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The Four Pillars of Destiny is an important component of Chinese fortune telling. The 'four pillars' refers to the year, month, day and hour pillars of a birthday in Chinese solar calendar. It is also known as the 'eight characters of birth time', the translation of Chinese phrase, Sheng Chen Ba Zi, shortly as Ba Zi. Ba Zi (Eight Characters) is represented by four pairs of characters respectively saying the year, month, day and hour of a birth time. Two characters in each pair are made up of one character from the Heavenly Stems and one from the Earthly Branches. 

The theory of the Four Pillars of Destiny is based on Yin Yang and Wu Xing, and the pillars are represented on the basis of the heavenly stems & earthly branches

 Year Pillar – Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly branches combines and create a sexagenary cycle (See this chart to find the year pillar. If your birth year is not in the 60-year circle, it can be calculated by extrapolation from the figures.) Here is a quick way to convert a year in western calendar into the one represented by stem and branch. 

Year's Heavenly Stem – Last number of a year will indicate the year's stem

Jia Yi Bing Ding Wu Ji Geng Xin Ren Gui
4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3

Year's Earthly Branch – the reminder (1-11) of the year divided by 12 will indicate the year's branch

Zi Chou Yin Mao Chen Si Wu Wei Shen You Xu Hai
4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 0 1 2 3

Take the year 1985 for example. Last number 5 refers to Yi. 1985 divided by 12 equals an integer 165 with a reminder of 5. Number 5 refers to Chou. So 1985 is Yi Chou year.

 Month Pillar – Month pillar has fixed early branches, lunar January to October represented by Yin, Mao, Chen, Si, Wu, Wei, Shen, You, Xu, Hai, Zi and Chou. The heavenly stem is changing according to the year pillar. In fact, the division of two month branches is usually up to the 24 solar terms. From the Beginning of Spring which regarded as the real start of a year, the branch shifts every two solar terms. The representation by lunar months is only an only an approximation.

Earthly Branches and 12 Months

Branch Zi Chou Yin Mao Chen Si
Lunar Nov. Dec. Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr.
Solar Daxue-
Xiaohan
Xiaohan-
Lichun
Lichun-
Jingzhe
Jingzhe-
Qingming

Qingming-

Lixia

Lixia-
Mangzhong
Branch Wu Wei Shen You Xu Hai
Lunar May Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct.
Solar Mangzhou-
Xiaoshu
Xiaoshu-
Liqiu
Liqiu-
Bailu
Bailu-
Hanlu
Hanlu-
Lidong
Lidong-
Daxue

 Day Pillar – The recondition to know a day's stem and branch, one should remember the stem and branch of the first day of that year in Chinese lunar calendar. Then, Chinese calendar has bigger and lesser month, respectively having 30 or 29 days. One stem-branch cycle needs 60 days. If the stem and branch of the first day of that lunar month has been known, there is a way to extrapolate any day within the month, by the different extrapolation rules applied to bigger and lesser months. 

 Hour Pillar – Similarly, the heavenly branches of the hour pillar is fixed. Jia hour refers to 23:00-01:00, and so forth. The heavenly stem of each day is up to the stem and branch of the day pillar. 

Earthly Branches of 24 Hours (12 Shi Chen)
Zi Chou Yin Mao Chen Si
23:00-00:59 01:00-02:59 03:00-04:59 05:00-06:59 07:00-08:59 09:00-10:59
Wu Wei Shen You Xu Hai
11:00-12:59 13:00-14:59 15:00-16:59 17:00-18:59 19:00-20:59 21:00-22:59


 Here is the Four Pillars Chart for an individual born at 18:00, on April 12, 1985 (lunar February 23, 1985) in western calendar for example. Generally, a yellow calendar book is necessary to help find the accurate pillars. Now, it is not difficult to find an online Ba Zi calculator. 

Pillars Hour Day Month Year
Heavenly Stems Ding Ding Geng Yi
Wu Xing/Yin Yang Yin Fire Yin Fire Yang Metal Yin Wood
Earthly Branches You Chou Chen Chou
Wu Xing/Yin Yang Yin Metal Yin Earth Yang Earth Yin Earth

It has only eight characters, but the relation of the eight characters is very complicated. According to the four pillars' representation theory, year pillar represents ancestors and parents; month pillar represents brothers and sisters; day stem represents oneself; day branch represent spouse; hour pillar represents offspring. In addition, the heavenly stems have their own characteristics which are related to the Five Elements (Wu Xing). The missing element in a baby's 'eight characters of birth time' will be usually added into its name as an action of compensation. Among the ten heavenly stems, there are compatible and opposite relations. While among the earthly branches, the relations are more complex, combination, clash, restriction, harm, etc. Abundant relationships may have accurate explanation on the luck of one self or relatives. 

The ancient people believed that birth time is a kind of Qi (aura, something of spirit). People born in the Wei hour have an aura field of Wei. If the birth time is in Wei hour but closing to Shen, the aura field has changed gradually to that of the Shen hour. The Four Pillars was created based on vague time, as the time division in ancient time could not be accurate as it is in modern times. So, are there any errors if calculating the Ba Zi because of the time difference? An individual is unique replying on the combination of time, space and spirit. While the Four Pillars mainly talks about time, occasionally space but non spirit. It is an outcome of Chinese metaphysics which is special, interesting but the accurate is debatable.