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Ancient Chinese Astronomy: History, Myths & Facts

From Xiu to Dragons: Understanding Chinese Constellations.

Ancient Chinese astronomy reflects a deep-rooted interest in understanding the cosmos. This passion was combined with methodological practices that have profoundly shaped global astronomical knowledge. From the earliest recorded observations to intricate cosmic calculations, China’s legacy in this field offers a rich tapestry of scientific dedication and discovery.

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Early Observations and Documentation

The Chinese have an extensive history of astronomical observations that stretches back millennia. As early as the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE), evidence of methodical celestial study can be found. Oracle bones, used for divination during this period, have inscriptions referring to various astronomical phenomena, such as solar eclipses. These inscriptions not only indicate the careful observation of the skies but also emphasize the importance of celestial events in socio-religious contexts.

The Bamboo Annals (竹书纪年), also known as the Ji Tomb Annals, is another vital source from ancient China that sheds light on the country’s astronomical traditions. This chronicle, written on bamboo slips, contains a plethora of astronomical data, including records of comet sightings, solar and lunar eclipses, and other celestial events. By cross-referencing the events documented in the Bamboo Annals with modern astronomical databases, researchers can verify the historical accuracy of these records. In many instances, the precision with which these events were recorded provides invaluable insights into the observational capabilities of ancient Chinese astronomers.

As China transitioned into the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE), astronomy continued to flourish. The establishment of the royal observatory, the development of lunisolar calendars, and the creation of star catalogs were testament to the significance of the cosmos in governance, agriculture, and daily life. Various classic texts from this period, such as the “Book of Documents” (尚书) and the “Classic of Poetry” (诗经), also contain references to astronomical phenomena, signifying the pervasive influence of the heavens on cultural and intellectual pursuits.

Constellation Systems and Star Catalogues

Ancient Chinese astronomers had a distinct method of visualizing the heavens. Unlike the familiar constellations of the Western world, the Chinese sky was segmented into 28 “Xiu” (宿). Each Xiu was associated with specific stars or star clusters. To further categorize the sky, these Xiu were grouped under four symbolic creatures, each representing a cardinal direction: the Azure Dragon (青龙) of the East, the Vermilion Bird (朱雀) of the South, the White Tiger (白虎) of the West, and the Black Tortoise (玄武) of the North.

One pivotal figure in the realm of Chinese astronomy was Gan De (甘德), who lived during the 4th century BCE. Gan De is credited with creating one of the earliest star catalogues in China. His meticulous records detail the positions and brightness of various stars. Notably, he made astute observations about Jupiter, recording its position with great accuracy. His observations were so detailed that he even reported seeing one of Jupiter’s moons with his naked eye, a feat that has been debated by modern scholars due to the difficulty of such a task without telescopic aid.

Apart from Gan De, the later Han dynasty also witnessed a surge in astronomical activity. One prominent text from this period is the “Book of Han” (汉书), which contains a treatise on astronomy. This document records the names, positions, and other attributes of the stars, showcasing the depth and precision of Chinese observations at the time.

Dunhuang star map
Dunhuang star map. The constellations Ursa Major, Sagittarius, and Capricornus stand out. The trio of colors – white, black, and yellow – represent the astronomical schools of Shih Shen, Kan Te, and Wu Hsien, source

Another significant star catalogue came from the Tang dynasty period, known as the “Dunhuang Star Chart” (敦煌星图). Discovered in the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, this chart is one of the earliest known graphical representations of star positions, revealing insights into the observational practices and methods of the astronomers from that era.

Throughout China’s long history, the meticulous documentation and study of the skies were not just scientific endeavors but also intertwined with cultural, philosophical, and religious beliefs. The heavens were a source of inspiration and wisdom, guiding societal norms, agricultural practices, and even the decisions of emperors.

Astronomical Observatories and Instruments

The development of ancient Chinese observatories and the instruments they housed represents the longstanding commitment of Chinese scholars to understanding the celestial sphere. These observatories not only facilitated the tracking of stars and planets but also had important functions in setting the calendar, predicting eclipses, and serving ritual purposes.

Ancient Observational Tool in Beijing Ancient Observatory, China
Ancient Observational Tool in Beijing Ancient Observatory, China, source

The Beijing Ancient Observatory, for instance, is a particularly impressive relic from this era. Located in Beijing, it stands as one of the oldest observatories in the world. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty, its continuous use for nearly 500 years highlights the importance of astronomy in Chinese culture. The observatory is equipped with eight large-scale astronomical instruments that were constructed during the Qing Dynasty. These instruments, made of brass and bronze, represent the sophisticated level of Chinese observational technology.

Guo Shoujing (郭守敬), who lived during the Yuan Dynasty, was undoubtedly a significant figure in the history of Chinese astronomy. He was not only an accomplished astronomer but also an ingenious engineer. Recognizing the importance of accurate observations, Guo constructed 27 observatories across China. These were meticulously designed, taking into account the local geographical and climatic conditions to optimize observational accuracy.

Guo Shoujing
Guo Shoujing, source

Perhaps Guo Shoujing’s most groundbreaking invention was the water-driven armillary sphere. This instrument represented a significant leap in observational technology. Traditionally, armillary spheres, which consist of a framework of rings centered on the Earth or the Sun, were used to model and observe the celestial sphere. By introducing a water-driven mechanism, Guo Shoujing enhanced the precision of these devices. The regulated flow of water ensured consistent motion, allowing for far more accurate tracking of celestial bodies.

Moreover, other ancient Chinese instruments worth mentioning include the geng (更), which was a simple cross-staff device used to measure the position of stars, and the fengshi (风石), which was a kind of astrolabe employed for stellar observations. These tools, along with the various observatories spread across the country, facilitated not only the study of stars and planets but also had applications in calendrical calculations, weather prediction, and ritualistic purposes.

Pioneering Discoveries

Ancient Chinese astronomers were meticulous observers of the heavens, often recording celestial events in impressive detail. These records, encompassing everything from comet sightings to solar eclipses, are invaluable tools for modern researchers to understand historical astronomical phenomena.

Book of Han, Wooden Book Sculptures from the Ming Dynasty in Tian Yi Chamber's Collection
Wooden Book Sculptures from the Ming Dynasty in Tian Yi Chamber’s Collection, source

One of the most prominent works that contain numerous records of astronomical observations is the Book of Han (汉书). The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), during which the book was compiled, was a period of significant advancement in Chinese astronomy. Not only did astronomers make observations, but they also developed early theories on the cosmos, laid down the foundations for timekeeping, and incorporated astronomical knowledge into everyday governance and calendrical calculations.

The Chinese astronomers referred to unexpected celestial appearances as “guest stars” (客星). These “guest stars” were phenomena that were not commonly seen in the night sky and could include novae, supernovae, and comets. The detailed records maintained by the Chinese have allowed modern astronomers to confirm and investigate past astronomical events.

Perhaps the most famous record is the one from 1054 AD, which describes a “guest star” appearing in the Taurus constellation. The description details its brightness — noting that it was visible even during the day — and mentions that it faded after a year. Today, with the aid of modern telescopes and astronomical software, scientists have identified this “guest star” as the explosion that created the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant. This Chinese observation from 1054 AD provides critical corroborative evidence for the modern understanding of the Crab Nebula’s origins.

Apart from the Crab Nebula, there are other noteworthy mentions in ancient Chinese texts. For instance, the “comet atlas” in the Mawangdui Silk Texts (马王堆帛书), dated to around 300 BC, contains illustrations and descriptions of comets with different tail shapes. This collection not only showcases the observational prowess of ancient Chinese astronomers but also their attempts to classify and understand these celestial visitors.

Another significant observation is the solar eclipse recorded in the Book of Zhou (周书) from 899 AD. The detailed description of the eclipse’s characteristics and its duration has helped modern researchers confirm and calculate the slight variations in Earth’s rotation over time.

Rendezvous in the Milky Way
Rendezvous in the Milky Way, This illustrates the meeting of Zhinü (織女, the weaver girl) and Niulang (牛郎, the cowherd) at Tianhe (天河, representing the Milky Way). From the late 19th to the early 20th century, source

Philosophical Underpinnings and Cultural Influence

Ancient Chinese astronomical beliefs were deeply rooted in the larger cultural and philosophical context of their time. These beliefs did not exist in isolation but were intertwined with the rich tapestry of Chinese thought, literature, and traditions.

One of the earliest philosophical texts, the Zhuangzi (莊子), presents a cosmological worldview that underscores the insignificance of Earth in the vast expanse of the universe. This resonated with the feelings of many astronomers when they gazed up at the sky and contemplated the enormity of the cosmos. Such a perspective was not just philosophical but reflected in practical observations. For example, records from the Han dynasty (汉朝) showed that Chinese astronomers recognized the irregular movements of the planets against the backdrop of fixed stars, implying a vast and complex cosmic order.

The Yijing (易经) or Book of Changes is another exemplar of the symbiotic relationship between cosmology and philosophy. This ancient divinatory text consists of 64 hexagrams, which are combinations of broken and unbroken lines. Each hexagram is associated with specific imagery, philosophical concepts, and natural phenomena. While it’s primarily a tool for divination, its foundations are deeply tied to observations of the natural world, including astronomical events. For instance, the hexagram Qian (乾) represents heaven, and its attributes of creativity and initiation can be linked to the ever-changing patterns of the stars and the cycles of celestial bodies.

Further underlining this intertwining of cosmology and culture, many Chinese festivals and traditions are based on the lunar calendar and significant astronomical events. The Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), for example, celebrates the full moon and involves moon-gazing, storytelling about lunar deities, and offering mooncakes as a tribute. Similarly, the Winter Solstice (冬至) is not just an astronomical marker but also a significant cultural event, symbolizing the return of longer days and being associated with the reunion of families.

Chinese emperors, believing in the Mandate of Heaven (天命), also placed great importance on astronomy. The stability and order of the heavens were thought to reflect the stability and order on Earth. Eclipses and comets, being irregular and unpredictable, were often seen as bad omens. The Bamboo Annals (竹书纪年), a historical text, recorded that during the reign of Emperor Zhong Kang, a solar eclipse was interpreted as a divine warning, leading to religious ceremonies and rituals to appease the heavens.

Topics: Ancient Chinese star catalogues, Methodological practices in Chinese astronomy, Celestial significance in ancient Chinese culture, Observational techniques in ancient China, Influence of Chinese philosophy on astronomy

Featured image: wikimedia

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