31 Oct.

1161 (-1160)

Yi-ssua (42)

E. of Japan, S and H

a ssu wrongly appears as chi in the K.C. Chang list.

a ssu wrongly appears as chi in the K.C. Chang list.

Table 10.6. Selected Chinese asterisms.

Constellation location





Canis Major



Corona Australis

Corona Borealis



Ursa Major

Kuan so (Guan suo) Hsüan yuan (xuan yuan) Shen Fang

Hsin (Xin) Wei

Pei tou (Beidou)


Piao (Biao)

The five chariots The sombre axe Sirius (wolf of heaven) Ox

Southern Gate Tortoise A coiled thing

Dragon backbone (parts of Imp. chariot)

Mythological figure (warrior chief)

Room (dragon breast)



Northern Dipper, bowl of dipper Chiefs (handle) The spoon to be aligned in some way with the sun (Chang 1980, p. 160, ff. Waley 1960):

The ting-star is in the middle of the sky;

we begin to build the palace at Ch'u Orientating them by the rays of the sun, we set to work on the houses at Ch'u. Chinese Constellations and Asterisms

Table 10.6, based on Needham (1981), lists Chinese aster-isms among selected western constellations. A more extensive list of Chinese constellations may be found in Yi et al. (1986), and a series of charts with Chinese constellations superimposed on modern constellation boundaries is given in Ho (1962). The xiu (or xius) are compared with the nakshatra of India and the Arabian menazil in §15. These asterisms are markers of the Moon's motion during the sidereal month. The Chinese xiu are located neither on the ecliptic nor on the orbit of the Moon, but as a group are closer to the celestial equator. That they do not coincide exactly with the celestial equator could be considered both as evidence, first, that all were not intended to be on the celestial equator but merely served as markers of equatorial positions and, second, of the great antiquity of the xiu system due to precessional changes in equatorial coordinates, as we discussed earlier.

Stephenson (1994) has written a wide-ranging and critical summary of what is known about Chinese and Korean aster-isms, star catalogs, and star maps. This incorporates a great deal of archeologically recovered information updating and largely replacing Needham in these categories. There is, however, minimal consideration of the mythology or traditions associated with the asterisms.

The supernatural figures associated with the xiu from the time of the Tang dynasty are shown in Figure 10.4. Other examples of Tang representations of the Xiu can be seen in "magic mirrors," shown in Figures 10.5 and 10.6.

In 1978, the excavation of the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng provided important material (Stephenson 1994, pp. 519-520; Xi 1984, p. 41). An engraving on a large bell showed his importance: It was given to the Marquis by the king of Chu, one of the "Warring States" in 433 b.c. The tomb goods contained a lacquered box cover bearing the names of 28 xiu, arranged around a large character (dou) signifying the Northern Dipper (Beidou, or Pei-Tou), our Big Dipper. Thus far, this is the earliest such record of the complete list of Xius from China. Flanking the xiu are depictions of a green dragon and a white tiger, two of the four directional animals ruling the four palaces and associated with the four seasons. The names of the xius show some interesting variations from those previously known. Among other differences, Mao, the name of the Pleiades is written with the characters for Mao, "lance," and the name of Kuei/Guei, usually written with characters read "astride" is, instead, written with the characters for Guei, "jade sighting tube." This is particularly interesting, because the next lunar mansion is Pi and according to the Han-dynasty book Yueh Ling, in the second month (during which the equinox occurred and weights and measures were checked) instead of animal sacrifices, there were sacrifice of the jade "ornaments" Kuei and Pi (Walters 1992, pp. 166-167). From the Han dynasty on, Chinese constellations are usually depicted in the ball-and-link convention, an example of which is seen in Figure 10.7.

The greatest historian of ancient China was Ssuma Ch'ien (Sima Qian) (163-85 b.c.), the first person known to have used chronological grids to summarize history. He was the Grand Astrologer in charge of the Bureau of Astronomy (which had 28 officials in his time), and his work includes important information on the history of astronomy in China, including a lengthy section on the interpretation of the relationships between planets and fixed stars and how they affected human affairs. The importance of this work, finished ~90 b.c., is emphasized by Needham (1959, pp. 199-200) (55 pages of Walters's book are devoted to a translation of this segment of Ssuma Ch'ien's work) (Walters 1992, pp. 16, 180-237). His role in China combines features of the roles played by Herodotus and Claudius Ptolemy in the west.

The practice of putting star maps on the ceilings of tombs is first attested in the Han period. A tomb at Xi'an (Stephenson 1994, p. 523; color photographs, Stephenson 1993, pp. 32-34) shows a concentric circle with ball-and-link diagrams of the 28 lunar asterisms, with accompanying figures—an ox, for

Figure 10.4. The supernatural figures associated with the 28 xiu in the Jade Box Scriptures. Drawings by Rea Postolowski and Sharon Hanna.

Figure 10.4. The supernatural figures associated with the 28 xiu in the Jade Box Scriptures. Drawings by Rea Postolowski and Sharon Hanna.

example, with the xiu called "Ox." Inside these are the sun with a crow and the moon with a rabbit, with many other figures. The associated images seem to be Daoist (Taoist).

The placing of star maps on tomb ceilings was a continuing tradition. The tomb of Yuan Yi (d. 526 a.d.) at Luoyang has a map on the ceiling showing over 300 stars, with some ball-and-link asterisms and a crudely drawn Milky Way. The Sun is red with a golden crow, and the Moon is white with a jade rabbit. The map seems to be more symbolic than realistic (Xi 1984, pp. 41-42).

Two far more realistic star maps appear on stelae in the tombs of Qian Yuanguan ruler of Wuyue (d. 941) and his wife Wu Hanyue (d. 952). They are polar projections. The "circle of constant visibility" (i.e., the region of circumpolar stars) has a radius of ~37°, and the edge of the chart is about

38° S of the equator, appropriate for a site of latitude ~53°. The equator is shown on Qian's stela. Typical errors in star placement are about 3° (Stephenson 1994, pp. 539-540).

The tomb of Zhang Shiqing, an official of the Tartar court who died in 1116 a.d., yielded depictions of both the 28 xiu and a Chinese adaptation of a 12-sign zodiac.15

The harmony of Heaven and Earth implied a reciprocity between them, and both rituals and structures were designed to replicate various aspects of Heaven. Perhaps the most striking example of this relationship may be seen in the

15 For example, the Capricorn goat-fish is replaced by a dragon with the tail of a fish;Virgo is replaced by a male and female couple in Chinese adornment.

Figure 10.5. A Tang "magic mirror" shows the 28 xiu, the 8 tri-grams, the 12-animal (oriental or rat zodiac) cycle, and the 4 great directional animals that also represent the seasons. Note that the animals face counterclockwise, but their positions in the sequence run clockwise. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

Figure 10.5. A Tang "magic mirror" shows the 28 xiu, the 8 tri-grams, the 12-animal (oriental or rat zodiac) cycle, and the 4 great directional animals that also represent the seasons. Note that the animals face counterclockwise, but their positions in the sequence run clockwise. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

Han period capital city of Chang-An (or Ch'ang-an, Chang'an, now Xi'an). The region of Ursa Major was clearly conceptualized as the center of the celestial empire. During the Han Dynasty, this image was brought to earth and the walls of Chang-An became a large-scale celestial map. The northern wall was essentially a grand map of the Big Dipper (Bei-dou, "Northern Dipper"), whereas the southern wall represented the "Southern Dipper" (nan-dou) in Sagittarius. The eastern wall is aligned due north and demonstrates that b UMa (Merak) and a UMa (Dubhe) were already being used as pointers to the north celestial pole at the time of the construction (194-190 b.c.). See Figure 10.8.

The fixed stars are organized into three compounds or "walls," the 28 lunar mansions, and the "magistrates," which are stars of the center and "exterior" regions, presumably those beyond the walls. The enclosures are called the Tzu-Wei Yuan, Tai-Wei Yuan, and the T'ien Shih-Yuan. Text accompanying the Soochow or Suchow (in Pinyin, Suzhou) star chart (see Figure 10.7) carefully explains that the central "official" stars symbolize the counselors, feudal princes, the nine ministers, the cavalry, and the imperial guard of the imperial court; in the "country," they symbolize animals such as the cock, dog, wolf, fish, tortoise, the turtle (presumably, the more aquatic component of the family), and so on (Rufus and Tien 1945, p. 5). It is noted that these fixed stars rotate uniformly with Heaven, remaining in their places, "just as in the case of the numerous classes of officials and myriads of common people, each one minds his own affairs and obeys the orders of the Seven Directors." A warning is issued about departures from the established order, con

Figure 10.6. Another Tang "magic mirror" shows the 28 xiu as animals in a counterclockwise order, the 12-animal cycle (but here all the animals face CW), then the 8 trigrams, and again the 4 great directional animals that also represent the seasons. Drawing by Rea Postolowski and Sharon Hanna.

Figure 10.6. Another Tang "magic mirror" shows the 28 xiu as animals in a counterclockwise order, the 12-animal cycle (but here all the animals face CW), then the 8 trigrams, and again the 4 great directional animals that also represent the seasons. Drawing by Rea Postolowski and Sharon Hanna.

cluding with the phrase "just as a shadow (follows the body) or an echo (responds to a sound), so prognostications may be deduced from these appearances and events may be foretold." The circumpolar stars had important functions: they served as indicators of the xiu, whether invisible or not. The xiu, in turn, provided markers of the Moon's location with respect to the stars, whereas the phases of the Moon located the Sun and helped in regulating the seasons (the full Moon appears to have been the most useful in this regard, because its appearance indicated the relatively precise position of the Sun in direct opposite part of the sky). Within constellations, the position of a star was given in terms of two equatorial coordinates similar to right ascension and declination (see §2.2.3). The 1st coordinate gave the location along the celestial equator, eastward in terms of du16 from a reference star associated with one of the xiu. The number of du from the north celestial pole gave the 2nd coordinate, similar to an antideclination (90 - 8).

As far as we know, the first Chinese star catalog was produced by Shi Shen and similar work was done by his contemporary Kan-te (Gan-de) in the 4th century b.c. Although no full early copy of the catalog survives, it gave the equatorial coordinates of 121 stars (six names have been lost in copying). Needham thought that some of the stars represented observations of the 4th century b.c., whereas others derived from corrections in the 2nd century a.d. The catalog

16 There were 365V4 du in a complete circle, approximating western degrees. The mean motion of the sun is thus 1 du/day.

Figure 10.7. The Suchow planisphere from the southern Sung Dynasty, 1193 a.d., created for the instruction of a future emperor: Note the ball-and-link convention to identify constellations. The celestial equator is the circle equidistant from the north celestial pole. Also shown are the ecliptic, the lunar mansions, and the Milky Way. Photographic print obtained from J. Greene-Smith and reproduced here, with permission.

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Figure 10.8. A map of the walls of the Chinese imperial city Chang-An. Drawing by Sharon Hanna, modified by E.F. Milone.

was apparently produced with the help of an armillary sphere (Needham 1959, p. 197) (Shuren 1983, pp. 15-17). Stephenson (1994, pp. 518-519) points out that recent work has shown that the stellar coordinates in the existing copies of the catalog belong to about 70 b.c. and that the attribution to Shi Shen is incorrect, although it is possible that Shi Shen prepared a catalog that was corrected in the 1st century b.c.

We do not know the date of first appearance of star maps, but they were in use in Han times. About 130 a.d., Ma Hsu mentioned 783 stars grouped in 118 asterisms. Chen Zhou (Chhen Cho) of the kingdom of Wu made a map in 310 a.d. with 1465 stars in 283 asterisms. A famous map discovered at Dunhuang (or Tun-huang17) shows over 1350 stars; it is apparently copied from an earlier map. Chang Heng of the 2nd century a.d. mentioned 2500 bright stars and 11520 "very small stars" (Needham 1959, pp. 264-265). In about 725 a.d., I Hsing (Yixing) found that over 10 stars from ancient maps showed a north-south movement relative to the ecliptic, although it is not clear whether this was a genuinely astronomical effect (proper motion? See §3.1.7, §10.1.6) or due to errors of observation or manuscript transmission in his sources (Needham 1959, p. 271).

The most extensive commentary on Chinese asterisms, accompanied by identifications of the individual stars, is that of Schlegel (1875)—valuable for its analyses of beliefs and stories connected with the stars. Schlegel maintained that

17 In western Kansu in far northwestern China.

the internal structure of the names and inferred changes in equinoctial and solstitial positions only made sense if there had been a developed Chinese imperial civilization with a full bronze age technology, including war chariots, before 15,000 b.c. This view was utterly unrealistic even in 1875 and is contrary to the massive archeological data that have accumulated since. However, in 1984, Julius Staal, F.R.A.S., published an English summary of Schlegel's descriptions, with some additions from other sources (largely unspecified). This is not as scholarly as Schlegel's work but is better organized and makes Schlegel's ideas and data more accessible than they are in the original. Although Staal cites Saussure and Needham, he prefers Schlegel's interpretations; this preference is incomprehensible to us. Staal describes 185 asterisms, and identifies the component stars, and lists nearly 600 names for them. He gives a useful star map with the Chinese names, unfortunately based on a planetarium reconstruction of 15,600 b.c.! The names make it abundantly clear how different Chinese nomenclature was from that of other areas. We have made a rough estimate of categories of names, eliminating near synonyms, but keeping other variants. The most common category (about 150 names) is that of things made or built by humans: roads, walls, temples, houses, barns, chariots, watercraft, sword and sickle, and flags and drums. Over 100 asterisms were named for members of the imperial family, bureacrats, and military officers. Fewer than 10 were named for lesser mortals: cowherd, weaving girl, flute player. Twelve states gave their names to asterisms. Aside from these items, a small number of asterisms were named for natural phenomena: green hills, rivers, ponds, thunder, lightning, clouds and rain, and fire—strikingly, Sun and Moon are each identified as fixed stars on the ecliptic separated by 180°; finally, there are a couple of plants and about 15 animals from dragons to bees. Any meaningful similarities to identifications of asterisms in other cultures must be found in the smaller categories.

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