Dragon Eats the Sun Ancient Chinese Astronomy

As we said, the ancient Babylonians began making systematic observations of the heavens by 3000 b.c.e., and the Chinese weren't far behind. Records exist that show they had observed a grouping of bright planets (called a conjunction) that occurred around 2500 b.c.e., and, sometime before this, had arrived at the concept of a 365-day year, based on what appeared to be the sun's annual journey across the background stars.

A distinctly Western conception of the monster the ancient Chinese believed menaced the sun during an eclipse.

(From Century Magazine, 1885)

Why the Emperor Executed Hsi and Ho

Like human beings everywhere throughout history, the Chinese in ancient times were a self-centered people. In fact, the Chinese word for their own country means "Middle Kingdom." Their belief was that the objects in the heavens had been put there for the benefit of humankind in general and for the emperor in particular.

An eclipse is an astronomical event in which one body passes in front of another, so that the light from the occulted (shadowed) body is blocked. For example, the sun, moon, and earth can align so that the moon blocks the light from the sun. This alignment produces a solar eclipse.

Perhaps for this reason, they felt particularly threatened when, occasionally, something seemed to take a bite right out of the sun, then nibble away, gradually and ominously darkening the sky and the earth below.

The Chinese reasoned that a great dragon was attacking the sun, trying to consume it, and that since it was a beast, it might be susceptible to fear. So, in the midst of an eclipse, people would gather to shout, strike gongs, and generally make as much noise as possible—the more noise the better, since the beast was very big and was certainly very far away. Eventually the noise appeared to always scare off the dragon.

Because it was important to assemble as many people to make as much noise as possible, it was of inestimable value to get advance warning of an eclipse. With infinite patience, generations of Chinese astronomers observed solar eclipses and discovered something they called the Saros, a cycle in which sun, moon, and earth are aligned in a particular way every 18 years, 11.3 days—more or less. Armed with a knowledge of the Saros, the Chinese were able to predict eclipses—usually.

We know of this because in 2136 b.c.e. there was an unpredicted eclipse, which caught the noisemakers unawares. It was only by great good fortune that the sun wasn't consumed entirely. The Imperial Court astronomers Hsi and Ho weren't so fortunate. They were executed for having fallen down on the job. (The royal astronomer position may have been particularly difficult to fill after the "departure" of Hsi and Ho.)

Star Words

An eclipse is an astronomical event in which one body passes in front of another, so that the light from the occulted (shadowed) body is blocked. For example, the sun, moon, and earth can align so that the moon blocks the light from the sun. This alignment produces a solar eclipse.

Time, Space, Harmony

More than 4,000 years later, the fate of Hsi and Ho is still regrettable, but not nearly as important as the fact that we know about their fate at all. The Chinese made records of their astronomical observations and, indeed, along with the Babylonians were some of the earliest people to do so. Some oracle bones (animal bones used to foretell the future) from the Bronze Age Shang dynasty (about 1800 b.c.e.) bear the early Chinese ideogram character for

The ancient Chinese also observed the nearly 12-year cycle of the planet Jupiter. In fact, the Chinese zodiac (and its 12 animals) is directly related to the yearly change in the position of the planet Jupiter. In the Chinese system, you and your father may be born 36 years apart, and both fall within the "Year of the Horse."

Astro Byte

The ancient Chinese also observed the nearly 12-year cycle of the planet Jupiter. In fact, the Chinese zodiac (and its 12 animals) is directly related to the yearly change in the position of the planet Jupiter. In the Chinese system, you and your father may be born 36 years apart, and both fall within the "Year of the Horse."

"pillar." Scholars believe that this ideogram is associated with a gnomon, a pillar or tower erected for the purpose of measuring the sun's shadow in order to determine, among other things, the dates of the solstices.

Writings from the Zhou dynasty, in the seventh century b.c.e., reveal that a special tower was built to measure the sun's shadow. During the Han era (c.e. 25-220), the town of Yang-chheng was judged to be the center of the world, probably because the principal gnomon was installed there (or the gnomon may have been installed there because it was considered the center of the world). By c.e. 725, many smaller gnomons—what might be called field stations—were set up along a single line of longitude extending some 2,200 miles from the principal gnomon at Yang-chheng. With this system, the Chinese could calculate calendars with considerable precision. In subsequent eras, even more elaborate gnomon towers—observatories, really—were built, including that of the astronomer Guo shou jing at Gao cheng zhen in Henan province, in c.e. 1276.

Why this passion to measure the heavens and the passage of time? Living in harmony with nature has always been important in Chinese philosophies, and, in terms of practical politics, exact knowledge of the heavens aided rulers in establishing and maintaining their absolute authority.

A gnomon is any object designed to project a shadow used as an indicator. The upright part of a sundial is a gnomon.

Star Words

A gnomon is any object designed to project a shadow used as an indicator. The upright part of a sundial is a gnomon.

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