How did people tell the time in the Joseon period?

With the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac of course!

pigWatching Korean historical dramas over the years I’ve noticed that whenever a time of day is mentioned, a Korean subtitle will pop up at the bottom of the TV screen to explain what time this actually is. That’s because nobody tells the time in this way anymore. For example, the dodgy baddies meeting late at night to commit their crimes never say, ‘let’s meet at 11pm‘ they say ‘let’s meet at jashi – jashi represents the hour of the rat. Nobody says  ‘come here at 5pm‘. They  say ‘come here at yushi‘- the hour of the rooster.

The reason for this, I have discovered, is that the times of day were divided up into 12 double-hour blocks and they were described using the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac known in Korean as shipi-ji. Yes, the same 12 animals that take turns to represent each Lunar year – as I write this we are in the year of the rooster.  Each animal represented a time of day starting with the rat at 11pm followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. (see my chart below for the times of day allocated to each animal)

(BTW – About numbers – the Joseon Dynasty used Chinese characters to represent numbers. I’m not sure when Arabic numerals (1,2,3, etc) that are used today were introduced but it may have been in the late Joseon period at the end of the 19th century.)




King Sejong (r.1418-1450) was very keen to develop science and technology and he built a royal observatory. His team of scientists and astronomers was led by Jang Yeong Sil at The Bureau of Astronomy where they developed ways to tell the time of day as well as preparing calendars for the upcoming year.

Jang Yeong Sil designed The borugak jagyeongnu Water Clock of Borugak Pavilion (this is now one of the country’s national treasures). The water clock worked somehow using water and  containers and jars and pipes and balls and stuff (stop me if I’m getting too technical for you…) And each double-hour was announced by the sound of a bell or gong. By 1434 the clock became the standard for telling time in Joseon.

Sundials were also developed at the time and these were often placed out and about for public use. And the 12 animal figures were placed around the sundials so that the common people, who couldn’t read Chinese characters, could tell the time easily.


There are some dramas about King Sejong’s reign – see the 2016 drama about Jang Yeong Sil the famous scientist and astronomer. And the drama Deep Rooted Tree which tells the story of King Sejong and how the Korean writing system hangeul was designed. Actually there was a props blunder in episode 19 of Deep Rooted Tree. The number 14 is seen written on a drawer. But as I mentioned earlier numbers at that time would have been written in hanja Chinese characters.

Anyway, here are the 12 times of day and the animals that represent the hours. They alternate between yin and yang energy and are also designated an element which I’ve noted in the chart.


11:00pm-1:00am = The time that the rat is most active.


1:00am- 3:00am = The ox eats grass to get ready to plow the fields in the morning.

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3:00am- 5:00am = The time when the tiger is most powerful.


5:00am- 7:00am = The time to see the rabbit in the moon.


7:00am – 9:00am = The time that the dragon flies into the skies and prepares to make it rain.


9:00am- 11:00am = The snake is asleep and doesn’t harm people.


11:00am- 1:00pm = The horse runs around as the yang energy subsides and the yin energy takes over.


1pm- 3pm =If the sheep (or goat) eats the grass in the fields at this time of day the grass will grow again.


3:00 pm – 5:00pm = The time when the monkey cries.


5:00pm- 7:00pm = The time that the rooster returns home.


7:00pm- 9:00pm = It’s dark outside and the dog begins to protect its home.


9:00pm 11:00pm = The time when the pig enjoys sleeping.



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