Comparison of a Korean's age by traditional and official reckoning

Traditional East Asian age reckoning covers a group of related methods for reckoning human ages practiced in the East Asian cultural sphere, characterized by counting inclusively from 1 at birth and increasing at each New Year instead of each birthday. Ages calculated this way are always 1 or 2 years greater than those calculated solely by birthdays. Historical records from China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam have usually been based on these methods, whose specific details have varied over time and by place. South Korea officially stopped using the older system on June 28, 2023. Informal use is still widespread in the Republic and People's Republic of China, North and South Korea, Singapore, and the overseas Chinese and Korean diasporas.

Chinese age reckoning, the first of these methods, originated from the belief in ancient Chinese astrology that one's fate is bound to the stars imagined to be in opposition to the planet Jupiter at the time of one's birth. The importance of this duodecennial cycle is also essential to fengshui geomancy but only survives in popular culture as the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, which—like the stars—change each Chinese New Year. In this system, one's age is not a calculation of the number of calendar years (, nián) since birth but a count of the number of these Jovian stars (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: suì) whose influence one has lived through. By the Song dynasty, this system—and the extra importance of the sixtieth birthday produced by its combination with the sexagenary cycle—had spread throughout the Sinosphere. Japan eliminated their version of this system as part of the Meiji Reforms. The Republic of China partially modernized the system during their own reforms, which were continued by the Communists after the Chinese Civil War. Modern Taiwan now has a mixed system, with very widespread use of traditional ages sometimes accommodated by the government. On the mainland, despite calculating age solely by birthdays for all official purposes, Standard Mandarin continues to exclusively use the word suì for talking about years of age; Japanese similarly uses its equivalent, sai.

Korean age reckoning began by using the Chinese system but changed to calculating ages using January 1st as the New Year with their adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1896. In North Korea, the old system was eliminated entirely in the 1980s. In South Korea, the international "actual ages" have gradually supplanted "Korean ages" in many contexts such as eligibility for driving or access to alcohol and tobacco. A third intermediate system is also used by some South Korean laws. This "year age" is difference between one's birth year and the current year, equivalent to calculating ages using January 1st but starting at 0 instead of 1. This mixed system produced difficulties scheduling vaccination for COVID-19 effectively, and the government has announced that it will fully convert to calculating ages only by birthdays beginning in June 2023.


Mainland (PRC)

See also: Chinese first birthday

In pre-modern times, sui was calculated from the time of birth. A person was one sui as soon as they were born. At the Lunar new year, they turned two sui, and every subsequent new year after that, they were one more sui.[1][2] Thus, by traditional reckoning, sui does not exactly mean "years old".

Currently in China and in Chinese societies around the world, the term sui when used all by itself can be ambiguous. In most contexts, such as the age on legal documents, it is equivalent to the English "years old." Thus, in China, where the legal age of alcohol consumption is 18 sui, one is not legally permitted to drink alcohol until after their 18th birthday. However, in some contexts, such as in determining age for fortune-telling purposes, or in reading pre-modern texts, one must distinguish between the traditional way of calculating age and the modern way adopted from the West.[citation needed]

In many Chinese societies around the world, a child's horoscope is calculated at birth and is considered relevant throughout their life. The horoscope is calculated using the traditional sui (虛歲/虚岁 xusui or 毛歲/毛岁 maosui). This becomes important, for example in calculating a person's fan tai sui 反太歲/反太岁, which occurs after every twelve-year zodiac cycle. Thus, for a child born in June of the year 2000, a year of the dragon, the first fan tai sui year would occur in the next dragon year, which would begin on Lunar new year in the year 2012, when the child turns 13 sui. By modern reckoning, the child would be 11 years old at the beginning of the year and turn 12 years old in June. Therefore, the modern way of reckoning age does not correspond to the horoscope. Using the traditional reckoning, the child in the example is 13 sui for the entirety of the fan tai sui year.[3]

If one needs to distinguish the Western adopted terminology that is in general use now, xu sui is contrasted with shi sui 實歲/实岁 (or zhou sui 周嵗/周岁), but outside of astrological uses, the need for such a contrast today is rare. One must be careful, however, when calculating ages in pre-modern times. A figure listed as 69 sui during the Song dynasty, for example, would not be 69 years old and would instead be either 67 or 68. The exact age, by modern reckoning, would be impossible to know just from the sui alone, without knowing the actual year of birth by the Gregorian calendar.[citation needed]

When a child has survived one month of life (29 days, if using Lunar month reckoning), a mun yuet (Chinese: 滿月; pinyin: mǎnyuè; Jyutping: mun5 jyut6) celebration can be observed, in which duck or chicken eggs dyed red are distributed to guests to signify fertility.[citation needed]

Taiwan (ROC)

East Asian age reckoning, both linguistically and in practice, follows the example of China (see § China) as the vast majority of Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese. Unlike the Chinese however, the Taiwanese more widely use the East Asian age reckoning in a variety of social contexts and the term sui () less ambiguously refers to ones age according to this system. While birthdays are increasingly celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, the traditional age reckoning is retained (e.g. Su Beng's centennial was celebrated to honor his November 5th, 1918 birth in the Gregorian calendar in 2017, not 2018[4]). Furthermore, Taiwanese, like South Koreans, do not add a year to their age on their birthdays but on New Year's Day (in the case of Taiwan, on the Lunisolar Chinese calendar New Year and not the Gregorian one as in Korea).[5][better source needed]


See also: Korean birthday celebrations and Korean first birthday celebration

Dol is the traditional way of celebrating the anniversary of the birth day of a one-year-old child in South Korea.

Koreans who use the traditional system refer to their age in units called sal (), using Korean numerals in ordinal form. Thus, a person is one sal (han sal [한살]) during the first calendar year of life, and ten sal during the tenth calendar year.[6][7] Sal is used for native Korean numerals, while se (세; 歲) is used for Sino-Korean. For example, seumul-daseot sal (스물다섯 살) and i-sib-o se (이십오 세; 二十五 歲) both mean 'twenty-five-year-old'. If the international system is used (man-nai [만나이]), then the age would be man seumul-daseot sal ( 스물다섯 살). South Koreans speaking of age in the colloquial context will almost without question be referring to the traditional system,[according to whom?] unless the man qualifier is used.

The 100th day after a baby was born is called baegil (, ) which literally means "a hundred days" in Korean, and is given a special celebration, marking the survival of what was once a period of high infant mortality. The first anniversary of birth named dol () is likewise celebrated, and given even greater significance. South Koreans celebrate their birthdays,[8] even though every South Korean gains one sal on New Year's Day.[9] Because the first year comes at birth and the second on the first day of the New Year, children born, for example, on December 31 are considered to become two-year-olds the very next day, New Year's Day (of the Gregorian, not the Korean calendar).[10]

Hence, everyone born on the same calendar year effectively has the same age and can easily be calculated by the formula: Age = (Current Year − Birth Year) + 1

In modern South Korea the traditional system is used alongside the international age system which is referred to as man-nai (만나이) in which "man" () means "full"[11] or "actual", and nai (나이) meaning "age".[9][12] For example, man yeol sal means "full ten years", or "ten years old" in English. The Korean word dol means "years elapsed", identical to the English "years old", but is only used to refer to the first few birthdays. Cheotdol or simply dol refers to the first Gregorian-equivalent birthday, dudol refers to the second, and so on.[13][14]

The international system became promoted over the traditional system in North Korea possibly since around 1986.[15]

A Korean birthday celebration by the Lunar calendar is called eumnyeok saeng-il (음력 생일, 陰曆生日) and yangnyeok saeng-il (양력 생일, 陽曆生日) is the birthday by the Gregorian calendar.[16] In the past, most people used the Lunar calendar (eumnyeok saeng-il) to tell their birthdays rather than the Gregorian calendar (yangnyeok saeng-il), but nowadays Koreans, especially young generations, tend to use yangnyeok saeng-il for telling their birth dates.

For official government uses, documents, and legal procedures, the international system is used. Regulations regarding age limits on beginning school, as well as the age of consent, are all based on this system (man-nai).[12][17] The age qualifier for tobacco and alcohol use is actually similar to, but distinct from the East Asian reckoning system. A person is allowed tobacco and alcohol if it is after January 1 of the year one turns 19 (post-birth age).[18] This is the "year age", which is basically (Korean age – 1), or when a person's Korean age is 20.[19][unreliable source]

Calls to remove the system intensified in early 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as inconsistent use of the two age systems created conflicts in the eligibility criteria for COVID-19 vaccines and a vaccine passport rule; some residents were being deemed ineligible for vaccination, but at the same time subject to a proof of vaccination requirement for certain establishments. In April 2022, the transition committee of president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol stated that the government planned to amend the Civil Code and other relevant legislation to switch to the international age system.[20] On 8 December 2022, the National Assembly passed a bill that prohibits the usage of traditional ages on official documents.[21][22] The change went into effect on 28 June 2023. The change is expected to reduce legal disputes, complaints, and general social confusion.[23] Due to how intertwined the previous system was with age hierarchies,[23] it's also predicted that it will help combat the hierarchical and ageist nature of South Korean society.[24] For example, the new system will make sure that students in a single grade are of the same age, rendering the frequent practice of younger students referring to older ones using honorifics obsolete.[25] Despite the conversion, the old system will still be retained for a few aspects, including the year students enter elementary school and the age individuals can purchase alcohol or cigarettes or join mandatory military service.[26]


The traditional Japanese system of age reckoning, or kazoedoshi (数え年, lit. "counted years"), which incremented one's age on New Year's Day, was rendered obsolete by law in 1902 when Japan officially adopted the modern age system,[27][28][29] known in Japanese as man nenrei (満年齢). However, the traditional system was still commonly used, so in 1950 another law was established to encourage people to use the modern age system.[30][31][32]

Today the traditional system is used only by the elderly and in rural areas. Elsewhere its use is limited to traditional ceremonies, divinations, and obituaries.[original research?]

Japanese uses the word sai ( or ) as a counter word for both the traditional and modern age system.[33]

Because of the idea of yakudoshi or unlucky years, kanreki is a special occurrence for celebrating 60 years of life, meaning one has returned to the same combination of zodiacal symbols that governed the year of one's birth.[citation needed]


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Having been influenced by Chinese culture, the ancient Vietnamese also used this system and, despite not being the official age on papers and in daily usages at the present, the East Asian age is still in limited use by adults, especially old people in rural areas. However, this age system is not really familiar to the younger generation. In Vietnam, it is called tuổi mụ ('midwives’ age'), tuổi ta (literally 'our age', contrasting with Western age tuổi Tây) or tuổi âm ('lunar-calendar age').

See also


  1. ^ Cohen, Paul A.; Townsend, Paul A. (1997). History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. Columbia University Press. pp. 69, note a. ISBN 978-0-231-10651-1.
  2. ^ Zurndorfer, Harriet Thelma (1995). China Bibliography: A Research Guide to Reference Works About China Past and Present. BRILL. p. 301. ISBN 978-90-04-10278-1.
  3. ^ "Tai Sui". Chinese New Year. Retrieved 2021-12-28.
  4. ^ Keoni Everington. "Su Beng's 100th birthday party to be held Sunday." Taiwan News. 1 November 2017. Retrieved 30 December 2021. " The 100th birthday party for the famous Taiwanese independence activist and former dissident Su Beng (史明) is to be celebrated on Sunday (Nov. 5)...Though Su Beng was born on November 9, 1918, which will make him 99 years old based on the Western convention, according to the Chinese method of age reckoning he will be 100 years old."
  5. ^ "What’s my age again? (East Asian age reckoning)." Islandside Chronicles. 29 June 2013. Retrieved 30 December 2021.
  6. ^ Song, Jae Jung. (2005), pp. 81–82, (quote) "Koreans prefer native Korean to Sino-Korean numerals when telling their own or other people's age,...Note that the native age classifier sal must be used with native Korean numerals and the Sino-Korean age classifier sey with Sino-Korean numerals,.."
  7. ^ "In Korea, all children are older than their European peers". Pravda. July 16, 2013. Retrieved 2014-04-08.
  8. ^ DuBois (2004), pp. 72–73
  9. ^ a b Park, Hyunjoo; Pan, Yuling (2007-05-19). "Cognitive Interviewing with Asian Populations: Findings from Chinese and Korean Interviews" (PDF). Anaheim, CA: RTI International. Retrieved 2009-11-11. Koreans are considered one year old at birth and added another year at New Year's... Some Koreans may use American age counting convention while others still follow Korean convention. To eliminate this confusion, Korean asked '만나이 (Man-nai)': the same as the U.S. age counting convention.
  10. ^ Hyung-Jin Kim. "South Korean babies born Dec. 31 legally become 2-year-olds the very next day." Denver Post. 12 April 2016. Retrieved 30 December 2021.
  11. ^ 만7(滿) (in Korean). Nate Korean Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2011-10-06. Retrieved 2009-11-11. 시기나 햇수를 꽉 차게 헤아림을 이르는 말.(trans. The word refers to calculating full years or periods.
  12. ^ a b Hilts and Kim, (2002), p. 228 (quote) "Koreans have a peculiar way of calculating age. When you're born, you're already one year old, and then you get another year older when New Year's Day rolls around. The result is that your hangungnai (한국나이), 'Korean age', is usually one to two years older than your man-nai (만 나이), 'actual age'. Underage kids sometimes try to take some advantage of this, but eligibility for drinking, obtaining license etc is determined by your actual age."
  13. ^ [Dol] (in Korean). Nate Korean–English Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2011-07-14. Retrieved 2009-11-11. )
  14. ^ 돌1 [Dol] (in Korean). Nate Korean Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2011-07-14. Retrieved 2009-11-11. I. (명사) 어린아이가 태어난 날로부터 한 해가 되는 날. (II ) 1. 생일이 돌아온 횟수를 세는 단위. 주로 두세 살의 어린아이에게 쓴다. 2. 특정한 날이 해마다 돌아올 때, 그 횟수를 세는 단위.
  15. ^ Jon Dunbar (12 November 2019). "Calculating North Korean age". The Korea Times. Retrieved 29 June 2023.
  16. ^ Kim Tae-yeop (김태엽) (2006-08-08). "'8월 18일은 이승엽 DAY!'...요미우리, 축하 이벤트 마련" ['The day on August 18 is Lee Seung-Yeop's Day!'..Yomiuri, preparing a congratulatory event] (in Korean). Sports Chosun. Retrieved 2009-11-11. 최근 이승엽의 아버지 이춘광씨는 보통 양력생일을 치르는 요즘의 추세와 달리 이승엽의 음력 생일(1976년 8월18일)을 치르는 사연을 밝혀 화제가 됐다 (trans. It was a recent topic that Lee Chun-gwang, the father of Lee Seung-Yeop, revealed the reason why Lee Seung-Yeop takes his lunar birthday on August 18, 1976 instead of the solar birthday as opposed to the current trend.)
  17. ^ "성년 成年, full age" (in Korean). Nate / Britannica. Archived from the original on 2011-06-10. Retrieved 2009-11-11. 한국의 경우 만 20세로 성년이 되며(민법 제4조)...연령의 계산은 민법 제155조 이하의 규정에 의하나, 출생일을 산입한다(동법 제158조). 1977년의 민법 개정으로 혼인에 의한 성년의제(成年擬制)의 제도를 도입했다..대통령선거법·국회의원선거법·국민투표법·지방자치법·지방의회의원선거법·미성년자보호법 등에서는 이 원칙이 적용되지 않는다.
  18. ^ "청소년보호법" [Adolescent Protection Law]. 국가법령정보센터 (in Korean). 대한민국 법제처. 7 July 2016. Retrieved 30 July 2016. "청소년" 이란 만 19세 미만인 사람을 말한다. 다만, 만 19세가 되는 해의 1월 1일을 맞이한 사람은 제외한다.
  19. ^ Why the Korean Age System is Crazy?, archived from the original on 2021-12-21, retrieved 2021-05-10
  20. ^ Network, The Korea Herald/Asia News (2022-04-11). "South Koreans set to get a year younger as Yoon seeks to ditch 'Korean age'". Retrieved 2022-05-10.
  21. ^ "South Korea: Age system to be standardised from 2023". BBC News. 2022-12-08. Retrieved 2022-12-08.
  22. ^ Min Joo Kim (2022-12-08). "South Koreans to become year younger after scrapping traditional age system". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2022-12-10.
  23. ^ a b "South Koreans become a year or two younger as traditional way of counting age scrapped". Reuters. 2023-06-28. Retrieved 2023-06-28.
  24. ^ "South Koreans become younger under new age-counting law". BBC News. 2023-06-28. Retrieved 2023-06-28.
  25. ^ "How South Koreans woke up years younger". Retrieved 2023-06-28.
  26. ^ Seo, Jessie Yeung,Yoonjung (2023-06-28). "South Koreans become younger overnight after country scraps 'Korean age'". CNN. Retrieved 2023-06-28.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  27. ^ レファレンス事例詳細: 相-090002, Collaborative Reference Database. (Accessed 2009-11-11.) "なお、年齢が数えか満年齢かについては、現行法規である「年齢計算ニ関スル法律」が明治35年12月2日法律第50号として存在するが、その前に「明治六年第三十六号布告」で満年齢について規定された。 (translation: Regarding whether one counts age by kazoedoshi or the modern age system (満年齢), there exists the current "Legal age calculation" law in the form of Meiji 35 (1902), December 2, Act no. 50, but prior to that the use of the modern age system was set forth in the "Meiji 13 Proclamation No. 6".)"
  28. ^ "年齢計算ニ関スル法律 Act on Calculation of Ages" (in Japanese). Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Japan. 1902. Archived from the original on 2012-05-13. Retrieved 2009-11-11.
  29. ^ "Act on Calculation of Ages". Ministry of Justice, Japan. 1902. Archived from the original on 2021-09-24. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
  30. ^ Hirofumi Hirano, July Heisei 40, 年齢の計算に関する質問主意書 (Memorandum on questions about the calculation of age) Archived 2009-06-28 at the Wayback Machine, Japan House of Representatives. (Retrieved 2009-11-11) "わが国では、「年齢のとなえ方に関する法律」に基づき、昭和二十五年以降数え年による年齢計算を止め、満年齢によって年齢を計算している。 (translation: In Japan, the age laws which were originally based on the calculation by East Asian age reckoning (数え年) were replaced in Showa 25 with the modern age system (満年齢) of age calculation.)"
  31. ^ "年齢のとなえ方に関する法律Act on Designation of Ages" (in Japanese). Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Japan. 1950. Archived from the original on 2013-03-15.
  32. ^ "Act on Counting of Ages". Ministry of Justice, Japan. 1949. Archived from the original on 2021-10-20. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
  33. ^ "Age Calculator - Calculate DOB".

General and cited references