Illustration Gallery

Astronomical Artifacts and Cuneiform Tablets, etc

The illustrations on this page have been compiled from a variety of sources. If advised that copyright has been infringed I will immediately remove the particular illustration(s).

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N: Chinese Constellations

24: Early constellations in China


The Suchow (Soochow/Su-chou) planisphere (dated 1193 CE). (Note the ball-and-link (point and line) convention to identify constellations/asterisms.) The planisphere is centred on the circumpolar seen in the small central inner circle. These stars were associated with the emperor. The numerous unequally spaced radial grids shown correspond to the boundaries of the Chinese lunar lodges. (The circumpolar stars were keyed to the radial lines marking 28 unevenly divided sectors of the sky.) Both the planisphere and its explanatory text were prepared in 1193 CE by Huang Shang (geographer and imperial tutor) for the instruction of the heir to the Chinese throne, who ruled as Emperor Ning Tsung (1195-1224 CE). The planisphere was carved onto stone (to preserve it) approximately half a century later, in 1247 CE (Southern Song dynasty, Chunyou reign), by Wang Chih-Yuan. Most of the stars in the Chinese sky are carved quite precisely on the planisphere. Also included on the planisphere is the supernova of 1054 CE (in Taurus). For a long time the stele on which the planisphere was carved was located in the Wn Miao temple (Confucian temple of Literati), originally built in 1141 CE, in the historic garden city of Suzhou in the south of Jiangsu Province. The planisphere is now housed in a Suchow museum (the Stone Carving Museum). (The above star chart is an ink on paper rubbing (hanging scroll) of the stele made when it was located at the Confucian Temple. Only 10 rubbings have been authorised.) The chart depicts the sky visible from central China (approximately 35 degrees north latitude). The lengthy inscription (text) accompanying the chart states there are 283 asterisms and 1565 stars. These are the ancient canonical numbers (i.e., essentially the conventional figures). Will Rufus and Hsing-chih T'ien, in their extensive 1945 study of the chart (The Soochow astronomical chart), identified 313 asterisms and only 1440 stars. (A valid conclusion is all of the stars on the planisphere do not appear on the rubbing.) Though the stars are quite accurately located there is no systematic attempt to distinguish between stars of different brightness. The customary equatorial co-ordinate system is shown together with the ecliptic. (The ecliptic though is incorrectly represented as circular.) The Milky Way is also displayed on the chart. (The star chart and inscription below it (not shown above) measures 100 cms (38.5 inches) in width and 183 cms (71.75 inches) in length.) The illustration above is undoubtedly taken from The Soochow astronomical chart by Will Rufus and Hsing-chih T'ien (1945). The rubbing that appeared in their book was made by Doctor Robert Brown at the time he was the Director/Superintendent of University Hospital in Chengtu, Szechuan Province, China (his wife Mae Willis, who he married in 1907, was Head Nurse there) and presented to the American astronomer Will Rufus (a Methodist missionary to Korea during the early 1910s and Methodist Episcopal pastor). (Doctor Robert Brown and his wife (both Methodist medical missionaries) died during the course of the Chinese-Japanese War (some time post 1943) on their way back to Chengtu when their plane was shot down by Japanese fighter planes beside the Yangtze River. Doctor Robert Brown had been in China since circa 1918 (Director/Superintendent of the American Methodist Mission Hospital in Wuhu, on the Yangste River near Nanking, until 1938) with time away from China from circa 1940 to 1942 to study hospital administration at University of Michigan Medical School.)



History of Early Scholarly Studies of Chinese Constellations and Star Names

The earliest Western (European) authority on the history of Chinese astronomy was Antoine Gaubil SJ (1689-1759) who resided in China from 1723 to his death in 1759. He wrote extensively on Chinese constellations and star catalogues. The correlation of  Western star names with the names used in Chinese astronomy was done during the first quarter of the 18th-century by Mei Wen-ni [Mei Wen-ting] (1633-1721, who wrote on astronomy and mathematics) whose Chinese-language book - Investigation of the similarities and differences between Chinese and Western star names - was published in 1723. Half a century later, in 1782, Chrtien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes published a Chinese planisphere with a star catalogue. Chrtien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes (1759–1845) was a French merchant-trader, ambassador and scholar. He was the son of French academician and sinologue, Joseph de Guignes. He learned Chinese from his father, and then traveled to China where he stayed for the next 17 years and returned to France in 1801. In 1819 John Reeves published Chinese Names of Stars and Constellations, Collected at the Request of Dr Morrison for his Chinese Dictionary. Reeve's list (made at the request of Robert Morrison) was the first listing of Chinese star names in the English language. It is widely referred by later works, most notably William's work on Chinese comets sightings, and Schlegel's work on Chinese uranography. According to Pierre Dessemontet (Hastro-L, May 4, 2011) most of the Chinese star names which have made it into our contemporary star name lists ultimately came from Reeve's list in Morrison's dictionary, as they very often take the form which is mentioned in Morrison's dictionary. (Morrison, Robert (1815-1822/1816-1823, Reprinted 1865) A Dictionary of the Chinese Language.) Reeve's material for compiling his list of stars and constellations were: the 31st volume of the Book of the "Leŭh; Lїh, Yuen, Yuen," a somewhat lengthy compilation in one hundred volumes, published in the reign of Kang He/Kang Hi with Jesuit assistance; Bardin family (London) 18-inch celestial globes; Johann Bode's celestial atlas, Uranographia (1801); and 2 Planispheres constructed by the Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) who was part of the Jesuit Society China mission.


Prelude: Neolithic Chinese Constellations

In August 15, 2006, Xinhua News reported: "A neolithic stone carving of the Big Dipper star formation has been found on Baimiaozi Mountain near Chifeng City in northwest China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, according to experts. The stone carving was discovered by Wu Jiacai, a 50-year-old researcher in literature and history with Wongniute Banner of Inner Mongolia. Wu found a large yam-shaped stone, 310 centimeters long, onto which 19 stars had been carved. The representation of the Big Dipper is on the north face of the stone. The stars are represented by indentations in the stone. The biggest indentation is 6 centimeters in diameter and 5 centimeters deep, said Wu. "The stone was carved by neolithic dwellers," said Gai Shanlin, researcher with the Inner Mongolia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology (IMICRA) and an expert in stone carving. The carving style proves this, said Gai. Astronomers' conjectures about the shape of the Big Dipper some ten thousand years ago also match the carving. "Finding a stone carving in China's desert hinterland is a rare occurrence," said Tala, director of IMICRA, who said it might help prove how ancient celestial bodies evolved. Apart from the Big Dipper, Wu also found some "unexplained images" on the stone. He thinks they may depict ancient gods, such as the god of the sun and the god of horses. Further study would be needed to determine when the pictures were painted. Many neolithic jade articles from the Hongshan Culture - such as a dragon with a pig's mouth and a cloud-shaped pendant - have already been unearthed around Baimiaozi Mountain. The Hongshan Culture was an aboriginal culture that existed in northern China about 6000 years ago. Tala believes the discovery will contribute to knowledge about the origin and spread of Hongshan Culture."

Note: Wu Jiacai likes to make these sort of claims involving the Hongshan culture. Shortly after making the possible 'big dipper' petroglyph discovery he announced the finding of groups of petroglyphs in Inner Mongolia which he interpreted as showing that an intellectually advanced ethnic group, the Chifeng people of the Hongshan Culture, were forced to leave their homeland because of a singular destructive event, perhaps comet - or meteorite-related.

In 2006 the British astronomer Alun Salt post at his website: "A question I would ask is how many other carvings are there in the region? If there's tens of thousands, then by sheer chance you'd expect some carvings to look like some asterisms. There’s mixed news on this: ""Finding a stone carving in China’s desert hinterland is a rare occurrence," said Tala, director of IMICRA, who said it might help prove how ancient celestial bodies evolved." If you want to be sceptical then you could ask "If the sky is important why aren't there more carvings?" Well it could be the first to be found. Inner Mongolia isn't famous for being well-explored and if people know roughly what they're looking for similar items may be found. I'd take the opposite view – the lack of carvings reduces the random factor. Though not perfectly. Apart from the Big Dipper, Wu also found some "unexplained images" on the stone. He thinks they may depict ancient gods, such as the god of the sun and the god of horses. Further study would be needed to determine when the pictures were painted. This is the bit that bothers me most. If the researchers were finding meaning in random patterns then wouldn't the result be that you could match some but not others. The converse problem is that when they're creating artefacts people do make mistakes and change their mind. It could well be that some of the carvings were meant to be the Big Dipper and others were never meant to have any meaning. When you arrive at the stone thousands of years later without the aid of written records how do you tell the difference?"


Part of interior layout of Neolithic Period Tomb M45 at Xishuipo, Puyang, Henan Province.


Sketch of the design and arrangement of Tomb M45 at Xishuipo, Puyang, Henan Province.


In the 1987, an intact Neolithic tomb (now designated tomb/grave number M45) was found at Xishuipo (a Neolithic archaeological site associated with the Yangshao culture) in Puyang, Henan Province. The site was excavated from 1987 to 1988; 186 burials were discovered at the site. The Neolithic grave is dated to circa 5300 BCE and it is assumed to be that of a king or a 'shaman' (certainly the owner was considered an elite or divine person). (According to the carbon 14 determination, and tree ring date-testing archeologists concluded that the tomb was built in the Yangshao cultural period about 6,500 years ago.) The burial arrangement suggests cosmological and astronomical significance. The tomb layout suggests a celestial pattern is being indicated. According to some interpretations a (composite) sky map is being depicted. The form of the grave itself is in the shape of a crown. The belief that heaven was composed of 6 concentric circles divided by 7 curves established how the crown shape is obtained. The adult skeleton is positioned in the centre of the unusually large cardinally oriented grave. The adult skeleton is laid out in such a way that the southern face above the head was round while the northern face at the foot of the body was square. This conforms to the symbolism of Chinese cosmology which held that Heaven was round and Earth was square. A number of astral forms keep the skeleton company. The body of a tall adult male is flanked by two carefully laid out mosaics formed from white mussel/clam shells, a tiger design to the right (west) and a dragon design to the left (east). These mosaics are believed to be representations of 2 of the 4 super constellations (the Azure Dragon and the White Tiger). In the same tomb there is also a representation of the Big Dipper (in the form of a triangle, as it would have been far in the past), also created from white mussel/clam shells. The Big Dipper is pointing toward the head of the dragon. Two human bones are placed amongst the array of symbols. Three funerary human skeletons were also found in the tomb. The burial was accompanied by the bodies of 3 young children. Clam shell mosaics were also found in two nearby caches. Another key claim is: The funerary skeleton on the north side of the M45 tomb was a young boy’s skeleton (estimated to be 15 years old when he died). At the estimated time of the burial his head was pointed in the direction of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice.

"On the Date of Astronomical Phenomena in Tomb No.45 at Xishuipo, Puyang, Henan." by Duan Bang – Ning. Abstract: "On the basis of the proper motion of the seven stars of Big Dipper and ecliptic precession in astronomy, through the numerical analysis and comparison with the star maps by microcomputer, we would arrive at such a conclusion. The date of astronomical phenomena in the tomb No.45 at Xishuipo Puyang, Henan is about 1330001000 years ago. The sun, at that time, was setting beyond the western horizon during Spring Equinox. The latest limit of the date of this astronomical phenomena is 100,000 years ago; and its earliest limit is 160,000 years ago. The ecliptic coordinates of North Pole were at longitude 136 by celestial latitude 66.5, and that of Spring Equinox Point were at longitude 46 by latitude 0. The epoch of them is 2000.0 A.C. Of course, the triangle arranged with clam shells, a copy of the four stars in the bowl of ancient Big Dipper, is certainly the record of earliest astronomical observation. It is also the earliest record of scientific observation in the history of mankind." (Note: This statement in relation to the dates claimed obviously need to be treated with caution.)

The mosaics in tomb M45 are of similar design to the designs found in the Zenghouyi tomb in Hubei Province, which was built circa 1000 BCE. The designs on the cover of a lacquer box in the Zenghouyi tomb are the earliest written records of the 28 lunar lodges (divisions of the sky) in China. The clam shell mosaics in tomb M45 may represent the constellations (be evidence for a celestial map) and be evidence for a calendar.

See the informed discussion in: Pankenier, David. (2011). "The cosmic center in Early China and its archaic resonances." In: Ruggles, Clive. (Editor). Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: Building Bridges between Cultures. (Pages 298-307). [Note: Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, Volume 7, SymposiumS278 [Issue 278], ("Oxford IX" International Symposium on Archaeoastronomy).]

Introduction to the 'Standard' Chinese Celestial System

In ancient Chinese astronomy there are 4 great sky animals; Dragon (East), Tiger (West), Vermillion bird (South), and Tortoise (North). The Black Tortoise, Xuan wu represents the winter; the Blue Dragon (sometimes described as green), Qing long represents the spring; the Red Bird, Zhu que, represents the summer, and the the White Tiger, Bai hu, represents the west and the autumn. Each of these sky animals in turn is subdivided into 7 lodges or hsiu (or xiu), also called incorrectly, by Western writers, lunar mansions/lunar houses. In India the term nakshatra and in the Islamic empire the Arabic term manāzil meant 'mansion.' The sinologist Nathan Sivin has explained (Granting the Seasons, 2009, Page 90) the term hsiu refers primarily to a temporary lodging, not to one's home. (The constellations or hsiu are grouped by the four directions.) Each hsiu has a number of neighbouring asterisms called paranatellons.

The system of lunar lodges was prominent in major ancient Far Eastern/Asian countries. The system was a method for dividing a section of the sky by using 27/28 stars/asterisms spread out in a band circling the sky (usually the celestial equator). The lunar lodges are latitudes the Moon crosses during its monthly journey around Earth and so they serve as a method for tracking the Moon's movement. Nathan Sivin writes (Granting the Seasons, 2009, Page 90): "The original purpose of the lunar lodges, as of the zodiac, was to allow observers to estimate fairly accurately the position of a star or celestial phenomenon without needing a graduated instrument."

The 2 most ancient ways in which the Chinese divided the celestial sphere, for both cosmological and observational purposes, were: (1) the five palaces, and (2) the lunar lodges. The lunar lodges are believed by the sinologists David Nivison and David Pankenier to date back to the early 2nd millennium BCE.

Other (later) Chinese systems of dividing the sky were: the nine fields, the three walls, the Jupiter stations, the fortnightly periods, and degrees. With the system of Jupiter Stations the equator was divided into 12 equal sectors reflecting the approximately 12-year orbital period of the planet Jupiter. The 12 Jupiter stations do not equate to the 12 signs of the Western zodiac and the term "Chinese zodiac" is a misconception. With the system of Fortnightly Periods the 24 fortnightly periods were nominal 15 day sub-divisions of the tropical year. They marked out a series of sub-seasons that defined the agrarian solar calendar for everyday use. The fortnightly periods were an average of 15.219 days each but were counted in whole days. When necessary extra days were inserted into the system to account for the accumulated fractional days. With the system of 'degrees' the equator, the ecliptic, and all other celestial circles were divided into 365 'degrees.' Thus the Chinese system of celestial 'degrees' were slightly smaller than the Western celestial degrees where a circle consisted of 360 degrees. The Chinese system of 'degrees' remained in use until the introduction Jesuit methods into Chinese astronomy.    

The Lunar Lodges

A lunar 'lodge' is a section of the sky whose boundaries are delineated with the aid of 27/28 stars/asterisms spread out in a band (either along the equator or ecliptic) that circles the sky.

The term hsiu (or xiu) refers to the Chinese system of lunar lodges. The stars marking the 28 divisions were obviously selected to enable a geometrical division of the sky. They are distributed very approximately along the celestial equator. The scheme of 28 divisions is a convenient average for measuring the motion of the moon (i.e., the sidereal month). However, their relation to the moon is not documented in surviving Chinese texts. According to the British sinologist Joseph Needham the lunar lodges were derived from the 27⅓ days of the moon' sidereal period, but anciently they were also commonly associated with the 29 year orbital period of Saturn approximated as 28 years.) They served as one of the dimensions of the Chinese polar-equatorial system. The earliest Chinese records mentioning star names deal with the hsiu (xiu). However, the origin of the Chinese system of 28 celestial lodges remains a debated issue. It is possible the hsiu originated from existing constellations.

Before the Han Period there did not exist any complete description of the sky. It remained largely unconstellated. Only 38 star names or constellation names are mentioned in pre-Han literature. These 38 stars names or constellation names were either the 28 hsiu (xiu) or were popular stars or constellations (appearing in folklore or poems) such as Niulang (= alpha Aquila), Zhinu (= alpha Lyra), and Beidou (= Ursa Major). (Later, the 7 bright stars of Ursa Major were known as Yu Ya (the Chariot) and the Milky Way was known as Tian He (Celestial River) or Yin He (Silver River).)

The 28 lunar lodges came to form the basis of the Chinese astronomical coordinate system (i.e., reference points). Throughout the length of Chinese history the system of 28 lunar lodges was the main system for defining the position of a celestial object. The hsiu (or xiu) constellations are constantly used throughout Chinese history as precise markers of the positions of celestial bodies during the seasons. Each hsiu (xiu) has a triangular patch of the sky extending up to the North Pole. (This is because the 28 lunar lodges sliced the celestial sphere into 28 sectors similar to the sections of an orange. All lines radiated from the "orange stem" of the north celestial pole. Each of the 28 sectors contained one of the lunar lodges and the width of a sector was (to some extent) dependant of the size of the constellation (lunar lodge).) As the lunar lodges were spaced out, more or less, along both sides of the celestial equator, this coordinate system was usually regarded as an equatorial system. Some modern researchers, however, hold that the lunar lodges mostly followed the ecliptic. (However, Chinese astronomy generally ignored both the horizon and the ecliptic.)

Each lunar lodge was numbered and named for a constellation or asterism. The 18th lunar lodge was called Mao and was formed by the stars of the Pleiades, The 21st lunar lodge was called Shen and was nearly identical to the modern European constellation Orion.

William O'Neill (Early Astronomy from Babylonia to Copernicus (1986, Page 179) writes: "An interesting and unique feature of the hsiu was the designation of 28 circumpolar stars on approximately the same meridians as the hsiu stars. Thus even when a hsiu star was below the horizon its direction could be read from its paranatellon (a star crossing the meridian at the same time)." Since the pole star and the stars near it never set beneath the horizon at any time during the year (whereas most stars do), the Chinese gave greatest attention to them, and by noticing where the starts at the top of a sky segment were, they could then precisely specify where the stars at the bottom of the same sky segment were, even though they might be invisible beneath the horizon. The 'keying' of the hsiu with circumpolar stars was the core of this system of dividing the sky.

The Shangshu (Book of Documents) contains a paragraph concerning 4 cardinal asterisms and is generally agreed to record the observation of stars before the 21st-century BCE. Also, a similar reference appears in the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (life dates: circa 145-90 BCE, Prefect of the Grand Scribes in the Han government, and astrologer) describing the Xia dynasty circa 2000 BCE.

A period of  particular interest for the constellating of the entire Chinese sky is the Han Period (circa 200 BCE-200 CE). Prior to the Han Dynasty the constellation system of 28 lunar lodges (presumably developed in reference to the sidereal month), and little else, was established. The earliest description of the entire Chinese sky is given in the Tianguan Shu (Monograph on Heavenly Officers) by Sima Qian (circa 145 BCE - 87 BCE). In this book he mentions 91 constellations (including the 28 lunar lodges) including approximately 500 stars. It is the earliest existing book to systematically describe the Chinese constellations. Another feature was the Chinese sky was divided into 5 palaces.

Some of the inscriptions on the oracle bones (mainly fragments of turtle/tortoise shells (carapaces) and mammalian bones (i.e., the scapulae of oxen) discovered at Anyang, and which date to the Shang Period (circa 16th- to 11th-century BCE), contain some star names. (The fragments of carapaces or mammalian bones were subjected to heat and the paths made by the resulting cracks were interpreted to answer questions about current or future events.) The star names plausibly indicate the existence of a scheme for dividing the sky along the equatorial circle into 4 main divisions was being developed at the time. It is generally accepted that at least 4 quadrantel hsiu were already known in China in the 14th-century BCE. The discovery of the Shang Oracle bones makes it possible to trace the gradual development of the system of Chinese lunar lodges from the earliest mention of the 4 quadrantel asterisms.

The Canon of Yao (comprising the first section of the Shu Ching (Classic of History), dated circa 4th-century BCE, states that the 4 stars named Huo, Hs, Mao, and Niao) mark the 4 tropic times (equinoctial and solstitial points). The 4 tropic times (equinoctial and solstitial points) correspond with the middles of the 4 seasonal quarters of the year, not with their beginnings. (This arrangement would have been approximately true for circa 2400 BCE. See: The Alphabet and Ancient Calendar Signs by Hugh Moran and David Kelley (2nd edition, 1969, Page 148).) Much later, during the Han Period (circa 200 BCE-200 CE), the 4 stars Huo (the 5th hsiu), Hs (the 11th hsiu), Mao (the 18th hsiu), and Niao (the 25th hsiu) were identified with 4 of the 28 lunar lodges. By the Han Period the 28 lunar lodges were linked to the celestial equator. Between 2300-4300 BCE some 18-20 of the hsiu fell wholly or partly within a belt falling 10 degrees north or south of the celestial equator. (See: The Alphabet and Ancient Calendar Signs by Hugh Moran and David Kelley (2nd edition, 1969, Page 149).)

The system of 28 lunar lodges of unequal sectors dates back to at least the second half of the 5th-century BCE. (The hsiu (xiu) are quite unequal in size. The reason for this is to make them 'key' accurately with circumpolar stars. Some of the hsiu had to be very wide because there were no circumpolar stars to which narrower divisions could be 'keyed.' There was, however, a tendency for approximate pairing of the widths of xius on opposite sides of the sky. Throughout the ancient and medieval periods fixing their widths remained a continuing problem. (The sinologist Nathan Sivin has explained (Granting the Seasons, 2009, Page 93): "The widths of the Chinese lodges changed [partly due to precession] gradually over the centuries.") By the start of the Christian era, the sizes of the 28 lunar lodges were calculated as varying between 2 degrees and 33 degrees.) The names of all the 28 lunar lodges are inscribed on a lacquer(ed) box cover (clothes chest cover) found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. Zeng was a minor state. This is the earliest extant list of all 28 hsiu. The tomb (located on a hillside in Hupei Province) is dated to 433 BCE. The lacquer(ed) box is now kept in the Hupei Provincial Museum. (The tomb was accidentally discovered in 1977 and excavated by Chinese archaeologists in 1978.)

Twenty-three hsiu (xiu) are in the Yueh Ling (Monthly Ordinances), and this content may date back as early as circa 850 BCE. (However, the Yueh Ling (a calendar) as a publication dates to the 3rd-century BCE.)

Due to concern to relate the heavens and the earth to each other (as belonging to the same universe) a correspondence was drawn between the 28 lunar lodges and territorial divisions that could be identified on earth.

The Determinative Stars for the Lodges

The Chinese also chose the determinative stars for their lunar lodge system on the basis of 180 degree pairing, a remarkable feat for the 4th-millennium BCE. Nathan Sivin writes (Granting the Seasons, 2009, Page 93): "Each lodge began with a star and was named after the constellation to which it belonged. These determinative stars ("determinatives" for short), were not necessarily the brightest stars in their constellations; in some cases their magnitude was as low as 4 or 5. They were far from equidistant. The width of a given lodge - the distance from its determinative star to that of the next lodge - varied from 0.05 tu to over 33 tu." (A tu = a Chinese degree (slightly less than a degree in Western astronomy. A tu was subdivided into 100 parts.)

According to Kazuhiko Miyajima: "The determinative stars are mostly located near the western end of constellations, but sometimes they are in other places. Sometimes they are less bright. We do not know what criterion was used for their selection." According to Nathan Sivin they were not chosen for their proximity to either the equator or the ecliptic.

The Five Palaces

One of the several ways in which the ancient Chinese sky was divided was the scheme of the five palaces (corresponding with the emblems or symbols of the Five Phases, and being named accordingly). This system was one of the simplest, and also one of the oldest, divisions of the sky. In this system the Chinese sky is divided into 5 general divisions (Wu Gong) of asterisms. These corresponded traditionally to Five Phases/Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), and the 5 Chinese cardinal points, East, North, West, South, and Middle (Centre). The 5th cardinal point, the central (middle) region or purple palace), is the most important one and corresponds to the circumpolar region of stars (i.e., the stars surrounding the north celestial pole) which never, for an observer in northern China, dip below the horizon. The circumpolar stars were the key constellations to the lunar lodges of the hsiu (xiu). Each of the 28 equatorial divisions had a circumpolar constellation as well as an equatorial constellation. The "central palace" consisted of all circumpolar stars within 40 degrees of the north celestial pole and was called the tzu-wei kung, 'Palace of Purple Tenuity.

The hsiu (xiu) were formed into 4 equal groups (segments) or palaces (Gong) of 7 lunar lodges (in each Gong) which were called the Four Images. The Four Images corresponded to the 4 cardinal points in the sky and to the 4 seasons of the year. (Each of these palaces represented one of the 4 seasons.) These 4 other regions or (non-central) palaces (that were called the palaces of North, East, South, and West) as well as grouping the equatorial constellations into the 4 geographical directions, were also associated with (symbolised by) an animal and a colour. East is the blue(-green) dragon, north is the black turtle (tortoise) (or paired turtle and snake), west is the white tiger, and south is the red bird (Vermillion bird). (Stars in these areas represented and were named for more mundane aspects of Chinese society, such as temples, philosophical concepts, shops and markets, farmers, soldiers, etc.)

In the Han shu (the standard history of the Han dynasty, probably compiled by Ma Hs sometime before 150 CE) there are 783 stars that are identified and placed within the five palaces of the heavens.

Lopold de Saussure believed the system of lunar lodges was the origin of the system of the five celestial palaces. According to Lopold de Saussure the system of five celestial palaces and accompanying position of the pole and position of the solstices and equinoxes at the centre of these five palaces have maintained their position through the whole period of their use in Chinese history, and date to circa 2,500 BCE.

The Nine Fields

This was a similar concept to the system of the five palaces. The scheme of the nine fields of heaven are simply an elaboration of the scheme of the five palaces. The portion of the sky surrounding the north circumpolar stars was divided into 8 truncated sectors (rather than 4). Each of the nine fields was allotted three (four in the case of the central northern field) of the 28 lunar lodges. However, the lunar lodges are not actually located in the fields to which they are assigned (which was done for astrological purposes). 

The Three-Wall System

An additional feature of the Chinese sky (dating from the Tang Period, 618-907 CE) is the 3-wall system. There were 3 enclosed areas (3 walled regions) in the Chinese sky. During the Tang Period Wang Xi-Ming composed a poem to help memorise the asterisms in the sky. In his poem, Wang Xi-Ming divided the sky into 31 regions comprising 3 enclosures and 28 lunar lodges.

The 3 enclosed areas of the Chinese sky were Ziwei Yuan (known as the Purple Forbidden Enclosure), Taiwei Yuan (known as the Supreme Palace Enclosure), and Tianshi Yuan (known as the Heavenly Market Enclosure). The word yuan means wall and it was formed by stars surrounding each enclosed area. These regions reflect the organization of the dynastic hierarchy on earth, with the Purple Forbidden Enclosure being the most important.

Ziwei Yuan (called the Purple Forbidden Enclosure (Zigong), also known as the Enclosure of Purple Subtlety) comprised the circumpolar region and included 15 constellations. This circumpolar region harboured the celestial image of the emperor (and empress, and imperial court concubines), his different court dignitaries (ministers and military commanders), and court facilities (including the palace kitchen). The brightest star of the constellation called the North Pole (Beiji) was called Di (the Emperor). Encircling them is the imperial palace which is also marked by stars, including the surrounding external walls. The Ziwei Yuan mimicked the terrestrial royal palace (i.e., was identified with the imperial palace). It extended over the stars of the Western constellations Draco, Ursa Major, and Cameleopardus. (Many parts of the Forbidden City and the circumpolar region shared the same names.) The wall was formed with 15 stars. (According to Ho Peng Yoke the region was enclosed by two chains of stars, representing the walls of the Forbidden City.)

The Tianshi Yuan and Taiwei Yuan were located between the Ziwei Yuan and the ecliptic.

The Taiwei Yuan (called the Supreme Palace Enclosure, also known as the Enclosure of Supreme/Purple Subtlety) included 13 constellations and the wall was formed with 22 stars. It was formed from a broad circle of 10 stars in the Western constellations Virgo and Leo (which have the appearance of a circle) and, to the north, a cluster of 15 stars in the Western constellation Coma Berenices (identified as the "Seats of the Court Gentlemen" (lang-wei).) Within the enclosure, the Western star beta Leonis and 4 smaller stars nearby are known as the "Seats of the Five Emperors" (Wu di zuo). This region was related to the emperor, his household, and his official hierarchy.

The Tianshi Yuan (called the Heavenly Market Enclosure) included 13 constellations and the wall was formed with 10 stars. The Imperial Throne (Di zuo) lay within this enclosure and was identified with the Western star alpha Hercules. This region was related to the general state of the economy in the emperor's empire.

The lunar lodges were also grouped by the four directions (divided among the 4 cardinal directions (each of which has a descriptive symbol) - each cardinal direction holding 7 lunar lodges). Four symbols represented the 28 lodges - 1 symbol representing 7 lodgess. The 4 symbols are the Azure Dragon (= East) (The Azure Dragon of the East), the White Tiger (= West) (The White Tiger of the West), the Tortoise (also known as the Murky Warrior) (= North) (The Black Tortoise of the North), and the Vermilion Bird (= South) (The Vermillion Bird of the South). These directional gods are believed by the sinologists David Nivison and David Pankenier to date back to the early 2nd millennium BCE.

Since the Tang Dynasty, the 3 Yuan and the 28 hsiu (xiu) became the main structure by which the Chinese organised the stars.

The Pole Star

There are indications that some Han Period writers identified β Ursae Minoris as being the Pole Star.

Chinese Political Cosmology

The Chinese believed the sky to be the other half of the earth. They also believed the sky was a mirror of the earth. As such ancient Chinese astronomy was a political science. Each part of the sky was subdivided to correspond to the different regions of the earthly Chinese empire. The bureaucratic governing structure of China was also reflected in the sky. Chinese astronomers searched the sky for celestial changes as these were regarded as omens. The Chinese sky was intimately linked to the symbolism of the Middle Kingdom i.e., the "Central States" along the Yellow River valley.

Diffusion of Indian Astronomy Into China

In the first century CE, the expansion of China into Central Asia exposed Chinese astronomers to Hindu and Persian astronomical knowledge. Chinese documents mention astronomers from Near Asia visiting China in 164 CE. Other Chinese documents mention the astronomer Ho-Tsheng-Tien learning astronomy from an Indian priest. This priest taught him, among other things, knowledge of how to determine latitude from the meridian height of the Sun. Indian astronomy was introduced into China with the journeys of Buddhist monks into China from the late 2nd-century to the early 11th-century CE. During this period of about 800 years an enormous amount of Indian astronomical ideas were introduced into China. This included the Indian system of lunar mansions, the 27 naksatras. This did not result in any great impact on the existing Chinese system of 28 hsiu's (xiu's). Both the Koreans and the Japanese, in part due to the political dominance of China in the region, adopted Chinese uranography. (For Iranian mythology in Chinese mythology see: Cults and Legends of Ancient Iran and China by J. C. Coyagee (1936), now a very scarce book. Sir Jeyhangar Coyagee was a Bombay Parsi, and an eminent Cambridge economist.)

Appendix 1:

According to one source a constellation was called a "palace," with the major star being the emperor star and lesser stars being princes.

Appendix 2:

The Chinese standard lunar lodge system of 28 'lunar lodges' is attributed to the astrologer/astronomer Shi Shin circa late 4th-century BCE. An earlier (but similar) lunar lodge system is attributed to the scholar Liu Xiang circa 1st-century BCE. This earlier system called the 'old degree' (gudu) system.

"In China there have been two ... systems of 28 'lunar lodges' (xiu), with variations. ... [T]he standard lunar lodge system of the past 2000 years ... is ascribed to ... Shi Shen of the late fourth century BC. ... But ... an eighth century AD encyclopedia of portents, the Kaiyuan zhanjing (ch. 60-3), makes it clear, Shi Shen's system (if it is his) is actually the later of the two. ... [Liu Xiang's earlier] system differs from Shi Shen's only in the widths of the individual lodges, and in the fact that, when the two systems are mapped, the beginning points - the first point of the lodge Jiao - are a few degrees apart in longitude." (Nivison, David. (1989). "The origin of the Chinese lunar lodge system." In: Aveni, Anthony. (Editor). World Archaeoastronomy. (Pages 276-288).)

Appendix 3:

The astronomer Bradley Schaefer has found the best estimate for the formation of the Chinese 'lunar lodge' system is 3250 BCE with a statistical uncertainty of roughly 1000 years.

Appendix 4:

In their book The Chinese Sky during the Han. Constellating Stars & Society (1997, Page 96) Sun Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker set out that the Chinese star names can be roughly categorised as related with:
(1) Heaven itself: sun, moon, and stars as names of constellations;
(2) Royal court and clan;
(3) Imperial bureaucracy and administration;
(4) All kinds of buildings and facilities;
(5) Military installations; armies and weapons;
(6) Traffic and transportation;
(7) Rituals, ceremonies and pictures of social life;
(8) Philosophical and religious concepts;
(9) Mythological and legendary figures;
(10) Administrative provinces and geographical features.

Appendix 5:

The Chinese perceived Heaven to be circular. In Chinese cosmology Heaven had nine levels; each of which was separated by a gate and guarded by a particular animal. The highest level was the Palace of Purple Tenuity where the Emperor of Heaven lived in the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper). At the center of Heaven there was the North Pole and the polar star. The celestial pole was a critical characteristic of Chinese cosmology. To the Chinese, the centre was the most important geographical point because it was the closest to Heaven. They believed that the heart of civilization lay at the centre of the earth, and as the land spread out, the territories and their inhabitants became more savage. The emphasis on the centre point led to the polar axis being a pivotal aspect of Chinese astronomy. The polar axis, which ran from the polar star south to Earth, was the pivot of Heaven. The vault of Heaven slid up and down the polar axis while the earth itself oscillated along it to create the seasons.

Possibly the 'big dipper' was the single most important asterism in Chinese astronomy, depicted as the celestial chariot of the emperor. The Wu Liang tomb, 2nd-century CE, contained a stone slab of the 'big dipper' with seated royal figure.

Appendix 6:

Because the stars revolve around it the celestial Pole is seen as the center of heaven and belonging to all directions. Dating from the Tang Period the sky surrounding Polaris (Běijxīng) is divided into 3 regions. These 3 regions are: (1) the Purple Forbidden Enclosure (Zǐ Wēi Yun), (2) the Supreme Palace Enclosure (Ti Wēi Yun), and (3) the Heavenly Market Enclosure (Tiān Sh Yun). These 3 regions reflect the organization of the Chinese dynastic hierarchy on earth, the most important being the Purple Forbidden Enclosure. The concept that earthly government is organized like that of heaven – at its peak of important during the Tang Dynasty - gives the earthly government its structure, and actions legitimacy, and supports the Mandate of Heaven. The Chinese belief that there was a direct link between the celestial plan and the imperial house was one of the fundamental factors for the continuous dynastic system with consistent heritage from era to era. To remove ties with the heavens meant cutting the government off from legitimacy.

Appendix 7:

The constellations or Xi are grouped by the four directions, East (dragon), West (tiger), South (vermillion bird), and North (tortoise). The dragon occupies the East and contains the constellations: (Jiăo) Horn, (Kng) Neck, (Dĭ) Root, (Fng) Room, (Xīn) Heart, (Wěi) Tail, (Jī ) Winnowing basket. The tiger is in the West and contains the constellations: (Ku) Legs, (Lu) Bond, (Wi) Stomach, (Mǎo) Hairy Head, (B) Net, (Zuǐ) Turtle Beak, (Cān) Join - Three Stars. The scarlet or vermillion bird is in the South and contains the constellations: (Jǐng) Well, (Guǐ) Demon, (Lǐ) Willow, (Xīng) Star, (Zhāng) Growth, (Y) Wings, (Zhěn) Deep emotion. The tortoise occupies the North and contains the constellations: (Dǒu) Dipper, (Nu) Ox, (Nǚ) Woman, (Xū) Emptiness, (Wēi) Danger, (Sh) Room, (B) Wall.

Appendix 8:

With the Chinese calendar the equinoxes and solstices marked the center of the seasons rather than the beginnings. The 2 oldest Chinese calendars that have come down to us are the Hsia Hsiao Cheng and the Yūeh Ling. (According to Joseph Needham between 370 BCE and 1851 CE no less than 102 ‘calendars’ (effectively ephemerides) were calculated and promulgated in China, generally at the beginning of particular reigns.)

The Hsia Hsiao Cheng was more of a farmer’s almanac. It was divided into twelve months that would forecast the weather. The Hsia Hsiao Cheng (The Lesser Canon of the Hsia) forms the calendar section of the collection of ritual notes, the Ta Tai Li (The Rites of the Elder Tai). The calendar has nothing to do with the Hsia dynasty itself. Though traditionally regarded as a true relic of the Hsia dynasty (circa 2000 BCE) it is dated by modern scholars such as Joseph Needham on astronomical grounds (the hsiu) to the mid 4th-century BCE (contemporary with Shi Shen and Gan/Ghan De (Kan Te)). The document is a farmer's calendar but also includes comments on the weather, the stars, animal and vegetable life, all arranged under the 12 moons of the year. It was first translated from Chinese by Robert Douglas (1838-1913), Professor of Chinese, King’s College, London (Orientalia Antiqua, 1892, Pages 1-60), and mistakenly regarded by him as being of great antiquity.

The Yūeh Ling, which was more detailed (longer) than the Hsia Hsiao Cheng, came to be incorporated in the Hsiao Tai Li Chi (Record of the Rites of Tai the Younger) dated to the 1st-century CE. The Yūeh Ling is dated to circa the 3rd-century BCE (and may even be earlier, circa 5th-century BCE. It contains not only monthly divisions and observations, but also set out the various sacrifices and instructions on how to perform them. The Yūeh Ling gives the astronomical characteristics of the (lunar) months with details of the appropriate musical notes, and sacrifices, etc. The bulk of each chapter describes the imperial ceremonies to be performed, the prohibitions of various activities, and warnings of what will occur if the proper/prescribed rites are not followed.

Appendix 9:

From their origin, Buddhists had an interest in intellectual activities which can be called scientific activities. As well as religious beliefs, Buddhist missionaries were involved in the transmission of astronomy and astrology from India to East Asia through Buddhism. This can be divided into three periods. (1) Early Buddhism, (2) Mahayana Buddhism, and (3) Tantric Buddhism.

Appendix 10:

Abstracts of recent conference papers presented by Stefan Maeder, Kokugakuin University, Tokyo, Japan, at ICOA-7 (International Conference on Oriental Astronomy, September 6-September 10, 2010):

"The Archaeology of the „Big Dipper“ – Some recent findings from Japan and Europe."

"The Big Dipper in Ursa Major was and is the most conspicuous asterism in the northern sky. Furthermore it is circumpolar and could be used as a means for identifying the apparent celestial northern pole, respectively the center of heaven, also in times when due to precession there was no actual pole-star. This holds true for a time span from at least the later 4th millennium B.C. until the present. Its importance for the history of religion is recorded in various mythologies geographically ranging from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome to the Germanic sphere, India, Siberia, China, Korea and Japan, not to mention the Americas. For 150 years there have been scattered reports on so-called cup-marked stones showing the Big Dipper from Switzerland, France, Germany and England. These isolated cases were regarded as coincidence and an astronomical interpretation dismissed by most archaeologists. The author was also inclined to regard these early reports as wishful thinking until he stumbled across two early representations of the Big Dipper in Japan, which correspond to a finding in 2006 of a confirmed neolithic representation on Baimiaozi-mountain, Mongolia, China. All of these representations include an extra cup-mark/star between the upper stars of the bowl, Megrez and Dubhe. This inconspicious star, BSC 4439, is about as bright as Alcor and is of assistance in locating Thuban (α-draconis), which was the star closest to the pole at around 2800 B.C.. One striking feature about the worldwide representations of the Big Dipper is the fact that it is mostly rendered mirror-inverted. The presentation will introduce the revised and newly found archaeological evidence from Japan and Europe by comparing it to hitherto known representations of the Big Dipper from Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Korea."

"The Sword, the Snake & the Turtle - Three constellations from pre-modern China?"

"This talk is intended not as a line-up of definite results, but as a basis for discussion of four combined motives on a Chinese coin-charm: 1. the Big Dipper, 2. the sword, 3. the turtle and 4. the snake. The occurrence of astral symbolism on early coins made from bronze, silver or gold has long since been corroborated by thousands of specimen from the Greek, Celtic, Roman and of course the Chinese cultural spheres. Generally speaking these types of currency roughly date from the 4th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. in Europe and from the Han-period (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) through to the 19th century in China. At least from about the 1st/2nd centuries A.D. coins were regarded as auspicious objects in China. Non-currency types of coins displaying cosmological symbolism like e.g. the Big Dipper, the dragon, the snake, the turtle and the tiger were constantly cast as charms until the 19th century. The characteristic arrangement and rendering of the four initially mentioned symbols allow for a hypothetical identification of three hitherto unknown Chinese constellations, namely the sword, the snake and the turtle, which –together with the big dipper - surround the pole of the ecliptic at even distances to each other and to the pole itself. The pole of the ecliptic according to the hypothesis is represented by the center of the coin, which was cast as an open-work square. In fact the four symbols form a cross-shape around the center just as the one certain and the three hypothetical constellations are aligned around the pole of the ecliptic. The sword-constellation consists of the central stars of Cygnus (without the outer wing-stars). The snake-constellation contains Corona Borealis as the distinct central coil, the four northern stars of Hercules as its head and the three northern stars of Bootes as its tail. The head, shell and tail of the turtle-constellation are accurately represented by the six major stars of Cassiopeia, the feet by two smaller stars immediately south of the celestial W-shape. These representations are found on a type of bronze coin that was first issued between 578 and 580 A.D. All representations are rendered mirror-inverted as is also the case with a variety of prehistoric astronomical depictions from China and Europe."


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