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N: Chinese Constellations

25: Early Chinese star maps

 

A section of the Dunhuang star chart (showing a polar projection (North circumpolar region)). (Used with the written permission of the British Library.) The width of the section shown is approximately 24.4 cms and the length is approximately 20 cms. The stars of Ursa Major, Sagittarius, and Capricornus are clearly recognisable. (Note the ball-and-link (point and line) convention to identify constellations/asterisms.) In China, constellation 'figures' (asterisms) were shown by simplified ball and link method circa 200 BCE or earlier. The Dunhuang star chart is recognised to have been made circa 649-684 CE by Li Chunfeng (whose life dates, 602-670, narrow the dating again). It was constructed with remarkable accuracy.

 

The Chinese developed their own system of constellations and these are quite different to the traditional Western system of constellations. The Chinese did not follow the Western tradition of grouping stars according to their brightness but rather grouped stars according to their location. Also, the Chinese formed their constellations from only a small number of stars. Some Chinese asterisms involve only 1 star. (A few (5) Chinese constellations were patterned in the same way as those used in Western Europe. These were: (1) the Great Bear, (2) Orion, (3) Auriga, (4) Corona Australis, and (5) the Southern Cross. The Chinese sky is intimately linked with the symbolism of the Middle Kingdom. The names of most of the some 300 Chinese asterisms refer to practical objects or persons. In The Silk Road (2004) edited by Susan Whitfield it is stated: "This very fine and detailed carving up of the sky was probably dictated by the need to provide accurate positions when precise coordinates were not available. The small size of most asterisms enables an event to be located with relative accuracy when only the name of the asterism is given."   

The Chinese Dunhuang manuscript (named after the town on the Silk Road near where it was discovered) is, excluding astrolabes, the oldest existing portable star map known. (The oldest known manuscript star chart.) The document is divided into 2 different parts. The atlas itself comprises the 2nd part of a longer scroll. It is ink painted on (very) thin fine Chinese paper and is a scroll map (approximately 210 cms long and 24.4 cms wide) in 13 separate panels, of the northern heavens with divination text also attached. (The length of the entire scroll, inclusive of divination text at the end, is 394 cms (some sources have 330 cms). It is inscribed on one side only. There are small missing sections at the beginning and end of the scroll.) The first part of the scroll is a manual for divination based on the shape of clouds. The 12 charts showing different sections of the sky follow next. The stars are named and there is also explanatory text. The final chart depicts the north-polar region. The Dunhuang star chart overall is detailed, showing a total of 1345 stars in 257 clearly marked and named asterisms/constellations, including all 28 mansions. The positioning is very accurate for a hand-drawn document and compares agreeably to comparison with modern charts.

It is the oldest existing Chinese star chart which depicts the whole of the sky visible in China. The star map is held in the British Museum (MS Stein 3326). It is believed to have been prepared in the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) It was dated to circa 940 CE by the Sinologist and science historian Joseph Needham (Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3 (1959)). (The star map was largely ignored until dealt with by Joseph Needham in his Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3 (1959 Certainly the earliest discussion of the astronomical context of the Dunhuang star map was by Joseph Needham.) It has since received considerable attention though Needham's dating is still frequently quoted.) A Chinese scholar later dated the manuscript to circa 705-710 CE. Two French astronomers, Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud of the Astrophysical Department of the French Atomic Energy Agency and Françoise Praderie of the Observatoire de Paris, have recently conducted a fresh analysis of the star chart and proposed an earlier date of circa 618 CE (the start of the Tang period) for the star chart being drawn. ("Star Charts on the Silk Road: Astronomical Maps in Ancient China." by Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud and Françoise Praderie in: The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, edited by Susan Whitfield (2004), Pages 81-90). (Their current (2009) dating for when the Dunhuang star map was composed is 649-684 CE.)

 The star chart was recovered from the Buddhist temple-caves near Dunhuang in (western) Gansu Province (China) by the Hungarian-born adventurer/explorer/archaeologist Aurel Stein (1862-1943). Dunhuang is an oasis town in Chinese Central Asia west of Xian, a former capital of China. It was the town where the two branches of the Silk Road rejoined for the final leg into the capital city of China. The town was founded in 111 BCE by Emperor Wudi (Han dynasty) to be 1 of 4 garrison commanderies to ensure Chinese control over the trade routes to the western regions. (During the Han Dynasty, 202 BCE - 220 CE, the commandery was the core unit of local governmental administration.) The region near Dunhuang has 492 caves (grottoes) comprising a Buddhist "holy site." (Over 480 caves are preserved.) These caves were cut into the rock of the cliff wall forming the eastern side of the Mingsha Hill from the 4th-century CE onwards, and decorated with religious carvings and paintings. The "cave site" was active from circa 360 CE to the end of the Mongol period in the 14th-century CE. The site was virtually ignored until the discovery of a sealed-up cave at the end of the 19th-century.

Other astronomical documents found in the particular Dunhuang library cave were (1) a fragment of a circumpolar star map, and (2) an astrological compilation of the Chinese asterisms/constellations.

Aurel Stein spent most of his life in the service of the British Empire in India, became a naturalised British citizen, and was knighted for his services. (Aurel Stein received his PhD from Türbingen University on Old Persian and Indology. He was appointed as Principal of the Punjab University and Oriental College, Lahore.) His most notable accomplishments involved exploring parts of Central Asia and Western China. He was particularly interested in confirming his theories about the rich past of the Silk Road (a collection of trade routes across Central Asia connecting China and the Far East with the Mediterranean and the West). During the course of his second expedition, started in 1907, he uncovered and collected thousands of medieval manuscripts from the Caves of the One Thousand Buddhas (Mogao Grottoes) near Dunhuang. (In 1907 Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot bought over 9000 objects and manuscripts from a custodian monk at the caves.) One particular cave (Cave 17 (the cave number is also given as 16) contained a previously sealed library. The cave was reopened only a few years before the arrival of Aurel Stein in 1907. (This cave, which was crammed with approximately 40,000 ancient manuscripts and hand-copied ancient books (including the Dunhuang sky map), was accidentally discovered by a monk in 1900 (or around this date.) Its entrance had been sealed and disguised (and is also described as a covered alcove). The manuscripts (mostly Buddhist religious texts) and artifacts are thought to have been sealed up and abandoned in 1000 CE (or around this date) due to persecution of Buddhists by the (Chinese) Hsi-Hsia kingdom to the north. The cave was apparently sealed to preserve its contents (and the dry climate ensured the preservation of the manuscripts). At this time Dunhuang was a desert outpost of China.) All the material from Cave 17 (16) dates prior to 1000 CE. (The Caves of the One Thousand Buddhas were carved by hand out of the rocks stretching for about 1,600 metres along the eastern side of the Mingsha Hill, approximately 25 kms southeast of Dunhuang. Numerous caves dot the hill face (cliff wall).) In 1907 Aurel Stein became the first foreigner to gain access to the secret archive in Cave 17. It contained documents and paintings dating from the 4th to the 11th centuries CE.

There are two seemingly conflicting versions of how Aurel Stein accessed the manuscripts from Cave 17 (16). In one version the removal of the scrolls and manuscripts in Cave 17 (16) was achieved by Stein gradually winning the confidence and trust of the Buddhist caretaker(s) (actually Taoist/Daoist caretaker monk). Another version states that at that time the Grottos were all but abandoned and the monk who found the hidden cache of manuscripts was selling manuscripts piece by piece to support himself and what was left of the monastery. (The details of one version are the Taoist/Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu discovered the "Cave for Preserving Scriptures" (i.e., Cave 17 (16)) in 1900, or the early 1900s.) (See: Appendix 2, below which is based on Chinese sources.) Approximately 14,000 scrolls, manuscripts, and fragments from Cave 17 (16) are now in the Stein Collection in the British Library. (Very little money was paid for these manuscripts.) Stein transported the thousands of manuscripts and artifacts to England and India on the backs of camels. Not surprisingly Stein's collection methods have been much criticised and he has been described as a looter (plunderer). Other Western archaeologists who looted scrolls and manuscripts from the Dunhuang grottoes between 1906 and 1919 included Paul Pelliott and Sergei Oldenburg. (The French Orientalist Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), unlike Aural Stein, was a Chinese linguist. On his 1908 expedition to China this enabled him to carefully choose the manuscripts he purchased from the custodian monk(s) at Dunhuang.)

The Dunhuang star chart shows over 1,350 (some sources state 1,345) stars grouped in 257 clusters or "asterisms." Most of the asterisms are labelled with their names. (Chinese constellations were smaller and more numerous than the Western constellations because they usually consisted of only 3-12 stars. This detailed division of the sky enabled provision of accurate positions when precise coordinates were not available.) The stars are depicted as large dots or small circles and the constellations ("asterisms") depicted by drawing lines to connect the large dots or small circles. The star chart includes faint stars that are difficult to see with the naked eye. The star chart is drawn up in thirteen sections. It is basically split into the twelve divisions of the Chinese year. Two different methods are used to display the stars on the maps. Method 1: A cylindrical projection method was used to draw the stars around the horizon. Twelve sections are flat maps centred on the celestial equator - these divisions according with the twelve stations of the planet Jupiter. (The twelve divisions of Jupiter are based on the twelve years it takes for the planet Jupiter move around the ecliptic and return to the same place among the stars.) Method 2: A circular polar projection method was used to draw the region around polaris. The other remaining section is a planisphere - a flat map centred on the north pole. (The above illustration shows the polar region of the sky.) The Dunhuang star chart is somewhat imprecise in that it has no grid lines. Whilst not a precise scientific star atlas the Chinese sky is presented in a reasonably recognisable manner. (It has an accuracy that is considered surprising for a star chart from an early period.) The form of map projection used is a Mercator-like projection system similar to the system of map projection later developed in Europe in 1568 by Gerhardus Mercator (a Flemish mapmaker).

The origin and use of the Dunhuang star chart remains unknown. It is thought that the star chart is a reproduction of a much earlier version. Or, it may have been a reproduction of more than one earlier chart. (It is a Song Dynasty star map.) The first part of the Dunhuang Star chart consists of a collection of predictions based on shapes of clouds. The texts on cloud divination preceding the star charts support the idea that it was used for uranomancy (the divination of events by consulting the heavens). It is thought likely to have also had a military purpose (in calculating lucky or unlucky days for warfare on the basis of the positions of heavenly bodies).  Why the map was at Dunhuang and not in an imperial archive is unresolved. It is thought that perhaps it could have been used also as a guide to travellers. Dunhuang was the last major resting place before starting on the journey on the north or south routes across the Taklamakan desert to the west.

Three different colours are used for the stars. This obviously follows Chinese tradition in distinguishing between the 3 ancient star catalogues composed prior to and during the Warring States period (circa 475-221 BCE).

 The Dunhuang star chart is an example of the coloured star map of Qian Luozhi (Qian Lezhi). It gives a flat representation of Qian Luozhi's three-coloured traditional chart on the celestial globe (made 5th-century CE). Between 424 and 453 CE (during the Nan Dynasty) the Imperial Astronomer Qian Luozhi had a bronze celestial globe (planisphere) cast with the stars on it coloured in red, black, and white to distinguish the star listings of the three astronomers he had sourced. (The colours used had nothing to do with the observed colours of stars.) These were the first Chinese catalogues of star positions that were drawn up by the astronomers Shi Shen (Shih Shen or Shi Shi), Gan De (Kan Te or Gan Shi) , and Wu Xian (Wu Hsien or Wuxian Shi). (Shi Shen (Shih Shen or Shi Shi) listed 93 constellations;  Gan De (Kan Te or Gan Shi) listed 118 constellations; and Wu Xian (Wu Hsien or Wuxian Shi) listed 44 constellations.) They created their own star maps for calendrical and astrological purposes. The positions of a number of stars were accurately determined. The stars of Shi Shen were coloured red, the stars of Gan De were coloured black, and the stars of Wu Xian were coloured white. The use of colours was due to the belief that the three astronomers had each used different methods of astrological interpretation and that is was therefore necessary to know which system to apply. On the Dunhuang star chart the stars of Shi Shen were coloured yellow (not red), the stars of Gan De were coloured black, and the stars of Wu Xian were coloured white. (Wu Xian is actually a vague (probably legendary) figure from the Yin dynasty (said to be a Minister at the time of Emperor Da Wu) circa 1200 BCE. During the later Han period some astrologers began to write in the name of Wu Xian and this practice led to the emergence of a Wu Xian astronomical school.)

The Chinese had been creating star maps and star catalogs since at least the 5th-century BCE. The first Chinese star charts appeared during the Warring States period (circa 475-221 BCE). (The Warring States period was just prior to the unification of China under the first emperor Qin Shi Huang (or Shih Huang Ti) in 221 BCE.) The scientific and technological achievements of the Warring States period are immensely impressive. The various feudal states all had their own court astrologers/astronomers. Chinese astrologers/astronomers began to group the individual stars into constellations with each constellation having a symbolic significance. Shi Shen of the State of Wei and Gan De (possibly) of the State of Qi (Chu) co-authored The Gan and Shi Book of the Stars. In it they accurately recorded the positions (i.e., provided equatorial coordinates) of 120 (121?) stars. It is the world's earliest star chart. (This star catalogue also included the names of constellations and other stars that had not had their positions accurately recorded.)

The fixed star registers of the 3 astronomical schools were preserved in the Kaiyuan Zhanjing (Treatise on Astrology) of the Kaiyuan Period (729 CE) from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). (The earliest existing book to systematically describe the Chinese constellations was the Tianguan Shu (Monograph on Heavenly Officers) by Sima Qian (circa 145 BCE - 87 BCE). Some 90 constellations were mentioned including the 28 lunar mansions. Another feature was the Chinese sky was divided into 5 palaces.)

In the Han shu (the standard history of the Han dynasty, probably compiled by Ma Hsü sometime before 150 CE) there are 118 named constellations listed and 783 stars that are identified and placed within the five palaces of the heavens. There are indications that some Han Period writers identified β Ursae Minorus as being the Pole Star.

Circa 310 CE (immediately after the Han period) Chen Zhuo (Chhen Cho) (circa 230-320 CE), the Imperial Astronomer of the Wu State, and later the Jin court, (he lived during the Three Kingdoms (= Sanguo) period, and at the beginning of the Jin dynasty) constructed a map of the visible sky (stars and constellations) based on the astronomical schools of Shi Shen, Gan De, and Wu Xian. He combined (integrated) the three traditional star maps of Shi Shen, Gan De, and Wu Xian to form a new star catalogue of the visible sky. With additions included there were 1,464 stars and 283 (284?) constellations, and also included were an explanation and astrological commentary. Undoubtedly, in the combined star catalogue of Chen Zhou, the groups of constellations he attributed to one of the three astronomical schools his only his own chosen allocation. (It would be mistaken to believe that each of these groups of constellations were exclusively the constellations of each of the three astronomical schools used by Chen Zhou. There is no reason to suppose that each of the three astronomical schools did not take a comprehensive interest in the entire visible sky.) From this time on the new version of the Chinese sky provided by the scheme of Chen Zhou became established as the traditional Chinese sky. It was inherited by the Tang dynasty (618-907) astronomers and the Chinese sky became relatively fixed. No further significant changes occurred. Some stars were added, some star names were changed (the different star names introduced were actually synonyms), and the shapes of some constellations were changed into new groupings of stars. After the Tang dynasty the constellations were no longer distinguished according to which school they had belonged to. The later planisphere of Qian Luozhi agreed with this composite star chart constructed by Chen Zhou.

It would appear that most of the constellations of Gan De and Wu Xian were just fill-ins amongst the constellations listed by Shi Shen. Shi Shen's constellations were formed from the brightest stars in the sky. It has been commented that the constellations of Gan De and Wu Xian did not seem to exist in their own time but were later developments of star naming during the Han Period.

The French astronomers Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud and Françoise Praderie hold there is sufficient evidence to believe the Dunhuang star chart is based on traditional texts. They point out that the information in the texts accompanying each section of the star chart is closely similar in style and content to the notations given in the astronomical text, the Yueling (Yūeh Ling) (Monthly Ordinances, a royal ritual calendar) dating to circa 300 BCE.

Professor Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud and Professor Françoise Praderie have been researching the Dunhuang Star chart for over 5 years. They have recently (2009) published a comprehensive paper on the results of their studies in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. (Bonnet-Bidaud, Jean-Marc., Praderie, Françoise. and Whitfield, Susan. (2009). "The Dunhuang chinese sky: a comprehensive study of the oldest known star atlas." (Journal of Astronomical history and Heritage, Volume 12, Number 1, March, Pages 39-59). [Note: The 19 page paper also has 5 Tables and 8 Figures. Françoise Praderie died in early 2009.])  

Several other major Dunhuang astronomical documents are (1) a fragment of a circumpolar star map, (2) an astrological compilation of the Chinese constellations, and (3) calendars.

Appendix 1: Dunhuang.

The city of Dunhuang is sited at an oasis and is located near the historic junction of the northern and southern Silk Roads. It was a major point of interchange between China and the West. It also had military importance. The Buddhist monks occupying the area up to circa 1000 BCE and the stream of pilgrims constantly passing through the area painted murals inside the Caves of the One Thousand Buddhas (Mogao Grottoes).

Appendix 2: Wang Yuanlu

The (self-appointed) care taker at Dunhuang was Wang Yuanlu was an itinerant Chinese Taoist/Daoist monk from Shanxi Province. He had arrived at the Dunhuang Buddhist cave complex in the 1890s, made it his home, and became an unofficial guardian of the caves. To accomplish this he went on fundraising tours to raise money to restore the statues. In 1900, while clearing sand from Cave 16, his workmen accidentally discovered a hidden door which led into a small cave (alcove) filled with ancient documents and paintings dating from the 4th to 11th centuries CE. This cave is now numbered Cave 17 and is also known as the Library Cave. (It was originally constructed as a memorial cave for a local monk on his death in the 9th century. The documents and painting were found covered in an alcove in this memorial cave. (?))

The full significance of the library cave's contents was not immediately recognised in China even after Wang Yuanlu made repeated attempts over the years (some 3 attempts in 5-6 years) to report its discovery to officials. Finally, in 1904, the provincial government ordered those at Dunhuang to take measures to protect the manuscripts. This measure only involved delegating responsibility rather than initiating action.

When Stein and Pelliot visited Dunhuang in 1907 and 1908 respectively they were therefore able to persuade Wang Yuanlu to part with large numbers of the manuscripts and paintings for a small reimbursement. The details of the transaction was duly noted by Wang Yuanlu. Acting as interpreter, secretary and companion on Aurel Stein's second expedition, 1906–8, was Jiang Xiaowan (Jiang Siye, died 1922). Originally from Hunan he had been posted to Xinjiang in 1883.  Jiang Xiaowa had served previously as a private secretary to government officials and had the experience that Stein required for his exploratory expedition. He first met Stein in May 1906 the two immediately became friends. Jiang Xiaowan taught Aurel Stein colloquial Chinese during the expedition and was instrumental in persuading Wang Yuanlu to allow Stein and himself to access Dunhuang.

Later, the Chinese scholar Luo Zhenyu heard that more than 8,000 manuscripts remained in the library cave. Realising that if the manuscripts were not quickly brought to Beijing, they might disappear completely he and other Chinese scholars made concerted efforts to achieve such. This culminated in the Ministry of Education issuing a government directive for recovering the remaining manuscripts. Fu Baoshu was appointed to arranged transport of the remaining manuscripts from Dunhuang to Beijing. However, he left the Tibetan manuscripts at Dunhuang. It appears some manuscripts were stolen from the Ministry of Education by Li Shengduo, after the manuscripts reached the Ministry. Soon after these occurrences the 1911 revolution led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, leaving the Chinese government too preoccupied to worry about the Dunhuang manuscripts. After several diversionary episodes they finally reached the Metropolitan Library in Beijing. There were 8,697 manuscripts from Dunhuang, and these still constitute the main part of the Dunhuang materials at the National Library of China.

Appendix 3: Some early Chinese star maps.

(1) Star map/catalogue by Wu Xian (created circa 1200-1000 BCE) but perhaps mythical for this time. (The life dates for Wu Xian (Wuxian) are uncertain and there is the possibility he may even have been fictional.) This was a partial (northern) sky star map apparently containing 44 central and outer constellations and a total of 141 stars.

(2) Star map/catalogue by Gan/Ghan De (created between circa 475-221 BCE, Warring States period). This was a partial (northern) sky star map possibly containing 75 central constellations and 42 outer constellations (= 117 constellations). (Some sources though state 510 stars in 118 constellations).

(3) Star map/catalogue by Shi Shen (created circa 350 BCE). This was a relatively comprehensive (northern) sky star map apparently containing 138 constellations, 810 star names, and the locations of 121 stars. (According to some sources it contained the 28 lunar ecliptic constellations/asterisms, 62 central constellations, and 30 outer constellations.) However, we have no record of the brightness of the stars, which has made complete identification difficult.

(4) The book Tianguan Shu (Monograph on Heavenly Officers) by Sima Qian (lived circa 145 BCE - 87 BCE) was the earliest book to describe the Chinese constellations. Some 90 constellations (500 stars) were mentioned, including the 28 lunar mansions. 

(5) Star map/catalogue by Chen Zhuo (created circa 270 CE). This was a whole (northern) sky star map whose contents were a unified constellation system (integrating the records of Shi Shen, Gan/Ghan De, and Wu Xian) containing 1464 stars in 284 constellations. After Chen Zhuo’s time there were no later additions (or substantial later additions) to the scheme of Chinese constellations, although some of the existing ones were modified. Chen Zhuo’s original catalogue was lost some time in the 6th-century CE. This combined set of asterisms/constellations remained in use in China until the early 17th-century, when Western constellations were introduced and replaced them. Additional to these star groupings, and predating them, were 28 ancient divisions known as xiu (or hsiu), or lodges/mansions. These comprised a system of vertical strips of sky acting as markers for following the monthly movement of the Moon, a 'lunar zodiac,' thus providing the basis for a lunar calendar.

(6) Planetarium/star map by Qian Luozhi (Qian Lezhi) (created circa 443 CE, Nan Dynasty). This whole (northern) sky planetarium/star map used red, black, and white to differentiate stars from the different star maps of Wu Xian, Gan/Ghan De, and Shi Shen.

(7) The Dunhuang star map/catalogue (created circa 705-710 CE). It is an example of the coloured star map of Qian Luozhi (Qian Lezhi). The oldest star map found so far is this example from Dunhuang. Earlier thought to date from about 940 CE (by Joseph Needham), and then 705-710 CE (by Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud and Françoise Praderie). It is now recognised to have been made about 649-684 CE by the astronomer and mathematician Li Chunfeng (whose life dates, 602-670, narrow the dating again). It was made with precise mathematical methods and shows 1339 stars in 257 Chinese star groups with a precision between 1.5 and 4 degrees of arc. In all there are 12 charts each in 30 degree sections displaying the full sky visible from the Northern hemisphere. Up to now it is the oldest complete preserved star atlas discovered from any civilisation. Li Chunfeng was a major Feng shui scholar of the Tang Dynasty and a mathematician, astronomer, and historian. He was first appointed to the Imperial Astronomy Bureau to help institute calendar reform. He eventually ascended to become deputy of the Imperial Astronomy Bureau and designed the Linde calendar. Astronomy was important subject in ancient Chinese history not only as a scientific theory, but also as an essential part of a general theory of hermeneutics. Scholars interpreted constellations and celestial movements, which informed a framework within which events, in daily life or of historical significance, are interpreted. Astronomy was also tied to ideas of the Mandate of Heaven and Feng shui, which reached their maturity during the in Tang Dynasty. Li Chunfeng was a major theorist who contributed to the development of Feng shui theories.

(8) Suzhou (previously transliterated as Soochow, Su-chou, and Suchow) planisphere/star map by Huang Shang (created 1193 CE). This was a whole (northern) sky chart depicting the sky visible from central China (approximately 35 degrees north latitude). The Suzhou planisphere depicts the sky from the north celestial pole to about 55 degrees south. The inscription accompanying the chart states there are 283 asterisms and 1565 stars. All 1464 stars from Chen Zhuo's catalogue are supposedly included. There are, however, 313 asterisms and only 1440 stars displayed on it. (It has been pointed out that not all of the stars show up on the rubbing.) Chinese astronomy traditionally had 283 constellations and 1464 stars.  Radiating lines, like irregular spokes, demarcate the 28 xiu. These lines extend from the southern horizon (the rim of the chart) to a circle roughly 35 degrees from the north celestial pole; within this circle lie the circumpolar constellations, i.e. those that never set as seen from the latitude of observation.The Suzhou planisphere provides a more complete representation of the Chinese sky than the Dunhuang star map. This chart was engraved on stone in 1247 but is a copy of an earlier drawing created circa 1193. Reproductions of the engraving are taken from an ink-on-paper rubbing, as a result, the stars and lines appear white on a black background. Two intersecting circles represent the celestial equator and ecliptic, which the Chinese called the Red Road and the Yellow Road respectively. An irregular band running across the chart outlines the Milky Way, called the River of Heaven. The dividing rift through Cygnus can also be made out. 

Appendix 4: Later Sky Maps

Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty the scholar Xu Guang-Qi, when editing the book Chong Zhen Reign-Period Treatise on Calendrical Science introduced 23 new asterisms (based on European star catalogues) situated in the region of the celestial south pole. There are: Sea and mountain, Cross, Horse's tail, Horse's abdomen, Bee, Triangle, Exotic bird, Peacock, Persia, Snake's tail, Snake's abdomen, Snake's head, Bird's beak, Crane, Firebird, Crooked running water, White patches nearby, White patch attached, Goldfish, Sea rock, Flying fish, Southern boat, and Little dipper. The accepted standard for traditional Chinese star mapping is the revised and corrected star catalogue (completed in the Qing Dynasty by Dai Jin-Xian and Liu Song-Ling) in Complete Studies of Astronomical Instruments.

Appendix 5: Equator and Ecliptic

During the later Han period (circa 1st- or 2nd-century CE) Chinese astronomers gave a name to the ecliptic as well as to the celestial equator. The title of the ecliptic was the Yellow Road (hoang-tao) and the title of the celestial equator was the Red Road. This particular naming practice may simply have had its origins in the particular coloured lines drawn on star maps during the Han period, to indicate the ecliptic and celestial equator.

The Ch'ih tao i (Instrument of the Red Path, or Equatorial Instrument) was developed by Keng Shou-ch'ang circa 55 BCE. The Huang tao i (Instrument of the Yellow Path, or Ecliptical Instrument) was developed by Chia K'uei in 102 CE.

Appendix 6: Identifying the ancient Chinese asterisms/constellations

Chinese constellations were symbolic, rather than pictorial. Also, usually their member stars were not precisely identified and so changes could – and did – occur over time. The result is there is considerable variation in the depiction and interpretation of Chinese constellations from different eras. Until the completion of recent dedicated efforts by Chinese historians these differences remained confusing and frustrating for persons trying to reconstruct the standard Chinese sky. An additional difficulty for the identification of the standard Chinese sky is Chinese astronomers did not develop and use any system – such as the sizes of the individual dots on their charts - to indicate the magnitudes of the stars. The absence of interest in star magnitudes is characteristic of all Chinese (and Korean) star charts. It perhaps indicates they were primarily for use by astrologers, rather than strictly scientific purposes. 

Appendix 7: Link to the excellent Dunhuang manuscript database (and Dunhuang star map) at the British Library.

http://idp.bl.uk/database/oo_loader.a4d?pm=Or.8210/S.3326

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Gary D. Thompson

 


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