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

Chinese currently has three sets of names for the days of the week. The standard naming as taught to foreign learners and officially favoured in China itself is based on the word for 'week', 星期 xīngqī, with the days ranged in a numerical sequence:

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
星期日 or
星期一 星期二 星期三 星期四 星期五 星期六

xīngqīyī xīngqī'èr xīngqīsān xīngqīsì xīngqīwǔ xīngqīliù
'week day'
'week one' 'week two' 'week three' 'week four' 'week five' 'week six'

The word 星期 xīngqī 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).

(Note: 'Chinese' at this page refers to Mandarin. In the so-called 'dialects', such as Cantonese, Hokkienese, etc., the naming is largely the same, with the main differences being found in pronunciation. If you want to check out 'dialect' pronunciations, see this dialect pronunciation dictionary.)

This naming has three interesting features:

In order to understand the origins of this naming, we need to look at another set of Chinese names for the days of the week, one that is not officially encouraged but is in widespread use, based on another Chinese term for the week, 禮拜 lǐbài (礼拜 in its simplified form). The original meaning of 禮拜 / 礼拜 lǐbài is 'worship'. This naming goes:

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
禮拜日 or
禮拜一 禮拜二 禮拜三 禮拜四 禮拜五 禮拜六
礼拜一 礼拜二 礼拜三 礼拜四 礼拜五 礼拜六
lǐbàiyī lǐbài'èr lǐbàisān lǐbàisì lǐbàiwǔ lǐbàiliù
'worship day' 'worship one' 'worship two' 'worship three' 'worship four' 'worship five' 'worship six'

Substituting 'worship' for 'star period' reveals the logic of the naming. Notably, Sunday changes from the meaningless 'week day' into 'day of worship', providing a valuable clue to the origin of the naming. The use of 禮拜 lǐbài / 礼拜 for the week is intimately related to the process whereby the Western-style week came into China.

Before they adopted the Western-style week, the Chinese 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 (Note 8: Christian missionaries in China).

The term 禮拜 lǐbài / 礼拜 in the sense of 'week' first appeared in writing in 1828 and is likely 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 as the equivalent of 'week' in English.

禮拜 / 礼拜 lǐbài as a verb normally refers to worship as practised in the Christian and Muslim faiths. Its extension to mean 'week' appears to be due to local Chinese noticing that the Westerners worshipped 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. It seems likely that the other days of the week were numbered off in sequence after the day of worship (Monday = 'day of worship plus one', Tuesday = 'day of worship plus two', etc').

The use of 禮拜 / 礼拜 lǐbài to mean 'week' among the common people did not remain unchallenged. 星期 xīngqī ('star period') in the sense of 'week' was first attested in print in 1889. This usage probably arose among the literate classes. 星期 xīngqī is an old term for the 'Star Festival', China's equivalent of Valentine's Day, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. The repurposing of 星期 xīngqī to mean 'week' came about with reference to the old system of planetary names that had been introduced into China over a millennium earlier by the Buddhists. (Note 9: Is 'xingqi' a modern coinage?)

Based on the nomenclature of the seven 'planets' -- the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn -- Buddhist translators had created a system of names based on the 'seven luminaries' or 七曜 qīyào:

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
日曜日 月曜日 火曜日 水曜日 木曜日 金曜日 土曜日
yào-rì yuèyào-rì huǒyào- shuǐyào-rì yào-rì jīnyào-rì yào-
'sun luminary day' 'moon luminary day' 'fire (Mars) luminary day' 'water (Mercury) luminary day' 'wood (Jupiter) luminary day' 'metal/ gold (Venus) luminary day' 'earth (Saturn) luminary day'

The story of how these names came to China, and then Japan, is told at Japanese days of the week. Whoever came up with the term 星期 xīngqī had a cultural horizon that was rather broader than simple contact with Western missionaries.

While 禮拜 lǐbài was the most common word for 'week' (and remained so right up until the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949), it failed to find favour with literate Chinese for obvious reasons. Not only was it associated with Western imperialism and a foreign religion, it was likely seen as 'inappropriate' or 'plebeian' by the literate elite, whose focus was on classical Chinese and the written word.

When the week was finally officially adopted in China in 1912 after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the term used was 星期 xīngqī. Allegedly, 星期 xīngqī was used to announce the adoption of the week in the government gazette of 10 February 1912 due to the support of the outstanding scholar 袁嘉谷 Yuán Jiāgǔ, who is remembered for setting up a government department to supervise terminology in textbooks in 1909. 星期 xīngqī went on to gradually gain in popularity, especially after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The adoption of 星期 xīngqī instead of 禮拜 / 礼拜 lǐbài did not involve a radical change; it simply substituted one word for 'week' with another. The original numbering system of 禮拜 lǐbài remained intact. The main difference was the substitution of the meaningless term 星期日 xīngqīrì or 星期天 xīngqītiān ('star cycle day') for 禮拜天 lǐbàitiān ('day of worship').

Given that the officially preferred naming involved nothing more than the substitution of one word for another, it is ironic that a third word for week has in recent times been making heavy inroads into the territory of 星期 xīngqī. This is the word / zhōu (simplified form ), literally meaning 'cycle', which has given rise to a third set of names for days of the week:

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
週日 週一 週二 週三 週四 週五 週六
周日 周一 周二 周三 周四 周五 周六
zhōurì zhōuyī zhōu'èr zhōusān zhōusì zhōuwǔ zhōuliù
'cycle day' 'cycle one' 'cycle two' 'cycle three' 'cycle four' 'cycle five' 'cycle six'

/ zhōu 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 'week' is itself of Chinese origin, having the meaning 'cycle'. The word fits quite naturally into Chinese and people are unconscious of its Japanese pedigree. One reason for the growing popularity of / zhōu, especially among the educated urban classes, is the fact that it consists of only one syllable. Each day of the week becomes a comfortable two-character compound of the type favoured in Chinese.

As a result, Chinese now has three sets of names for the days of the week, based on three different words for 'week':

While most days of the week have three possible names, Sunday has five due to the use of two words for 'day', tiān or .

All three sets of names can be heard in daily conversation, at times 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.

/ 礼拜 lǐbài is very common in informal conversation. It is also said to be more popular in dialects 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 / 礼拜 of their own dialect.

In addition to these three current naming styles, historically Chinese has had two other systems of naming.

One was the original planetary system that we noted above, based on the seven luminaries. Although the Chinese of the 19th century, with their prodigious written tradition, were still aware of the 'seven luminaries' nomenclature, unlike in Japan it never caught on as a way of naming the days of the Western-style week. Allegedly, the scholar 袁嘉谷 Yuán Jiāgǔ decided against them because they were tongue-twisters in Mandarin, especially names like 日曜日 yào. The planetary names 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 usage and were perhaps too closely associated with Japanese imperialism to be palatable to most Chinese.

A second system was used at one stage by Chinese Catholics in accordance with the favoured naming of the Catholic church. (I have been unable to confirm whether this nomenclature dates from the time the Jesuits were active in China in the 16-18th centuries or is a later development).

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
主日 瞻禮二 瞻禮三 瞻禮四 瞻禮五 瞻禮六 瞻禮七
主日 瞻礼二 瞻礼三 瞻礼四 瞻礼五 瞻礼六 瞻礼七
zhǔrì zhānlǐ-èr zhānlǐ-sān zhānlǐ-sì zhānlǐ-wǔ zhānlǐ-liù zhānlǐ-qī
Lord day Observe-ritual two Observe-ritual three Observe-ritual four Observe-ritual five Observe-ritual six Observe-ritual seven

These names are based on the word 瞻禮 zhānlǐ ('observe-ritual', simplified 瞻礼). In Chinese, 瞻禮 / 瞻礼 zhānlǐ is used both for observances of the Buddhist religion and for 'feasts' of the Catholic calendar, such as the Assumption, Easter, the Pentecost, etc.

Both the numbering (with Monday as the second day) and the use of a term referring to 'feast-days' is a faithful reflection of the liturgical week of the Roman Catholic Church, which takes Sunday as the 'Lord's Day' and then numbers the weekdays as 'feast-days' or feria, Monday being the second feria, Tuesday the third, Wednesday the fourth, etc. The term feria originally meant 'free days' in Latin, but later came to mean 'feast days' and then, for some unknown reason, came to be applied to the days of the week (Note 10: The feria). This system of naming was adopted by the Vietnamese but does not appear to have been seriously entertained in China.

I would particularly like to acknowledge my debt to The Origin of names of days of the week in Chinese (in Chinese) for allowing me to add considerable additional information to the above account.

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