Early Astronomy

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According to Pang (1987), pottery images of the Sun, Moon, and at least one constellation are known from the late Yang-shao and Dawenkou cultures dating from the period 4500-2300 b.c., and the desire to predict extraordinary floods in China, required some knowledge of astronomy. One of the two earliest recorded texts involving astronomy is found in the Canon of Yao, recorded in the Book of Documents, allegedly edited by Confucius. According to mythic tradition, Yao was one of the "sage" kings who ruled China prior to the first hereditary dynasty (the Xia or Hsia) noted in Table 10.1. Although the historicity of Yao is doubtful, this citation from Legge (1865/1960) indicates the study of the calendar as a credible motive for carrying out systematic astronomical observations:

Thereupon (King Yao) commissioned Hsi and Ho reverently to follow the august heaven, and calculate and delineate (the movements of) the sun, moon and (other) celestial bodies; and respectfully give the seasons to the people. Separately he ordered Hsi Zhong to reside among the (eastern) Yu barbarians at a place called Yanggu and there to respectfully receive as a guest the rising sun. . . .

Even if purely mythical, it is interesting that the myth should incorporate astronomers in it. Although practical concerns may have been at least part of the motivation behind early astronomy in China, other aspects were probably important, and at times would dominate. From the same Canon of Yao comes the story, famous among modern astronomers, of Hsi and Ho being decapitated at the orders of the emperor3 for failing to prevent an eclipse (Needham 1959, p. 188). The story has been euhemerized to make their failure merely one of prediction. Skeptics who doubt the story should be convinced by the fact that the decapitated heads of Hsi and Ho are still to be seen—the double cluster in Perseus has been referred to by this name in China according to Staal (1984, p. 161). References outside the Canon of Yao refer to Hsi Ho as a single individual, either the charioteer of the sun or the mother of the sun (Needham 1959, p. 188). The date of the eclipse was calculated by various modern scholars anywhere from -2165 to -1948 (2166 to 1949 b.c.); but most scholars in Needham's time regarded the account as a forged interpolation of the 4th century a.d., and even the few defenders of the text regarded the account as legendary rather than historical. Pang (1987, p. 149) (following the Mucke and Meeus eclipse

2 This monumental work, Science and Civilisation in China, was published in several volumes. Volume 3, which deals with astronomy, was first published in 1959. Ronan's "The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China" in two volumes is an abridgement of Vol. 3 and the first part of Vol. 4; Ronan's second volume is cited in the References and Bibliography as Needham/Ronan (1981, 2).

3 Said to be the 4th Xia emperor, Zhongkang (Wu 1982, pp. 121, 144, fn. 60).

10.1. China

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