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Counting Age in China

Like most everything else, the Chinese have their own traditional system for counting age. In China, it is possible for a two day old child to be a two year old. How? It’s simple: the Chinese count the physical years in which someone as been alive and not the amount of revolutions around the sun [...]

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Like most everything else, the Chinese have their own traditional system for counting age. In China, it is possible for a two day old child to be a two year old. How? It’s simple: the Chinese count the physical years in which someone as been alive and not the amount of revolutions around the sun they’ve lived through.

According to the traditional age counting system, called xu1 sui4 虚岁, they year a child is born in is called their first year. Once the new year/ spring festival comes the child is then in it’s second year, and is therefore called a two year old. So if a child was born in the year of the cock it would be one year old, but after the spring festival and the arrival of the year of the dog the child would become a two year old — regardless of how much time it had actually lived. So a thirty year old in China is not someone who has lived 365 (not counting leap years) days X 30, but a person who has existed in 30 different years.

The Western equivalent would be if a child who was born in, say, November of 2010, it would be called a one year old up until December 31st. On January 1, 2011 this child would be automatically promoted to a two year old — even though it would only be a couple of months old — as this would be the second physical year in which it existed.

This is a different system than simply saying that the first 365 day cycle that a person lives is their first year, and they are thus a one year old at birth. Many cultures in the world do this. The Chinese way of counting age by the amount of physical years that a person has lived in is completely unique to East Asia.

To make things even more complicated, sometimes the time that a child spends in utero is also added on to their age, but it is my impression that counting age in this manner is not really too common anymore. Generally, the year in which a child is born is their first year.

One thing to regard is the fact that the Chinese have also absorbed the Western way of counting age, so they work on a duel system. If two Chinese people are talking with each other they will usually use the traditional xu1 sui4 method for sharing age, but if they’re talking with a foreigner or engaging in some types of official business, they will often use their Western age — which they call their zhou1 sui4 周岁. From what I can tell, this system of counting age is the same as it is in the USA.

“More people are using the zhou1 sui4,” a Chinese friend explained. It is becoming apparent that the traditional way of age counting may soon go extinct in China for most purposes outside of religion or astrology — as it has in Japan and Vietnam. The xu1 sui4, the old system of age counting is currently only being used by Chinese and Korean people, and both cultures are moving towards using the Western system for official matters. It is my impression that it’s only the matter of another generation or two before the traditional age counting system is no longer widely used and is considered yet another intrigue of China’s past.

Filed under: China, Uncategorized

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3617 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

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