Chinese Records of Guest Stars and Comets

There are many Chinese records of transient events, as we noted in §5. Kho-hsing (Wade-Giles Romanization of "Guest stars") are usually not visible, but like certain human guests, they suddenly appear, stay for a while, and then leave. In general, the term refers to novae or supernovae, which are bright enough to command attention and were completely invisible both before and after their appearance in the sky. However, there was a type of comet, the po-hsing ("sparkling" comet) that was not easily distnguished from a "guest star," so that po may occasionally refer to a nova/supernova and "guest star" may occasionally refer to a comet (Ho 1962, p. 137). Examples are cited by Ho (1962), such as the event of 1315 a.d., in which "guest stars" turn into hui comets21 ("broom stars"), or the reverse (the event of 1145 a.d.).

21 hui-hsing, also referred to as sao-hsing. Another type of comet discussed in the Official Dynastic Histories of Ma Tuan-Lin is chhang-hsing ("tailed stars"). In the Astronomical Section of the Chin Shu, 21 types

Among the more remarkable books describing transient phenomena is a catalog of types of comets from the Mawandui No. 3 Tomb. It lists 29 types. Needham/Ronan (1981, pp. 207-208) report that between 613 b.c. and 1621 a.d., 372 comets were recorded. In some cases, the data are so detailed that orbital computations were possible; 40 comet orbits are based on observations made prior to 1500 by Chinese sources alone. Needham (1959, 3, pp. 430-431) cites a passage from the History of the Ming Dynasty (Ming Shih) to illustrate the detail [comments within round brackets are Needham's original interjections; square brackets indicate ours, with star members, Pinyin constellation names, and translations taken from Yi, Kistemaker, and Yang (1986), or from Schlegel (1875/1967)]:

In the 7th year of the Chheng-Hua reign period (1472), in the twelfth month, on a chia-hsu day (in the sexagenary [60-day] cycle; [Ho (1962) gives this as Jan. 16]), a comet was seen in the star group Thien thien [Tiantian: o, t, 64, 78, 84, 90, 92 Vir]. It pointed toward the west. Suddenly it went to the north, touched the star "Right Conductor" [you she ti: h, t, u Boo +6 others], and swept through the Thai Wei Yuan (the "Enclosure" of the stars in Virgo, Coma Berenices, and Leo), touching Shang chiang [dongshangjiang: a Com], Hsin Chhen [HD104207 in Com],22 Thai Tzu [taizi, "crown prince": E Leo = 93 Leo], and Tshung kuan [congguan, "page": 92 Leo].23 Its tail now pointed directly towards the west. It swept transversely along the Lang wei ["seat of the general": 18 stars in Coma Berenices24] of the Thai Wei Yuan [taiwei youyuan, in Yi et al., "right wall of privy council"]. On a chi-mao day [Ho (1962) gives this as Jan. 24] its tail had greatly lengthened. It extended from east to west across the heavens. The comet then proceeded northwards, covering about 28°, touched Thien chhiang [tianqiang, "celestial battle spear": i, 9, %, 13, 24, 39, and 44 Boo], swept through the Great Bear [fceidou], and passed near the San Kung [sangong, "three distinguished persons": 21, 24, and a fainter star to the south of 24 CVn] and Thai Yang (taiyangshou, "sunguard": % UMa), finally entering the Tzu Wei Yuan ("Purple forbidden enclosure": circumpolar stars enclosing and ~15° of the pole). It was now perfectly visible in full daylight. At various times it was seen in the Khuei ["the chiefs": a, b, g, S UMa] (the "box" or "body" of the Great Bear) and near Thien ti hsing [di, "emperor or king": b UMi], Shu tzu [shuzi, "concubine sons": 5 UMi], Hou fei (b3162 UMi), Kou chhen [gouchen, "line of guards": Z, e, S, a UMi],25 San shih [sanshi, of "ominous stars," which include both novae and comets, are mentioned (see Ho 1962, pp. 136-137). They include thien-chhan ("celestial magnolia tree"); Chhih-Yu chhi ("flag of Chhih-Yu"), with a red or yellow and white structure; chu-hsing ("candle star"); pheng-hsing ("tangle star") or wang-hsing ("king star"), which appears like a "flame in the night"); chhang-keng ("long path"), like a roll of cloth splayed across the sky.

22 Yi et al. (1986, Chart 5,12) place the characters next to this gM4 star at V = 6.94 but do not otherwise discuss it;Schlegel (1875/1967, pp. 470, 850) identifies the asterism as Hing-tchin, "Officers of happiness," "No. 2629 ou No. 2 de Flamsteed." The star 2 Com = HD 104827, V = 5.87, F0IV-V.

23 This asterism is identified as Tsoung-koan, "La Suite": 92 Leo in Schlegel (1875/1967, pp. 470, 830).

24 This Chinese asterism, which Schlegel (1875/1967, p. 471) calls "Le Siege des Officiers," said to consist of 15 stars, contains the brightest of the Coma Cluster of stars. Yi et al. (1986, p. 37) indicate that it contains the stars 4, 9, 10, g, 14, 16, 17, 13, 12, 21, 18, 7, 23, 26, 20, 5, 2, and a faint star near 14, 16, and 17 Com (possibly HD108642?).

25 Neither Needham nor Schlegel include a explicitly, but "others" are indicated.

"three master instructors" p, o, +2031 UMa], Thien lao (tianlao, "prison of heaven": w, 47, 49, 56, 58, 57, 55 UMa), Thien huang ta ti [Tianhuang Daidi, "great emperor of heaven in the miniature Purple Court": Z, e, d, a, "2 UMi" {HD 5848} + other stars in Cepheus; but possibly daxing, "big star": (a UMi)],26 Shang wei (% Cep), Ko tao [gedao, "stepped road to audience room": o, n, 9, f, e, i Cas], Wen chhang [Wenchang, "prince of glorious wisdom": 9, u, f, 15, 18 UMa], Shang thai [shangdai, "high dignitarian/step": i, k UMa], etc. On an I-yu day [Ho (1962) gives this as Jan. 27] it moved to the south, touched the hsiu [xiu] Lou ["carve or hook of reaper": a, b, g Ari], and passed through Thien a [tian'a, 'celestial dike': 62 Ari], Thien yin [tianyin, "celestial yin": d, Z, 63 Ari + 2 stars in Tau], Wai phing [wai ping, "outer fence": a, d, e, z, m, n Psc] and Thien yuan [tianyuan, "celestial orchard": n12,3,4 g, 9, k, f, % Eri + d Phe]. In the first month of the 8th year, on a ping-wu day [Ho (1962) gives this as Feb. 17], it was going toward Wai phing in the hsiu Khuei. Gradually it faded, and it was a long time before it finally disappeared.

Thus, the report is sufficently detailed that an orbit could be attempted based on the positions and the changes in position with time (Yeomans 1981), and an even more detailed description is given in the Korean annals, Songjong Sillok.21

Needham (1959, pp. 431-432; Needham/Ronan, pp. 208-210) further notes that Halley's Comet was observed and described in China at least from 240 b.c. (possibly as early as 467 b.c. or even 613 b.c.). Kevin Yau (1996) and Yeomans, Weissman, and Yao (1996) indicate that the Comet Swift-Tuttle was observed in China in 69 b.c. and in 188 a.d., two of the five returns in which the comet has been observed (see Table 5.7 in §5.5).

The Chinese were the first to observe that comet tails point away from the Sun. Of course, comet tails almost always point away from the Sun (see §5.5); in any case, we can accept that, to present knowledge, the earliest recorded comments about the usual orientation of comets are from China. Comets were thought to originate from the planets, so that the association of comets with the Earth's atmosphere prevalent in the west was not made.

In addition to comets, novae and supernovae were also observed in number. Probably the best known record is that of the supernova of 1054 a.d., the "Crab" supernova. This object was identified in both Chinese and Japanese records as a guest star. As we note above, some objects identified as po could well be guest stars instead of comets, and vice-versa, but some known comets are indeed called po comets, and, as with the 1054 event, "guest stars" may be novae/supernovae. See Ho (1962) for a comprehensive list and discussion of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese records of both comets and novae. The Sung Hui Yao ("History of the Administrative Statutes of the Sung Dynasty") identified the reason for the records: prognostication (see §5.8.2). In 2001, another pulsar was identified as resulting from an historically recorded supernova event (see §5.8.5 for the importance of this event to modern astrophysics).

26 Needham identifies Thien huang ta ti as a UMi, which, by itself, Yi et al. (1986) identify as daxing.

27 Vol. 13 (14a to 14/5b), cited in Ho (1962, pp. 206-207).

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