This website describes “Days of the Week in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese”:

There’s something friendly and familiar about the names of the days of the week in English and other Western European languages. Each has its quirks (the Romance languages use Roman gods, the Germanic languages use Germanic gods, Spanish and Italian use ‘Sabbath’ instead of ‘Saturday’) but with a bit of background they fall into an interesting but reassuring pattern.

Not so Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese (CJV), which seem completely alien. Chinese and Vietnamese simply count the days of the week; Japanese uses a strange collection of elemental names reminiscent of primitive religion. Given that Chinese and Vietnamese can’t even agree which day to count from, the three languages seem to have little to do with each other, let alone the languages of Europe.

But this appearance is deceptive. A little delving reveals a much more complex picture that is every bit as fascinating as the languages of the West. Ironically, Japanese and Vietnamese turn out to be more faithful to traditional Western concepts of the week than modern English is.

It also has a comprehensive link section, which includes material on the Western systems. (Via aldiboronti at Wordorigins.)


  1. An interesting site, thanks! This brings up something I have wondered about in the past, namely: how far back (in the west) is there agreement about what day of the week it was? That is to say, how far back can we be sure of an uninterrupted succession of Sun., Mon.,Tue., Wed., Thu., Fri., Sat.?
    I know that there have been times in history where a day or set of calendar dates was dropped in order to keep the seasons in agreement with the months — but I would assume that when this happened, it did not affect what day of the week it was. How did the various nations remain in agreement about that? Is this just one of those things that disappears into the mists of ancience, impossible to know?

  2. I always wondered about the origin of Japanese names for the days of the week, because they seemed to correspond to the Western ones.
    I also wondered about the Indian names for the days. The Hindu calendar seems to use 7 days in a week, and the names also correspond to the same planets as the Roman ones.
    I always wondered whether the connection was an ancient one, or if it was a post-Islamic or post-colonial invention. Does anyone have any info on this?

  3. When I was in Taiwan the Roman letter “W” (for English “week”) was used on charts as a space-saver, pronounced “xing-qi”. This was in a hospital, whose staff probably mostly were literate in a western language, probably English.
    I believe that the prejudive against “libai” was there in Taiwan too. Taiwan Christians are a small minority, mostly Mainlanders I think, and not compeltely admired — I’d like to hear from someone. In one movie (T’ai Shang T’ai Hsia) the audience burst out laughing when the very nice Chinese Christian family (good guys in the movie) said grace before a meal.
    According to a source I’ve lost track of, a XX-c Chinese astrologer’s manual included names of the week clearly derived from an Iranian language.

  4. I just got finished explaining to my students in “Early Chinese Art and Culture” that the early Chinese (as early as the Shang dynasty) divided their thirty-day lunar month into three ten-day ‘weeks’ or “xun” (旬) which were numbered one through ten using the system that later became known as the Heavenly Stems part of the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches system. There’s some evidence to suggest that deceased ancestors in the Shang were given posthumous “temple names” that contained one of these ten terms, so that your grandfather might be known posthumously as the ten-term equivalent of “Ancestor Tuesday” or something like that. We think that you would then sacrifice to your grandfather on the day that was part of his temple name. The names of famous Shang kings like Wu Ding take this form.
    This system persisted till the introduction of the Western seven-day week, and still persists in the lunar calendar. In contemporary Chinese you can still refer to the early, middle, and late parts of the month as 上旬, 中旬, 下旬 respectively. It’s interestingly decimal, especially since the phases of the moon tend to divide the lunar month into two or four terms rather than three (as with many Chinese Buddhist observations which are bimonthly, at the full and dark of the moon).

  5. Of course, he’s talking about the modern Japanese naming system, which is supposed to match the western system.
    Before that they had a hellishly complicated system that I don’t pretend to understand, but had six-day weeks with Buddhist terminology (which you still see on modern Japanese calendars, including Microsoft Outlook 2003). This is still used to determine marriage dates and to get discounts for moving on non-auspicious days.
    There’s also a cycle of 60 years (10 calendar signs mixed with wood, fire earth, gold and water properties), plus twelve signs (you’ve probably seen “year of the rabbit”, etc.), and the dates themselves don’t match western dates.
    I’ve looked at conversion calendars and they give me headaches.

  6. In glorious Lithuanophonia, the pagan theological fossils of the degenerate West have been cast out:

    Because the week has seven days, they are named after the sequence of the days: the first (“pirma”) day (“diena”) of the week is called “pirmadienis”, the second (“antra”) – “antradienis” then “treciadienis”, “ketvirtadienis”, “penktadienis” and “sestadienis” (Saturday). The name of the seventh day is perhaps somewhat unusual for instead of “septintadienis” we have “sekmadienis”. The word “sekmas” is an old form of the word “septintas” (seventh).

    (More in the spirit of hos Hat, the month names – on the same page – are barking.)

  7. The word for February is based on the word for ‘summer’?! Barking indeed.

  8. Shows how much slavic is in Lithuanian: June in Ukranian is also Лирень, Month of Linden Blossoms.

  9. Michael Farris says

    Poles are, typically, behind the times as lipiec in Polish is July. They are ahead of the Czechs for whom Kveten(sp?) is May and not April (kwiecień)

  10. [Sorry, involuntary clicking syndrome – haven’t finished]
    However, in Ukranian February is sensibly called Лютий, “Fierce” and October- Жовтень (“Month of the yellow leaves”)
    I remember when teaching my son Russian days of the week the most difficult day to memorise for him was Wednesday, Среда, for some reason – until I explaned the concept of symmetry : starting from Sunday, there are 3 days before Wed and 3 days after it, that’s why it is called the “middle day”.
    I think it’s the only day of the week he remembers in Russian.

  11. Correction – M.Farris is right, it’s July in Ukranian too. June is Червень , “Beautiful, or Red, month”

  12. Latvian has the same system for days of the week except Sunday is Svētdiena–somewhere between Sunday and holiday. Russian has the best of all worlds: weekdays are basically ordinals, Saturday is Sabbath, and Sunday is Resurrection.

  13. The word for February is based on the word for ‘summer’?! Barking indeed.
    It’s a touching symbol of Lithuanian solidarity with the southern hemisphere.

  14. The turn this discussion has taken wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the French Revolutionary Calandar. for instance.

  15. Immortalized by Karl Marx’s anti-Napoléon III pamphlet Le 18 brumaire de Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.
    By the way, fine precisions about libai vs. xingqi in the Chinese system (I spontaneously use the former, as do most of the Southerners I know). And I am glad I learned about the Vietnamese system.
    As anecdotes go: when I have to suddenly switch from Greek to Chinese, and vice versa, I have to concentrate to avoid saying, e.g., “libai er” (Tuesday, “weekday nb. 2”) when in fact I mean “libai yi” (Monday, “weekday nb. 1”), because I’m thinking “deftéra” (“the 2nd”, the Greek week starts on Sunday).

  16. Regarding the famous first line of the Marx book, about Hegel saying “somewhere” that history happens twice, first as tragedy and then as farce, Alexander Cockburn has this to say:
    “In his 1973 NLR/Penguin edition, David Fernbach claimed that it is doubtful whether Hegel ever said any such thing. On the other hand, Engels had recently written Marx a letter in which he observed, ‘It really seems as if old Hegel in his grave were acting as World Spirit and directing history, ordaining most conscientiously that it should all be unrolled twice over, once as a great tragedy and once as a wretched farce.’ Marx obviously thought it was a bit more dignified to cite Hegel than to say ‘Fred Engels was saying to me only the other day…'”

  17. To paraphrase Huey Freeman: “Y’know, I don’t hate Alexander Cockburn”. And I had no idea about the background of that (apparently) misattributed quote. Thanks.

  18. Patric Mueller says

    Given that Chinese and Vietnamese can’t even agree which day to count from, …

    The Western European languages don’t agree either. Jimmy Ho wrote that the Greek week starts on Sunday, but in German the beginning of the week is nowadays clearly Monday.

  19. Jimmy: You should read his father Claud Cockburn’s book I, Claud — it’s hilarious and shows you where the son got his attitude. (Claud was a left-wing reporter in the ’30s.)

  20. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll keep it in mind.

  21. Funny how I know just enough Portuguese (which also numbers its days, and starting with Sunday like Greek) to cause me momentary confusion whenever I have to mention a day of the week in Mandarin.

  22. The first thing I asked the computer when its oracular presence was available to me, long ago in another land, was what the path of the moon around the earth looked like.
    Not as intuitive as it might seem, and I couldn’t get it imagined from the scanty info I had. We browsed here and there, and then bingo, voila, a clear diagram.
    No loop-the-loop, no spiral, a heliocentric sigmoid ring, like the earth around the sun only weavy; but it never goes back, never crosses its own path. It doesn’t really go around us so much as with us.
    For years I’ve been wondering quietly how prevalent the seven-day week was, thinking it unlikely to have been universal, and now here we are on that one.
    Thanks, Haberdashery!

  23. With regard to the naming of days of the week, it seems the Chinese began using the seven day week when Jesuit teaching became accepted in the Qing Court. At that time Sunday became known as Libairi (worship day) or Riyaori (sun day), Monday became known as Yueyaori (moon day) and the remaining days were named after the five elements, fire, water, wood, metal and earth. But the system was apparently abandoned in the early 20th century when “xingqi” (star period) was used with ri, or tian, as the suffix to form the word for Sunday, and the numbers 1-6 for the remaining days. However the Japanese and Koreans who had imitated the Jesuit-inspired Chinese seven day week model, continue to use the sun, moon, and five elements reference to this day.

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