Heaven and Man United as One: Astronomy in ancient China

By FENG SHI / 07-29-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Dunhuang Star Chart is one of the first known graphical representations of stars from ancient Chinese astronomy, dated to the Tang Dynasty. It shows over 1,300 stars visible to the naked eye. Photo: Jiang Hong/CASt


Archaeological documents and archaeoastronomical studies prove that China’s ancient astronomical research system had been established by the 5th millennium BCE at the latest. The Xishuipo Site of 6,500 BP in Puyang in Henan Province has provided evidence for the astronomical observations of prehistoric peoples and their views on astronomy, politics and religion based on astronomical observation. With the help of guibiao (a stationary arm that projects a shadow on a sundial to indicate the time or season), the ancient Chinese conducted their observations of the Big Dipper and the Twenty-Eight Mansions (a part of the Chinese system of constellations which corresponds to the longitudes along the ecliptic that the Moon crosses during its 27.32-day journey around the Earth and which serves as a way to track the Moon’s progress), and established the system of the Four Symbols (ancient Chinese divided the ecliptic into four regions, each assigned a mysterious animal). These practices led to the marks of the four seasons, the cosmography that “Heaven is a circle, and Earth is a square,” and early religious thought about kingship. These systems obviously were not developed within a short time period, which implies that China’s ancient astronomy may have originated from an earlier time. 
Archaeologists have found that in China, Neolithic peoples from 9,000 to 8,000 BP had already developed a method known as lüguan houqi (The procedure involved burying 12 musical pitch pipes of graded lengths in a sealed chamber after filling them with light ashes. The ancients believed that when the sun entered the second fortnightly period of any month, the earth’s qi, a seminal force, would rise and expel the ashes from the appropriate pipe). About 1,000 years later, people began to use guibiao to further explore time and space. When the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070—1600 BCE) was founded, the ancient Chinese had accumulated rich astronomical legacies, including not only the observational instruments, but also their ideas of tianji (the north and south celestial poles), their worship of the Big Dipper and certain forms of politics, rituals and religious practices.
Astronomical objects were of the most importance for astronomical observations during ancient times. Prehistoric peoples believed that what was above the ground was round, an idea which became the main body of the gaitian (literally, umbrella-like heaven) cosmography. However, for the ancient Chinese, heaven was not empty—the sun moved constantly, rising from the northeast and setting in the northwest on the day of the Summer Solstice, while rising from the southeast and setting in the southwest on the day of the Winter Solstice; on the days of the Spring Equinox and the autumnal Equinox, the sun rose from the east and set in the west. Therefore, the tracks of the sun on the above-mentioned four days formed three concentric circles in heaven. At the Hongshan Archaeological Site, dating back to 5,500 BP, the three-layered border of a round altar was constructed with standing stones that were arranged in order, forming three concentric circles, implying that they represented the three circles of heaven. This design dates back to the Xishuipo era, and influenced later generations, evidenced by the triple-gabled circular building of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the three levels of marble stones below the Circular Mound Altar within the Temple of Heaven complex, which were built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. 
The major reason why ancient peoples cared about and studied astronomy was because it allowed them to keep better track of the passage of the seasons. This, by extension, meant that they could better time when to plant or harvest. Therefore, astronomy originated as a time-keeping method for the development of agriculture. It eventually became a unique branch of Chinese culture. 
Astronomy and myths 
The histories of all ethnic groups started from myths. Myths are not completely imaginary. A myth from the ancient Chinese text Huainanzi writes that Gonggong, the water god, smashed his head against Buzhou Mountain (one of eight pillars holding up the sky) after he lost a fight with Zhurong, the fire god. His action damaged the pillars and the sky tilted towards the northwest. The astronomical interpretation of the “sky tilted towards the northwest” is that the north celestial pole was not in the north precisely but west of north. Was this a true astronomical event? Calculations prove that the circle of declination originally used to lean towards the northwest around 5,000 BCE. It is clear that ancient people were conveying an astronomical discovery through the myth. 
Several ancient Chinese texts recorded the myth of Houyi. In Chinese mythology, there were 10 suns. Initially the 10 suns would cross the sky one by one, but one day all 10 suns came out at once, scorching the earth. Houyi was tasked by the mythical King Yao to rein in the suns. He shot them one by one. Finally only one sun was left. This myth seems ridiculous; however, prehistoric peoples may not have understood that the sun rising every day was the same sun. Their knowledge of the sun might have evolved from an idea of ten suns down to one sun. The decimal system, which was first developed by the Chinese, may be the reason why where were 10 suns in the myth. When people finally figured out that there was only one sun, they conveyed their findings through a mythical depiction of shooting down the other 9 suns. Moreover, considering the atmospheric phenomenon of the solar halo and sundogs, “all 10 suns came out at once” may not be groundless. 
Cultural significance 
Ancient astronomy has exerted a profound influence upon Chinese culture. The Ying, Yang and Five Elements theory, which appeared in the pre-Confucian period, were derived from ancient astronomy. Chengxin (trustworthiness), one of the core Confucian principles, was derived from the ancient understanding of time. Just like the passage of the seasons, the flow of time has never ceased. The Summer Solstice is the day with the longest period of daylight. It is at solar noon on that day that the shadow cast by the gnomon of a guibiao will be the shortest. The ancient Chinese gradually realized that these phenomena happen every year and will never change, so they came up with the idea written in the Zhongxin Zhidao later discovered on bamboo slips in the Chu Tomb at Guodian in Hubei Province—“The highest trustworthiness is like the seasons; [they] succeed [one another] and [the circle] does not end.” 
The Mandate of Heaven is a Chinese political teaching rising from ancient astronomical observation and the preparation of calendars. Calendars have often been set by observations of the Sun and Moon (marking the day, month and year), and were important to agricultural societies. Those who could use astronomical observations to calibrate clocks were qualified to be leaders. For prehistoric peoples who had no scientific ideas about astronomy, those who could help plant seeds in advance of growth seasons needed to have been able to communicate with Heaven, and Heaven would have bestowed its mandate on that person. This is the origin of China’s Divine Right of Kings. These ideas laid the foundation of the unique world view of the Chinese people—tianren heyi (Heaven and Man Are United as One), which is the core concept of traditional Chinese culture. 
Disenchantment (translated from the German word entzauberung, which literally means “de-magication,” the supposed condition of the world once science and the Enlightenment have eroded the sway of religion and superstition) is a philosophical term developed originally in the West. It may not be appropriate for application to Chinese culture. At least, it conflicts with Chinese attitudes towards traditional culture. Disenchantment doesn’t present an advance in civilization from a Chinese perspective, because Chinese culture aims at seeking the truth. The ideas and thoughts of ancient people may have been far away from the truth, but they were not “magic.” A good civilization should be tolerant. There have always been limits to the human understanding of nature. People of different eras have different definitions of magic. It is a narrow view to casually group in what people cannot explain under the category of magic. It is important to seek truth from ancient civilization. Using the term disenchantment blindly before truly understanding the past may encourage the devaluation of the essence of civilization. 
Feng Shi is a Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
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