuǐyào-rì yào-rì jīnyào-rì yào-

These names largely disappeared in China but were never forgotten in Japan, where they were eventually revived for use in the modern era. (The story of how they came to China and then Japan is told at Japanese days of the week.) Although the Chinese of the 19th century, with their prodigious written tradition, still knew of this nomenclature, it never fully caught on in modern Chinese as a way of naming the days of the Western-style week. Allegedly, the outstanding scholar 袁嘉谷 Yuán Jiāgǔ, who is remembered for setting up a government department to supervise terminology in textbooks in 1909, decided against them because they were tongue-twisters in Mandarin, especially names like 日曜日 yào. The planetary names also enjoyed some currency during the period of Japanese aggression against China, having been attested to in school timetables of the 1920s or 1930s. However, they never came into wide enough usage to supplant the alternatives, and they suffered from a fatal flaw -- they had become too closely associated with Japanese imperialism to be palatable to most Chinese.

The planetary names also faced stiff competition from another quarter: a local system of naming the days had arisen spontaneously in 19th-century China following contact with Western missionaries (Note 8: Christian missionaries in China). The term 禮拜 lǐbài in the sense of 'week' first appeared in writing in 1828 and may be of dialectal origin. A dictionary of Cantonese colloquialisms from that year, entitled 廣東省土話字彙 Guǎngdōng-shěng Tǔhuà Zìhuì, gave 禮拜 lǐbài as the equivalent of 'week' in English.

禮拜 lǐbài in Chinese originally referred to worship in the Christian and Muslim faiths. Its extension to mean 'week' seems to be based on the Christian practice of worship every seven days. However, the specific mechanism by which this extension of meaning came about, and how the system of numbering the individual days developed, is not clear. Quite possibly the system started with Sunday as the 'day of worship' (禮拜天 lǐbàitiān), and the other days were then numbered off in sequence (Monday = 'day of worship plus one', Tuesday = 'day of worship plus two', etc').

At any rate, 禮拜 lǐbài remained the most common word for 'week' right up until the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Despite its popularity, 禮拜 lǐbài failed to find favour with literate Chinese. Not only did the word have obvious associations with Western imperialism and foreign religion, but the plebeian use of the term 'worship' to mean 'week' was possibly less intellectually and culturally acceptable to the literate elite, with their focus on classical Chinese and the written word. Since 1949 the use of 禮拜 lǐbài has declined. Although still widely used in popular speech, it tends to be avoided in writing both on the Mainland and on Taiwan.

The officially preferred word for 'week', 星期 xīngqī ('star period'), was first recorded in print in 1889. This name alludes to the 'seven luminaries' mentioned above, which were known as 'stars' to the ancients. It is not known how this usage originated. Modern Chinese sources try to make out that 星期 xīngqī is a direct outgrowth of the seven luminaries (七曜 qīyào) of antiquity. In fact, in ancient times the word 星期 xīngqī had nothing to do with the seven luminaries. It referred to the 'Star Festival', China's equivalent of Valentine's Day, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. The application of 星期 xīngqī to mean 'week' thus appears to be a modern innovation which arose in the latter part of the 19th century (Note 10: Is 'xingqi' a modern coinage?) .

Unlike 禮拜 lǐbài, however, 星期 xīngqī found official favour. The story is that it became the officially approved term because it was supported by 袁嘉谷 Yuán Jiāgǔ. Significantly, the government gazette of 10 February 1912 that instituted the use of the week in China used the word 星期 xīngqī. The word went on to gradually gain in popularity, especially after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. What is interesting is that the adoption of 星期 xīngqī in naming the days of the week simply replaces one word for 'week' with another. The original numbering system of 禮拜 lǐbài is retained intact, and the meaningless term 星期日 xīngqīrì or 星期天 xīngqītiān ('star cycle day') is substituted for the meaningful 禮拜天 lǐbàitiān ('day of worship').

The word 星期 xīngqī bears all the marks of an ingenious compromise. It is politically correct and exploits the advantages of rival names while avoiding their disadvantages. It allows the Chinese to refer to the ancient tradition of the 'seven luminaries' without copying the planetary names used by the Japanese. It does away with the foreign and religious connotations of 禮拜 lǐbài but retains the simplicity of numbering the days. It even manages to keep Sunday, the official secular day of rest, separate from the other days of the week without implying that it is a day of worship!

The other Chinese word for 'week', / zhōu, is a relative latecomer. It appears to have entered Chinese from Japanese, probably around the turn of the 20th century. The earliest written references are from 1901 and 1903. The Japanese word shū itself is of Chinese origin, having the meaning 'cycle'. The word fits quite naturally into Chinese and people are now completely unconscious of its Japanese pedigree. One reason for its growing popularity, especially among the educated urban classes, is the fact that it consists of only one syllable. Using / zhōu, each day of the week becomes a comfortable two-character compound of the type favoured by the Chinese.

One unresolved question is why the Chinese adopted the numbering system that they did, i.e., why was Monday chosen as 'Day One'? Was it due to outside precedent of some kind, such as the Catholic church's system of numbering the days of the week (see Vietnamese days of the week), or was it a purely pragmatic development by the Chinese themselves? In this connection, it is interesting that, at least in the 1930s, it was common practice to place 禮拜天 lǐbàitiān at the end of the week, i.e., as the seventh day. However, without more detailed information on the origins of the current system, which I do not have, it is impossible to answer this question.