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"Age Inflation and Deflation" in Medieval China.

Using the twelve-year animal cycle, this paper uncovers and examines the dual phenomena of "age inflation" and "age deflation" in medieval China. While the first part raises serious doubt on the accuracy of the conventional method for calculating birth year in premodern China, the second section examining the deflation phenomenon provides yet another proof of the omnipotent law of economic rationality.


The crown jewel of classic Chinese historiography is no doubt the vast volumes of official and private records on major historical events and personalities, most of them clearly dated. As a result and helped by derivation described below, from the two Han dynasties (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) the majority of Chinese personages have had their exact dates known, providing a clear timeline of these historical players. Or so think modern historians. This can be readily seen from a cursory look at the ever-growing number of handbooks, dictionaries, "who's who" volumes, and encyclopedias of historical figures and historical subjects, with a great majority of entries listed with the exact dates in the Julian/Gregorian calendar.

Though quite different from the modern Western notion of official birth certificate, there is ample indication that detailed private birth records, down to the hour of the day, were kept assiduously by parents in premodern China, not the least for the purpose of future matchmaking, when such records would be presented and exchanged for finding the most suitable mates. However, no such direct records seem to have been made available to historians, neither ancient nor modern. It was not until the Southern Song dynasty that we begin to see exact birth years sporadically recorded in local gazettes, family pedigrees, civil service examination dossiers, etc., often with questionable reliability. Consequently, nearly all birth dates in modern references are derived from a combination of the recorded date of death and age at death of these ancient figures. While we may have reasonable confidence in the date of death, the first half of this paper raises serious doubt on the accuracy of the standard interpretation of the recorded age at death.

This interpretation is based on the Chinese notion that, at birth, a person is already one sui old. So if he or she died in, say, year 345 C.E. at age 50 sui, then the person was born in year 345 - (50 - 1) = 296 C.E. In other words, we have a general formula:

Birth year= death year - (age in sui - 1).(1)

The roughly one month's difference in the new year's day between the Chinese lunar calendar and Julian/Gregorian solar calendar notwithstanding, (1) the above formula is the basis for calculating tens of thousands of birth dates in Chinese history, in what can only be characterized as blind faith. Indeed, without premodern birth records, there hardly seems to be any way to verify or corroborate the accuracy of the above formula (1).

But is there?

It is indeed very rare to see an exact birth year recorded in premodern Chinese sources, particularly before the Ming dynasty. But starting in early medieval China, there emerged the folk custom of relating a person to his/her Chinese "zodiac" sign, namely the animal corresponding to the person's birth year in the twelve-year animal cycle. This folk tradition has spread to many other cultures and has lasted to this very day. While the recently unearthed Zoumalou bamboo strips of the Later Han to the Three Kingdoms era provide solid evidence of the onomastic use of the animal cycle, (2) the late Peter Boodberg was the first modern scholar to recognize this relationship in Chinese nomenclature. In two papers he identified a number of Chinese personalities whose "zodiac" signs were revealed by their names or epithets.3 Several years ago I used the same relationship to correct the dates of Yuan Hong, the Eastern Jin dynasty author of the chronicle Hou Han ji . (4)

The current paper applies Boodberg's idea in reverse. Because a person's animal sign was determined a priori by the Almighty at one's very birth with unimpeachable exactness, the relationship can be used to check the accuracy of the above unchallenged universal formula for calculating a person's birth year by modern historians. Even today, the animal sign is often the more truthful indicator of a person's birth year than other records. (5)

As suggested by the considerable uncertainties or "margins of error" in Boodberg's studies, another major contributor to the corruption, either random or deliberate, of the ancient dates is the numerous scribal, editorial, and printing errors accumulated in millennia of repeated history writing and rewriting. In fact, in the popular punctuated edition of the standard histories published by Zhonghua shuju in Beijing, the emendation of recorded age at death represents one of the most common categories of editorial notes.

I was therefore led to a much more faithful source of contemporary data, namely tomb inscriptions. It is fortunate that the most prominent realm and period of onomastic use of the animal cycle, namely northern China during the Northern Dynasties, also bequeathed us a large number of preserved tomb inscriptions, as collected in Han Wei Nanbeichao muzhi huibian . (6) I was able to extract from that collection a total of five cases that can be confidently ascribed to the use of the animal cycle in personal names, with page numbers in parentheses referring to that collection.

(i) Yuan Luan TA, the Prince of Chengyang of the Tuoba Wei (Late or Northern Wei) royal clan (p. 46). It was a time-honored Chinese tradition that children born in the year of rooster be euphemistically referred to as phoenixes or other noble birds, and luan was an alternate name for the (male) phoenix. The tomb inscription says this Tuoba prince died on the 25th day of the third month in the second year of Zhengshi, or May 13, 505. in the Julian calendar, at the age of 38 sui. The standard formula (1) would give his birth year as 505 - (38 - 1) = 468, a monkey year. However, the next year, 469, was a rooster year.

(ii) Another Tuoba royal family member, Yuan Zhen, the Regional Inspector of Ji (p. 76). (7) He had the style name Jinque. "golden sparrow." There is an intriguing side story that the Sogdians, who exerted a heavy cultural and political influence during the Northern Dynasties, renamed the rooster year the year of the bird (mryyy). (8) This Tuoba nobleman died on the 22nd day in the fifth month of the third year of Yanchang, or June 29, 514, in the Julian calendar, at age 46 sui. Formula (1) now gives us his birth year as 514 - (46 - 1) = 468, the same as the above prince. Yet one had to wait till 469 for the implied "year of the bird."

(iii) A governor Huangfu Lin of the Tuoba Wei dynasty (p. 80). In addition to the "horse" radical in his name meaning qilin "unicorn," usually written with a "deer" radical, he had a style name Zhenju "genuine foal," revealing an equine origin of his name. He died in the fourth year of Yanchang, or 515, at age 75 sui. Formula (1) leads to a birth year of 515 - (75 - 1) = 441. The next year 442 was a horse year.

(iv) Another governor, Song Hu of the Tuoba Wei (pp. 294-95). He died on the 26th day of the second month in the first year of Jianming, or April 9. 530, at age 70 sui. Formula (1) now gives a birth year of 530 - (70 - 1) = 461. Again the next year 462 belonged to the tiger, the governor's namesake.

(v) A high-ranking Minister of Education, Sima Xinglong with the same Xinglong, "rising dragon," as his style, of the Tuoba polity (pp. 348-49). He died on the eighth day of the first month in the fourteenth year of Taihe, or February 13, 490, at age 40 sui. By formula (1) we have his birth year as 490 - (40 - 1) = 451. However, only the next year 452 could claim the right zodiac sign.

It is noted that these five cases all came from the upper class. But such were the great majority of personalities who secured a mention in history books. Nonetheless, I also find the following case in the then independent Sinitic state of Gaochang in the modern Turfan region. (9)

(vi) A commoner named Xin Gouzi. Here is a standard homonymic euphemism for "dog son." The rather crude tomb inscription scribed on brick says this "dog son" died in the second month of the eighteenth year of Yanchang (578 C.E.) at age 38 mi. Formula (I) would give his birth year as 578 - (38 - 1) = 541. The next year, 542, was a dog year.

We move on to the Tang, a dynasty founded by the Tuoba's political and biological heirs. My sources for tomb inscriptions are Tangdai muzhi huibian and its sequel Tangdai muzhi huibian xuji. (10) It is interesting to note a conspicuous cultural trend in the Tang of moving away from the steppe norm of zoological monikers to more literate, elegant, and "high-brow" personal names. This largely reflected the simple fact that the great majority of those tomb inscriptions belonged to educated urbanites in a dynasty with growing sophistication in arts and culture. It is particularly striking that many early Tang tomb inscriptions recall the names of the dead person's forefathers that were clearly based on the animal cycle. I was thus only able to identify three more definite animal-cycle names with confidence, all from the early Tang era.

(vii) A "resident gentleman" (an educated man with no official titles or ranks) named Song Hu (Huibian, 342). He died on the second day of the eighth month in the first year of Longshuo (September 1, 661) at age 68 sui. Formula (1) gives his birth year as 661 - (68 - 1) = 594, which was indeed a tiger year.

(viii) A Military Section Adjunct named Zhang Shilong "gentleman dragon" (Huibian, 1011). He was buried on the 28th day of the second month in the third year of Chang'an (March 20, 703). Given that his death at age 73 sui was "followed by burial," this "gentleman dragon" must have expired in the same year. Now formula (1) calculates the birth year as 703 - (73 - 1) = 631, ahead of the dragon year 632.

(ix) Prince Guo I, the fifteenth son of the Tang founding emperor (xuji, 214-16). The prince's given name in the official history was Yuanfeng. But his tomb inscription simply named him Feng, "phoenix." He died on the 29th day of the twelfth month in the first year of Shangyuan, or January 30, 675, at age 53 sui. A rigorous application of formula (1) gives a birth year 675 - (53 - 1) = 623, again preceding the year of rooster 624. It is noted that the bulk of the first year of Shangyuan fell in year 674. This would have left a gap of two between formula (1) and the rooster year.

My exploration shows that the Northern Dynasties fad of formally naming children by the animal cycle petered out after the early Tang era, at least among the social classes that left tomb inscriptions and/or entries in official histories. Nonetheless, the list so far, from a rather exhaustive search of tomb inscription data, clearly demonstrates the incorrect results of the standard formula (1) for a great majority of identified cases. In other words, a modified formula

Birth year = death year - (age in sui - 2) (2)

would yield a more precise birth year for most of these ancient personalities. This revised formula, for example, can easily solve a standing controversy regarding the birth year of Li Shim, the second emperor of the Tang dynasty. (11) Without equally strong counterproof. I hazard that formula (2) should be applied to historical figures, at least from the Qin to the Tang eras, in all modern references. dictionaries, and encyclopedias.


Granted, the phenomenon of "age inflation" demonstrated above seemed to be mostly among people with high socio-economic status. What about less prominent commoners and lower classes? The available Tang data reveal a diametrically opposite pattern: the underreporting of age.

While the great majority of these lower-class commoners did not leave behind tomb inscriptions or detailed entries in history books, we are fortunate to find among the famous Dunhuang trove of ancient documents and the more recent tomb discoveries in Turfan Fit several dated government registers of households, tax collection, and corvee labor in northwest Tang China. These precious records contain rather detailed personal information such as age and name of the local residents at the time of registration, with many of them being plain folk with no government ranks or titles. In the following. I cite the Dunhuang documents from Dunhuang shehui jingji wenxian zhenji shilu, vol. I (abbreviated as DH), (12) and a Turfan document from Tulufan chutu wenshu, vol. 7 (TLF)." (13)

I first present a number of cases to show that the less educated Tang population did indeed continue to name their children by the animal cycle.

(x) A small boy named Bei Xianhe "immortal crane" (DH, 187). (14) In a register dated the sixth year of Tianbao (747), he was given an age of three. Formula (1) gives the birth year for this toddler crane as 747 - (3 - 1) = 745, a year for fellow birds.

(xi) A son of a Central Asian immigrant family named An Jingou, whose name was but a homonymic euphemism for "golden dog" (DH, 194). A register dated the fourth year of Dali (769) reported that the boy. age 16, died after the annual tax receipts in the second year of Shangyuan LTG (761). Formula (1) leads to a birth year of 761 - (16 - 1) = 746, a dog year.

(xii) A certain Zheng Shenlong with a title of "Supreme Pillar of State" (an honorific designation for war heroes) (DH, 214). In a household register dated the ninth year of Tianbao (750), this "godly dragon" was listed as of age 35. Formula (1) gives his birth year as 750 - (35 - 1) = 716, indeed a dragon year.

(xiii) A guardsman named Fan Duzi, whose given name stood for "calf-son" (DH, 247). In the same government register as the previous case, he was given an age of 50. Formula (1) gives his birth year as 750 - (50 - 1) = 701, an ox year.

(xiv) A widow named Liu Xu heading a household (TLF, 477). This given name directly used a dizhi sign, corresponding to the year of the dog. In a household register dated the third year of Shenlong 411 (707), she was given an age of 44. Formula (1) calculates her birth year as 707 - (44 - 1) = 661, and the next year 662 was a dog year, another case supporting my revised formula (2).

At first glance, the above cases appear to vindicate the accuracy of formula (1), as the proportion for using the revised formula (2) drops significantly from the tomb inscription cases. But a more likely reason for such a change is revealed by the next group of cases, which depicts a very different picture.

(xv) A "kinsman of official" (son or brother of a ranked official) named "immortal crane" (DH, 210). In the year 750 register, he was given an age of 29. Now formula (1) gives the presumed birth year as 750 - (29 - 1) = 722, behind the rooster year 721.

(xvi) A guardsman named Zheng Shaolong "successive dragon" (DH, 214). In the same register, his age was listed as 46. Formula (1) leads to a birth year of 750 - (46 - 1) = 705, again one year behind the dragon year 704.

(xvii) A young irrigation channel watchman named Gongsun Long'er "dragon son" (DH, 228). The year 750 register lists his age as 20. Formula (1) gives his birth year as 750 - (20 - 1) = 731, three years behind the closest dragon year 728.

(xviii) A valet serving a district magistrate named Quan Longlong, (DH, 118). The reduplicative hypocoristica Longlong here was equivalent to Longzi "dragon son, dragon boy." The year 750 register lists his age as 18. Thus formula (1) leads to a birth year of 750 - (19 - 1) = 733, full five years behind the closest dragon year 728. This whopper was likely necessitated by the Tang government rule that the post of zhiyi, "valet" (a reduced form of corvee service), can only be filled by a zhongnan, "male adolescent." (15)

(xix) A "bland adult male 'H 1.," the rock bottom of the Tang societal pecking order save slaves, named Zhang Du'er "calf-son" (DH, 253). The same 750 register lists his age as 24. Thus his birth year by formula (1) would be 750 - (24 - 1) = 727, two years behind the true ox year 725.

(xx) Another "bland adult male" named Ping Chongluan "soaring phoenix" (DH, 254). By formula (1), his registered age 39 in year 750 leads to a birth year of 750 - (39 - 1) =712, three years past the rooster year 709.

(xxi) A garrison soldier TV named Suo Chonghe "soaring crane" (DH, 268). In a government register dated 772, he was given an age of 51. Formula (1) then calculates his birth year as 772 - (51 - 1) = 722, one year behind the rooster year 721.

All in all, unless the folk use of animal cycle was completely out of whack, we see an unmistakable pattern of underreporting one's age in various government registers among the less prominent members of Tang society. But given the strong economic and social incentives or disincentives induced by the Sui and Tang laws on taxation, corvee, and military service, such underreporting should not be a surprise.

For instance, Tang taxation law defined adult males as those from age 21 to 60 sui. Unless exempt from taxation by holding certain official rank or other status, each man was subjected to an annual head tax of two shi of grain (about 160 kilograms) and two zhang tot' silk (about six meters), plus twenty days of unpaid corvee labor. (16) On top of this tax burden, there was the much-dreaded military service that had driven men into self-mutilation to dodge. (17) As for incentives, in theory, each adult male (including young adolescents from age 18 sui on) would also be entitled to receive from authorities 100 mu of farmland (about 3.6 hectares) under the famous "equal-field system" juntian zhi. (18) But modern research has revealed that much of this system had become hollow and impractical even by early Tang times. (19) The strongest proof in my view is the rampant evasion of household registration, a prerequisite for this land entitlement. According to Du You, a Tang finance minister, even at the peak of Tang prosperity the government failed to register about one-third of Tang households. (20) Small wonder those who were stuck on government registers would try their best to underreport their age to avoid or postpone the head tax and corvee labor, much less the military service.

In fact, such deceitful "age deflation" was recognized by the Tang court early on. In year 626, shortly after the Xuanwu Gate coup d'etat, the newly enthroned Emperor Taizong decreed the mobilization of the formidable "citizen-soldiers" fubing against the aggressive Turks who saw a golden opportunity in the Tang's recent fratricidal mini civil war. A senior courtier Feng Deyi suggested that male adolescents not yet of age 18 sui but "with big, adult bodies" be included in the draft. The emperor concurred and said: (21)
  The big-bodied male adolescents are those crafty and deceitful
  people who cheat to evade military and corvee services.

However, the moralistic, or realistic, minister Wei Zheng refused to go along, and he eventually persuaded Emperor Taizong to drop such a draconian measure that could only exacerbate a bad situation and stoke public resentment. The Sui and Tang government stipulation of -face-to-face inspection" maoyue VA or "face-to-face determination" maoding for all household members in the registration process was apparently an effort to minimize such falsification. (22) The increase of the legal age for adulthood from 21 to 23 sui in the third year of Tianbao (744) (23) was likely a tacit acknowledgment of such widespread "tax-cheating" as well.

On the other hand, several cases cited above show that when tax and corvee were not of concern, ordinary Tang folk applied the animal cycle with impeccable precision. The first is case (x): the three-sui old boy's age was rather faithfully registered, as it was impossible for the government to demand head tax and corvee service from a toddler, and there was little room in this case for underreporting to boot. Then there is case (xi) of the juvenile "golden dog," because one could not tax a dead person who in all likelihood left no estate. The widow case (xiv) that conforms to my formula (2) is also pertinent, because Tang women in general did not pay taxes, (24) and except in rare situations, such as under the "bad last emperor" of the Sui, women were exempt from corvee labor, and would not be drafted into the army either.

In summary, the visibly widespread age underreporting violating the twelve-year animal cycle reveals how the supposedly ignorant commoners in medieval China had outsmarted the sophisticated imperial bureaucracy. In addition to serving as a premodern case of the adage of "lies, damned lies, and (government) statistics," it proves that even the strongest and oldest cultural tradition was no match against the law of economic rationality.

The author thanks Victor Mair for his unwavering help in the preparation of this article, and the JAOS editor and reviewer for suggestions for improvement.

(1.) The Julian/Gregorian calendar was almost always ahead of the Chinese calendar in that the Julian/Gregorian new year usually occurred in the twelfth or eleventh month of the Chinese year. The only exception was the period 690-700 C.E., when the revolutionary Empress Wu Zetian advanced the Chinese new year by two full lunar months.

(2.) I have counted more than eighty zoological personal names covering nearly all animals in the twelve-year cycle in Changsha Jiandu Bowuguan et al., comp., Changsha Zoumalou Sanguo Wujian-Zhufian, 2 vols. (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe. 2003 and 2007).

(3.) "Marginalia to the Histories of the Northern Dynasties." HJAS 3 (1938): 223-53; 4 (1939): 230-83, and "Chinese Zoographic Names as Chronograms," HJAS 5 (1940): 128-36.

(4.) "Yuan Hong: A Case of Premature Death by Historians?" JAOS 123 (2003): 841-46.

(5.) I thank Professor S. F. Lai 410,41, of National Tsing Hua University. Taiwan, for citing actual cases to demonstrate this fact in a personal communication.

(6.) Compiled by Zhao Chao (Tianjin: Tianjin guji chubanshe, 1990).

(7.) All official titles in English, if standard translations can be found, follow Charles 0. Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1985).

(8.) Sec, for instance. Harold Bailey. "Hvatanica," BSOS 8 (1935-37): 923-34.

(9.) Hou Jie and Wu Meilin, comp, and annot, Tulufan chutu zhuanzhi jizhu (Chengdu: Bashu shushe. 2003). 1:141-42.

(10.) Both works were compiled by Zhou Shaoliang and Zhao Chao (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1992 and 2001).

(11.) See Hu Rulei, Li Shimin zhuan (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1984).

(12.) and Huang Yongnian, "Tang Taizong shengnian kaoshi," in Huang. Wenshi cungao (Xi'an: Sanqin chubanshe, 2004). 122-27.

(12.) Tang Geng'ou and Lu Hongji PitTM, ed. and comp. (Beijing: Shumu wenxian chubanshe, 1986).

(13.) Tang Changru et al., comp. (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1986).

(14.) The family name Bei is likely a corrupted reading. The blurred character in the original document is hard to identify clearly.

(15.) See, for instance, Chen Guocan, "Tangdai de zhiyi yu zhiyiqian, Zhonghua wenshi luncong, 2006: 3, 235-46.

(16.) Li Linfu et al, Tang Liudian (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1992), 3.74-76.

(17.) As described by Bai Juyi in his social jeremiad "Xinfeng zhebi weng (The old man of Xinfeng with a broken arm), Bai Juyi ji (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979), 3.61-62. For an English translation, see Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (London: Allen and Unwin, 1946), 129.

(18.) Tang Liudian, 335.

(19.) See, for example, Yang Jiping Beichao Sui-Tang juntianzhi xintan (Changsha: Yuelu shushe, 2001), chapter 3.

(20.) Tongdian AA (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1988), 7.157.

(21.) Sima Guang et al., Zizhi tongjian (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1956), 192.6027.

(22.) Wei Zheng et al., Sui shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 24.681, and Tongdian, 7.155.

(23.) Tongdian. 7.155.

(24.) See, for example, Han Guopan, Beichao Sui-Tang de juntian zhidu (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1984), 159.

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Author:Chen, Sanping
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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