History of Astronomy


Astronomy in ancient China

Chinese myths and legends around stars, planets and constellations are as old as Chinese astronomy, which dates back to the second millennium BC, the Chinese Bronze Age and the Shang dynasty.

The primary focus of this site is not astronomy, but Star Lore, which is folklore based upon the stars and star patterns. We try to create a collection of mythical stories about stars and constellations from all over the world. However, to better understand and interpret the stories, a brief history of the astronomy of different cultures might be helpful.

This is by no means a scientific paper on the history of Chinese astronomy, but merely a collection of illustrated highlights of that history, along with some links to what we think are reliable sources on the subject.

Ian Ridpath and Wikipedia both provide excellent summaries of ancient Chinese astronomy.

Four Quadrants of Chinese astronomy
Source: NIx's Mixed Bag

This portion of our site is about the history of ancient Chinese astronomy.

Click here to discover the world of Chinese Star Lore.

Bits of History of Chinese Astronomy

Xishuipo Tomb (ca 4000 BC)

A tomb associated with the Yangshao culture was excavated in 1987 in Puyang.

It contained two mosaics formed from white clam shells, interpreted as a tiger and a dragon and a smaller feature interpreted as the Big Dipper.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Apricity

Xishuipo M45 Tomb
Source: The Apricity

Taosi Observatory (ca 2100 BC)

An archaelogical site in North China, associated with the neolithic Longshan culture contains one of the oldest astronomical observatories, used to observe the sunrise at the summer and winter solstices.

Sources: Wikipedia, IAU Heritage of Astronomy

Taosi Observatory
Source: China Daily

First observed Solar Eclipse (2165 - 2128 BC)

Shūjīng, the ancient Chinese Book of Documents records that "... in the first day of the last month of Autum, the Sun and the Moon did not meet harmoniously in Fang. The blind beat their drums, the inferiour officers galloped and the common people ran about."

With no year given and Fang being the fourth Lunar Mansion, historians calculated three possible years for the eclipse: 2165 BC, 2155 BC, 2137 BC and 2128 BC.

Tiangou, the Heavenly Dog; Source: Pearl River
Most Sources go for October 22, 2137 and link the event to the legend of astronomers Ho and Hi (see below).

Source: W. S. Tsu: A statistical survey of solar eclipses in Chinese history

Astronomers Ho and Hi (2137 BC)

A Chinese legend dates the observation of solar eclipses in China back to the 3rd millennium BC. According to the legend, royal astronomers Ho and Hi dedicated too much of their time to consuming alcohol and failed to predict a forthcoming eclipse that occurred on the first day of the month, in the last month of autumn in 2137 BC.

Ho and Hi; Source: Hong Kong Space Museum
The emperor became very unhappy because, without knowing that there was an eclipse coming, he was unable to organize teams to beat drums and shoot arrows in the air to frighten away the invisible dragon.

The Sun did survive, but the two astronomers lost their heads for such negligence. Since then, a legend arose that no one has ever seen an astronomer drunk during an eclipse.

Source: astronomytoday.com

Shang Oracle Bone (ca. 1300 BC)

Oracle bones were pieces of ox scapula or turtle plastron, which were used for a form of divination in ancient China, mainly during the late Shang dynasty.

An inscribed ox bone, found near Anyang and dated to about 1300 BC contains one of the earliest Chinese references to a star. The star named at the end of the central column is called Huo, which is the "Fire Star" Antares.

Sources: Wikipedia and F. Richard Stephenson

Shang Oracle Bone, 1300 BC
Source: F. Richard Stephenson

The Five Agents of the Sky (ca. 650 BC)

Chinese culture regarded all celestial objects as living beings, most of them more or less look like humans. Five paintings created by an unknown artist during the first half of the Tang Dynasty (618–690) show the five then known planets, envisioned as human beings.

You can find the paintings in our Star Lore Art section.

Source: All Things Chinese

Jupiter as a celestial immortal
Source: All Things Chinese

Xing Jing Star manual (ca. 350 BC)

Astronomer Shi Shen is credited with the creation Xing Jing, a star catalogue containing 93 Constellations and the names of 810 stars, 121 of which are catalogued with their location.

In the 3rd century AD, Chen Zhuo combined Shi Shen's constellation with 118 constellations reported by Gan De and 44 constellations reported by Wu Xian, creating the first comprehensive Chinese star map.

Shi Shen was also the first astronomer to observe sun spots.

Source: Wikipedia, everything.explained, Ian Ridpath

Copy of Xing Jing
Guide to Astronomy; 1790
Source: World Digital Library

First sighting of Halley's Comet (240 BC)

The Records of the Grand Historian, a monumental history of ancient China and the world, finished around 94 BC by the Han dynasty official Sima Qian contains a record of a comet sighted in 240 BC.

Later calculations identified the object as Halley's Comet.

Source: Wikipedia

Report of the 240 BC apparition of Halley's Comet from the Shiji
Source: Wikipedia
Mawangdui Tomb (ca 177 BC)

Another early record, containing images and descriptions of 29 different comets was found in a tomb in Mawangdui. This text can be solidly dated as being prior to 168 BC, the date assigned to the tomb. It may be associated with a similar astronomical text from the same tomb, which details planetary motions for the seventy years ending 177 BC.

Source: Wikipedia

Manuscript from Mawangdui tomb
Source: Wikipedia

Wukaiming Tomb (ca. 25-220 AD)

An engraving dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) shows the complete constellation of the Big Dipper part of Ursa Major including Alcor 2 UMa), the fainter double-star companion of Mizar1 UMa). The stars form the Emperor's cart in the heavens.

The tomb is part of the Wuliang Ancestral Temple in Jiaxiang, China.

Sources: University in Beijing

The Emperor's cart, 25-220 AD
Source: University in Beijing

The Supernova of 125 AD

In the year 125 AD, during the Han Dynasty, Chinese astronomers described a "Guest Star" - the ancient Chinese term for a supernova. It "resembled a bamboo mat" and was visible in the night sky for eight months.

The Book of the Later Han, a Chinese court document from the fifth century reports that the "guest star" ... displayed the five colors, both pleasing and otherwise, and that it ...gradually lessened.

For almost two millennia the report was believed to describe a comet. But a 2006 article in the Chinese Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics established that it was probably a supernova. The recorded observation was associated with a constellation called Nánmén, which has led modern astronomers to believe that the event corresponds to the stellar remnant now known as SN 185, between the constellations Circinus and Centaurus.

Source: Wikipedia, Atlas Obscura

Chitasei Go Yō, a fictional astronomer from the Han period
Source: Atlas Obscura

Chen Zhuo (220–280)

Chinese astronomer Chen Zhuo served as an imperial astronomer in the state of Eastern Wu. He collected the works of earlier astronomers of the Han dynasty and combined them into a single system. His star catalogue listed 1,464 stars. His works were lost over the course of history, but information on his system of constellations survives in Tang dynasty records.

Ian Ridpath called Chen Zhuo "an equivalent of Ptolemy"

Sources: Wikipedia , Ian Ridpath's Star Tales

Dunhuang Star Chart (ca. 700)

The Dunhuang Star Chart is one of the first known graphical representations of stars from ancient Chinese astronomy. It is dated back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907).

The whole set of star charts contains 1,300 stars, making it the world's oldest complete preserved star atlas.

Sources: International Dunhuang Project, CEA Département d'astrophysique,
Ian Ridpath's Star Tales, Wikipedia ,

Part of the Dunhuang Star Chart
Source: hua.umf.maine.edu

Part of the Dunhuang Star Chart
Source: Wikipedia

Supernovae of 1006 and 1054

Between April 30 and May 1, 1006, in the constellation now known as Lupus, a supernova appeared. Most likely, it was the brightest supernova in recorded human history.

Chinese astrologer Zhou Keming wrote: I heard that people inside and outside the court were quite disturbed about it. I humbly suggest that the civil and military officials be permitted to celebrate in order to set the Emperor's mind at rest.

Chinese astronomers observed the supenova for three month.

Sources: Wikipedia, ancientpages.com

Zhou Keming and the 1006 supernova
Source: ancientpages.com
Another supernova appeared around July 5, 1054. Chines astrologer Yang Weide wrote about the sighting:

I humbly observe that a guest star has appeared; above the star there is a feeble yellow glimmer. If one examines the divination regarding the Emperor, the interpretation is the following: The fact that the star has not overrun Bi and that its brightness must represent a person of great value.

Sources: Wikipedia

Xinyi Xiangfayao (1092)

In 1092, Chinese scientist Su Song published a treatise called Xinyi Xiangfayao. Although the writings were mostly about clock towers, they contained five star maps, which today are the oldest star charts in printed form.

Source: Wikipedia

Star map in cylindrical projection
Source: Wikipedia

Star map in south polar projection
Source: Wikipedia

Suzhou Planisphere (1193)

The circular chart from Suzhou was first drawn around 1193 and was later in 1247 engraved on a limestone stela. It laid the foundation to a constellation system that is still used today. The chart divides the sky into twenty-eight Mansions, reflecting the movement of the Moon around the Earth through a sidereal month (27.32-days).

The Mansions include all the stars along the ecliptic. They are grouped into Four Quarters, corresponding with the sky above China in each of the four seasons.

Later, the Four Quarters were extended by Three Enclosures covering the circumpolar region around the North Star.

Wikipedia lists all 28 Mansions with links to their Chinese constellations.
Ian Ridpath provides a list of the Mansions with their corresponding western constellations.

Reproduction of the Suzhou star chart
Source: Wikipedia: Chinese Constellations

Xu Guangqi (1562 – 1633)

Astronomer, agronomist, mathematician, and writer was not only a multi-talented scientist but also an important politician during the Ming Dynasty. As a converted Jesuit, his long-lasting relationship with fellow Jesuit Matteo Ricci was the first scientific East-West colaboration.

Xu and Ricci translated several classic Western text into Chinese and several Chinese Confucian texts into Latin, making them two of the most influential people in the collaboration and merge of Western and Eastern science.

Source: Wikipedia

Page of "Introduction to Astronomy"
by Xu Guangqi
Source: Wikipedia

Copernicus and the Forbidden City (1601)

In 1582, Italian Jesuite priest Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau to work at the Jesuit China mission which was founded in 1552.

Ricci was one of the first Europeans to study the Chinese language and customs. Not limiting his mission to Christian missionary work, Ricci introduced Western science, mathematics, astronomy and visual arts to the Chinese imperial court.

He published the first map of the world, showing all the latest discoveries in Chinese language and introduced the Copernican principles to Chinese scholars.

In 1601, Matteo Ricci was the first European to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing on an invitation by emperor Wanli. He became the emperor's court advisor in matters of astronomy and calendrical science.

Source: Wikipedia

Matteo Ricci with Xu Guangqi
Source: Wikimedia

Eclipse Competition on the Chinese imperial court (1629)

In 1601, Italian Jesuit priest and scientist Matteo Ricci became the advisor in matters of astronomy and calendrical science to the Chinese Emperor (see here for details). In 1610, he was succeeded by Nicolò Longobardo.

In 1629, Longobardo and fellow German Jesuit pries Johann Schreck had a unique opportunity to demonstrate the latest advances in astronomy to the Emperor. Schreck had corresponded with Johannes Kepler who sent him a copy of the just finished Rudolphine Tables and a new elliptical model for the orbit of the moonn, vastly improving the predictions of eclipses.

When a solar eclipse over Beijing was predicted for June 21 1629, the Jesuits challenged Chinese astronomers to precisely predict the time of the Event. The Jesuits won, causing the Chinese emperor to order a complete overhaul of the Chinese Calendar.

Source: Wikipedia

Nicolò Longobardo
Source: Wikipedia

The Southern Asterisms (1629)

Work on the new calendar, which would later be known as the Chongzhen Calendar was carried out by German Jesuits Johann Schreck and Johann Adam Schall von Bell, together with Chinese Jesuite Xu Guangqi, the one who started the scientific East-West collaboration with Matteo Ricci almost three decades earlier (see here for details).

In addition to the work on the new calendar, Schall von Bell and Xu Guangqi introduced the Southern Asterisms: The stars around the southern pole that could not be observed directly from China were divided into 23 asterisms and incorporated into traditional Chines astronomy.

The calendar and the Southern Asterisms earned Schall von Bell a lasting place in the history of Chinese astronomy.

Source: Wikipedia

Taiwanese stamp commemorating
Schall's 400th birthday (1992)
Source: manresa-sj.org

Quing Dynasty Globe (1673)

A bronze celestial globe showing the Chinese constellations was manufactured in 1673 for the ancient Beijing Observatory.

Some Chines star globes were built on a large scale so that a person could sit inside one and look at the stars - the star positions were raised symbols on the outside of the globe but there were also small holes that let light pass through from outside.

Source: University of Maine Farmington

Quing Dynast Globe
University of Maine Farmington

The Chinese Sky

In ancient Chinese astronomy, the circumpolar stars (visible throughout the year) were divided into Three Enclosures, the the northernmost one being the Purple Forbidden Enclosure, followed by the Supreme Palace Enclosure and the Heavenly Market Enclosure.

The region along the ecliptic was divided into four directions, the Azure Dragon of the East, the Black Tortoise of the North, the White Tiger, of the West and the Vermilion Bird of the South. These constellation were visible only during parts of the year.

The four directions were divided further into 28 Lunar Mansions.

The links below lead to descriptions of each of these sections.

The Four Directions

Azure Dragon
of the East

Black Tortoise
of the North

White Tiger
of the West

Vermilion Bird
of the South

The Three Enclosures

Purple Forbidden Enclosure

Heavenly Market

Supreme Palace

Source: Ancient China Astronomy

China Saga shows a map lining out both the Greek and the Chinese constellations.

(Right, click on it for a larger image).

On her "Chinese Constellations" website, Marilyn Shea provides four beautiful drawings of the sacred animals of the four directions, with the constellations superimposed onto them.

(Below, click on the pictures for larger images).

Azure Dragon of the East

Black Tortoise of the North

White Tiger of the West

Vermilion Bird of the South

Source: Chinese Constellations

Links to Chinese Astronomy
Wikipedia - Chinese Astronomy

Wikipedia - Chinese Constellations
Ian Ridpath - Charting the Chinese sky

F. Richard Stephenson - Chinese and Korean Star Maps and Catalogs

Chinese myths and legends around stars, planets and constellations are as old as Chinese astronomy.

Click here to continue to the world of Chinese astronomical mythology.

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