A taste of early Chinese astronomy  
Observing the night sky was not simply an aesthetic pastime for ancient cultures but a strong need to interpret the will of higher powers.
A taste of early Chinese astronomy  
Ancient Knowledge in a Modern World

A taste of early Chinese astronomy  

Azure Dragon (Source: Wikipedia)
András Edl 24/01/2024 12:34

Observing the night sky was not simply an aesthetic pastime for ancient cultures but a strong need to interpret the will of higher powers.

China was no exception, and a key role of the King and later the Emperor was to keep the harmony between Heaven and the realm of humans. To aid the ruler, astronomers aspired to predict eclipses, announce the first days of the months, and make an accurate calendar that could guide human activity throughout the year. The stakes were not small; if they were wrong, they were often executed. 

To be more accurate, Chinese astrologers – independent of other cultures’ similar efforts – established different spatial and temporal tools to get closer to finding the Li, the all-encompassing order of the sky. They divided the night sky into palaces: the Purple Palace in the vicinity of Polaris, and the Big Dipper was the centre; the Western part symbolized the White Tiger; the North by the Black Tortoise; the East with the Azur Dragon; and the South ruled by the Vermillion Bird. In these four surrounding palaces, we have 7-7 mansions, 28 altogether, connected to the daily progress of the Moon in the sky. An additional three mansions in the Purple Palace are ruled by the gods of learning and knowledge. The palaces became important symbols on their own. For example, the Zhou forces waited until 1046 BC to attack the Shang dynasty until the planets aligned in the Vermillion Bird’s palace. After their victory, they associated the Vermillion Bird with the fate of Zhou. Based on such examples, scholars assume the “Mandate of Heaven” idea has a strong astronomical background.
Vermillion bird (Source: Wikipedia)

These systems are certainly very ancient. A tomb found at Xi Shui Po (Henan) from around 4000 BC had bones and shells with the images of the Big Dipper, the Azure Dragon and the White Tiger. Star names related to the 28 mansions can be dated back at least to 3200 BC, and all the mansions are depicted on a lacquered box from 433 BC. The idea of a temporal system based on the 12 branches and ten stems – the basis of a 60-year cycle – according to legends, originates from 2607 BC. Star constellations – smaller than their western counterparts – were also set up. By the time of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD), the number of constellations reached 283, and 1464 stars were listed in a star catalogue. 

Chinese astronomers also recorded eclipses, solar flares, sun spots, supernovas and comets, the latter usually called “guest stars”. The first recorded solar eclipse dates back to 2136 BC. They also observed a supernova in 185 AD and another one in 1054 AD. The remnants of the latter are known to us as the rapidly expanding gas cloud of the Crab Nebula. In 1059 BC, Chinese astronomers also recorded the passage of the Halley Comet. With the aid of advanced mathematics by 500 AD, Chinese astronomers established the length of the year as 365.24 days, which is very accurate to the standards of the age. 

This is only a glimpse into the unique and fascinating world of early Chinese astronomy, which still offers a lot to discover for scholars all over the world. 


The author is a Researcher at the Institute of Space Law and Policy at the Ludovika University of Public Service (NKE)

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