Chinese constellations

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The Chinese oriented themselves to the north celestial pole, around which all the stars revolved. Our current pole star, Alpha Ursae Minoris (i.e., the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor, in which the Little Dipper is located) was not the pole star to the ancient Chinese due to precession, but other stars received this honor. For example, in the 2nd Millennium bc, Alpha Draconis was the pole star, and Ho et al. (2000) has calculated that a faint star in our constellation of Camelopardalus was the "pivot star" during the early Tang period (7th Century ad). Due to their philosophical orientation that events on the Earth and in the heavens mirrored each other, and to their belief that China was the center of the world, it was natural for them to think that the area around the north celestial pole represented the emperor and the imperial household. Beta Ursae Minoris was the brightest star in this area at the time, so it was thought to represent the emperor. The second brightest star, Gamma Ursae Minoris, stood for the crown prince, and a fainter star in the area represented the empress. Two long chains of stars represented the walls of the imperial palace, and other stars enclosed by these walls in the "Purple Forbidden Enclosure" stood for concubines, eunuchs, and other court officials. The Chinese saw our Big Dipper asterism as a bushel or plough, and it was thought to regulate the seasons as it moved around the pivot star (Figure 2.1).

Any abnormal occurrence in the sky, such as a nova, comet, meteor, or eclipse, might portend a (usually) negative repercussion for society, especially for that aspect represented by the area of the sky in which the occurrence took place. For example, a nova discovered in an agricultural-related area of the sky would likely signify poor crops, or a comet moving into the Purple Forbidden Enclosure would bode poorly for the emperor and his central government. The location of the planets and other celestial phenomena (e.g., zodiacal light, clouds) also had astrological ramifications. Such events might signify that a ruler was misconducting his government or following an immoral path, actions that would disturb the natural order and lead to famines, plague, and disturbances in the heavens. In general, predictable phenomena were good signs and unpredictable phenomena were bad signs. Royal astrologers were kept busy interpreting the meaning of unusual celestial events, and their prognostications were often treated as state secrets (especially if they were negative). It should be noted that Chinese astrology mainly involved areas of interest to society rather than to individuals, except in the case of the emperor and his court.

By the 5th Century bc, the Chinese had developed a system of dividing the broad area of the sky through which the Moon moved into 28 unequal parts called lunar mansions (Figure 2.2). Each was numbered and named for a constellation or asterism located more or less along the celestial equator. For example, the 18th lunar mansion was called Mao (representing a Stopping Place) and was formed by the stars of the Pleiades, and the 21st lunar mansion was called Shen (representing an Investigator) and was nearly identical to our modern Orion. The lunar mansions served as reference points, and by linking them with the north celestial pole the location of a heavenly body could be identified. For example, the location of a star could be described in terms of how many degrees south of the north celestial pole it was

Tang Chinese Constellation Map

Figure 2.1. The Chinese northern circumpolar constellations, from the 1901 edition of a book first written in Japan in 1712 by Terashima Ryoan, a naturalist and physician at Osaka Castle. The title, Wakan Sansai Zue, states that this is a Japanese/Chinese picture book of the heavens, the Earth, and human beings. The Japanese adopted the Chinese view of the heavens. 26.2 x 17.5 cm (page size). Note the two vertical chains of stars, which represented walls around the Purple Forbidden Enclosure, and the Big Dipper beyond the right wall, which the Chinese viewed as a bushel or plough.

Figure 2.1. The Chinese northern circumpolar constellations, from the 1901 edition of a book first written in Japan in 1712 by Terashima Ryoan, a naturalist and physician at Osaka Castle. The title, Wakan Sansai Zue, states that this is a Japanese/Chinese picture book of the heavens, the Earth, and human beings. The Japanese adopted the Chinese view of the heavens. 26.2 x 17.5 cm (page size). Note the two vertical chains of stars, which represented walls around the Purple Forbidden Enclosure, and the Big Dipper beyond the right wall, which the Chinese viewed as a bushel or plough.

Chinese Celestial

Figure 2.2. A diagram of the 28 Chinese lunar mansions, from the 1901 edition of Ryoan's Wakan Sansai Zue. 26.2 x 17.5 cm (page size). Note that, although the area of the sky represented by each mansion constellation was different in size, they were organized into four equal-sized "palaces" of seven mansions, indicated by the crossed lines.

Figure 2.2. A diagram of the 28 Chinese lunar mansions, from the 1901 edition of Ryoan's Wakan Sansai Zue. 26.2 x 17.5 cm (page size). Note that, although the area of the sky represented by each mansion constellation was different in size, they were organized into four equal-sized "palaces" of seven mansions, indicated by the crossed lines.

and how many degrees it was from the edge of the nearest lunar mansion. Note that the Chinese celestial sphere contained 3654 degrees, not the 360 degrees that we use today. This system was probably put in use by the 3rd or 4th Centuries bc. Thus, the Chinese employed an equatorial celestial coordinate system centuries before it was used in the West (which preferred an ecliptic-oriented system until the 18th Century). For this reason, many of their astronomical instruments used a mounting oriented to the equator and were the forerunners of our modern telescopic equatorial mounts.

The Chinese had been creating star maps and catalogs since at least the 5th Century bc. In the 4th and 3rd Centuries bc, three notable Chinese astronomers, Shi Shen, Gan De, and Wu Xian each created their own star map and catalog. Chinese author Deng Yinke states that the catalog of Shi Shen provided equatorial coordinates for 120 stars, and both he and Gan De observed the five known planets and noted that Jupiter's sidereal period was 12 years (close to the exact 11.86 years). The earliest existing book to systematically describe the Chinese constellations in the sky was the Tianguan Shu by Sima Qian (ca. 145 Bc-ca. 87 bc). Some 90 constellations were mentioned, including the 28 lunar mansions. These were organized into five palaces. The Central (or Purple) Palace was the area surrounding the north celestial pole and has been alluded to earlier. The rest of the sky was divided into four equal segments that were called the palaces of the North (or Somber Warrior, represented by an entwined turtle and snake), East (or Azure Dragon), South (or Red Bird), and West (or White Tiger). Each of these palaces represented one of the four seasons, and each consisted of seven lunar mansions. 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 3rd Century ad, astronomer Chen Zhuo integrated the records of Shi Shen, Gan De, and Wu Xian. The result was a star map and catalog of 1,464 stars grouped into 284 constellations. Early in the 4th Century ad, the imperial astronomer Qian Luozhi cast a bronze celestial globe with stars colored on it to distinguish the listings of these earlier astronomers. A similar range of stars and constellations is also reflected in the earliest existing printed star map, the Chinese Tunhuang manuscript, dating back to the later Tang Dynasty (618 ad-907 ad). Most of these constellations were different from those we are familiar with, although a few were patterned the same way. The great Chinese historian, Joseph Needham, mentions five: Great Bear, Orion, Auriga, Corona Australis, and Southern Cross.

As the Chinese had more contact with Indian and then Islamic astronomers, they became exposed to the Greek system of constellation development, and some of these ideas were incorporated into Chinese thought. This continued when the Jesuits entered China in the 16th Century, as we shall see below.

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