The traditional Chinese cosmological system is mainly based on the positions, relationships and movements of the sun, the moon, the five major planets in the solar system and the 28 constellations in the sky. It was established more than 2,200 years ago during the Warring States period (330 BC – 221 BC), serving the purpose of observing and monitoring the impact of climate change on agriculture, and reflecting and forecasting the celestial influence on politics and warfares.
The Basic Instruments in Ancient Chinese Cosmological Study
Five Planets and Five Agents in the Sky
In Chinese cosmology, five stars are the names for Venus (the metal star), Jupiter (the wood star), Mercury (the water star), Mars (the fire star) and Saturn (the earth star), representing the Five Agents (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) on the time dimension.
The earliest record that documents the relationship between the five planets and the five agents is The Five Star Oracle, which was unearthed from Mawangdui Lady’s tomb, dating back to 170 BC in the Warring States period, the first golden age of the ancient Chinese cosmological development.
The Five Star Oracle consists of nine chapters:
The first five chapters describe the characters of the five major planets in the solar system, and the last three discuss the orbits of Jupiter, Venus and Mars, their revolving direction and speed, and the influences of their movements on human activities, especially in the military, political, social and agricultural areas.
The book also mentioned the 24 Solar Terms, that represent 24 seasonal turning points in a year, which is still part of the Chinese calendar today.
Four Quarters of the Sky
Ancient Chinese further divided the sky into four quarters, each consisting of 7 major constellations.
While 7 constellations in the east represent Green Dragon, 7 in the west assembled into White Tiger.
The south and the north are occupied by Red Bird and Black Turtle respectively, but these two regions are said only to play minor supporting roles in the big cosmic drama.
As 28 major constellations were organized into a heavenly network, ancient Chinese could easily measure the movement of the sun, the moon and the five major planets against the network background.
A good constellation diagram should contain four elements: the shape of the constellation (the relationship between the stars within a constellation), the clarification of star number and the name of each constellation in writing, as well as the image of the sky.
However, up until recently, China had not yet recovered an ancient constellation diagram with all four elements presented.
Earlier in 1978, a box painted with the names of the 28 constellations was unearthed from a Warring States tomb, but there is no image and numbers. Later in 1987, a diagram with sky image, constellation shapes and numbers in writing was found in a West Han mural but no name was specified.
Such a situation has eventually changed.
In 2015, about a 20sqm mural was unearthed from a Han Dynasty brick tomb in Yulin, Shaanxi Province. The mural illustrates ancient Chinese warriors, cavalrymen, wild landscapes, horse carriages, garden residences, banquets, service girls, immortals, mythical animals and birds, as well as the sun, the moon and the 28 major constellations in the sky.
After more than a year of restoration work, in late March 2017, Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology announced a breakthrough archaeological discovery of the ancient constellation diagrams completed with all four essential elements.
A Cosmic Chart with Nine Layers of Sky
This is a chart indicating the rotational period and path of the major constellations and planets located in nine layers of sky viewing from the Earth, reprinted in 1602 based on the ancient Chinese cosmology.
The 1st layer of the sky that is closest to the Earth:
The celestial domain of the Moon, rotating from the west to the east with the circle completed in 27 days plus 7 hours 45 minutes.
The 2nd layer of the sky:
The celestial domain of the planet Mercury, rotating from the west to the east with the circle completed in 365 days plus 5 hours 45 minutes.
The 3rd layer of the sky:
The celestial domain of the planet Venus, rotating from the west to the east with the circle completed in 365 days plus 5 hours 45 minutes.
The 4th layer of the sky:
The celestial domain of the Sun, rotating from the west to the east with the circle completed in 365 days plus 5 hours 45 minutes.
The 5th layer of the sky:
The celestial domain of Mars, rotating from the west to the east with the circle completed in 1 year plus 321 days 23 hours 15 minutes.
The 6th layer of the sky:
The celestial domain of Jupiter, rotating from the west to the east with the circle completed in 11 years plus 313 days plus 17 hours 30 minutes.
The 7th layer of the sky:
The celestial domain of Saturn, rotating from the west to the east with the circle completed in 29 years plus 155 days plus 6 hours 15 minutes.
The 8th layer of the sky:
The celestial domain of the 28 Constellations, rotating from the west to the east with the circle completed in 7,000 years.
The 9th layer of the sky:
The celestial domain without any heavenly object, rotating from the eat to the west.
The Principal Concept in Ancient Chinese Cosmology
Entering the East Han Dynasty (25-220) and the Three Kingdoms period (220–280), Chinese cosmology came to the second golden age.
By that time, the Chinese discovered the moving paths of five major planets (i.e. Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury), the causes of the solar and lunar eclipses and sunspots, and the understanding about the 28 constellations became more comprehensive.
Although it was during the Warring States in the 4th Century BC when two men named Shi Shen and Gan Shi created the first armillary sphere, it had to wait until the East Han dynasty, a man called Zhang Heng built China’s first water-power based sphere to visually illustrate Chinese cosmological theory.
According to this theory, the cosmos is like an egg, with celestial layers wrapped around the Earth core. While the Earth is made of earth, celestial layers are filled with water, and the water is supported by qi – the info-energy.
Since everything in the universe is nothing more than various expressions of qi (info-energy), with the well-ordered and fluent part rising up while the chaotic and clustered portion sinking down, ancient Chinese cosmology believes that humans and their environment are closely correlated to each other.
In short, the environment is responsive not just to people’s actions, but thoughts and emotions.
The Major Ancient Chinese Astronomical Achievements
The Star Catalogues
During the Warring States, Shi Shen compiled the star catalogs, that set up one of the foundations for Chinese cosmology.
The Cause of Solar/Lunar Eclipses
The earliest Chinese record of solar eclipses dates back to 2,000 BC, but Shi Shen was the first to discover the cause of the solar and lunar eclipses – the shadows cast by either the moon or the earth itself. For commemorating his contribution, the crater Shi Shen on the Moon is named after him.
The Discovery of Jupiter’s Third Satellite Ganymede
Gan De was an expert specialising in Jupiter research. According to Chinese historical records, Gan De discovered Jupiter’s third satellite Ganymede with his naked eye in the summer of 365 BC, nearly 2,000 years before Galileo Galilei did the same
Gan De also reported the colour of the satellite as being reddish, which puzzles the modern astronomical world, since it is considered to be impossible for the naked human eye to distinguish the ultra-faint tone of a distant moon. But again, Gan De’s eye may not be an ordinary untrained raw eye. For one thing, ancient Chinese cosmologists were normally followers of Taoist principles and practices.
The Earliest Record on Comet Halley
The earliest record of the sighting of Comet Halley was found in a historical annual compiled by Ru Kingdom in 613 BC during the Spring and Autumn era, immediately before the Warring States.
Ru Kingdom, situated in today’s Shandong Province and the birthplace of Confucius and Lao Tzu, was one of many vassal states at that time in China. Each of the vassal states had its own political system, cosmological experts and written chronicles, but only Ru Kingdom’s historical records survived the wars of the succeeding Warring States era. As a result, we’ve now had an opportunity to learn what ancient Chinese cosmologists did more than 2,600 years ago.
A 2,200-Year-Old Observatory
During an archaeological excavation in the early 21st century, an ancient observatory site was discovered in Shaanxi Province(陕西省). The towering structure in the picture is confirmed to be part of an ancient observatory platform situated in Fangta Village of Jia County (佳县方塌镇方塌村).
The skywatching site, dating back to First Emperor’s Qin Dynasty 2,200 years ago, covered a huge area of 28,000 km2 and consists of 1,424 earthen platforms in round and square shapes, corresponding to 332 major stars and galaxies in the sky, as well as 332 terrestrial landmarks and social aspects in the kingdom, which exhibits a traditional Chinese aspiration that is to create a Heaven on Earth.
According to historical records, after having established a united kingdom from 7 warring states, the First Emperor Qin ordered General Meng Tian (蒙恬) to set up a giant communication superhighway between Heaven and Earth. General Meng proved himself not only a terrifying warrior but a terrific engineer and completed this enormous project in just 6 years.
The site plan of the superhighway purposefully resembles the figure of the mythical goddess Nuwa (女娲), who allegedly had repaired the damaged sky with precious stones in five different colours, and created the first group of Chinese men and women using earth collected from the Yellow River Basin.
Nuwa is believed to be a big woman, about 337 km tall and 152 km wide, thus it is how the observatory site is measured. Legend has it that when she worked on sky repairing project, she lay on her back on the ground with her head in the northwest (the location of the Heaven Graph in Eight Trigrams) and feet in the southeast (the position for Earth Graph in Eight Trigrams), so the ancient Chinese architects, engineers and astronomers captured this posture and reflected it in the site plan with the inspiration of following her noble example to maintain the world in good order.
Traditionally, the Chinese regard the yin world as a time-delayed and visually shadowy existence of this yang world on earth, while this earthly reality is a delayed and shadowy expression of heaven; hence when building an observatory, ancient Chinese would structure an offering altar, completed with ceramic and bronze rites articles, to pay tribute to stars, as a way to purchase the exclusive right to forecast the earthly due events by monitoring minute occurrence in the sky. The ceramic pot shown in the picture was unearthed from the offering altar site and has white spots painted on the surface which represent certain stars in the sky.
Ancient Chinese Sky Maps
A 1st Century Sky Map with 28 Constellations and Orbiting Paths
This skymap carved on wood during the West Han Dynasty illustrates the heavenly bodies position in the sky around 2,000 years ago.
The celestial objects featured in the illustration include the sun, the moon, the comets, the Milkyway, the 28 major constellations, as well as the orbiting path of the moon and the Comets.
A 2nd Century Sundale
This oldest Chinese stone sundial was unearthed from an East Han tomb
A 5th Century Sky Map with 300 Stars
This is a sky map discovered from a tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province, dating back to the 5th century.
The map was painted on the ceiling of the burial chamber, showing the Milkyway and over 300 stars and planets.
The stars are coloured in red and marked in different shapes according to their brightness and location in the sky, with the constellations including the Big Dipper (北斗), Purple Forbidden Left Wall formed by Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Draco (紫微左垣), Purple Forbidden Right Wall formed by Draco, Ursa Major and Camelopardalis (紫微右垣), Supreme Palace Left Wall formed by Virgo, Coma and Berenices (太微左垣), Supreme Palace Right Wall formed by Leo and Virgo (太微右垣), Regulus (轩辕), Geminorum (北河) and Procyon (南河).
It is a collection in the History Museum of China.
A 12th Century Sky Map Carved on a Stele
This sky map was engraved on a 181.3×95.8cm stele in 1190 during the South Song Dynasty.
The map demonstrates the position of the Milky Way, major stars, planets and constellations, with annotations.
A collection of Suzhou Museum.
COMMENTS FROM GOOGLE PLUS
Aquil A Rahman:
I read once about the 7 star Sword. It is said to be a reflection of the Big Dipper 7 stars – is that true?
I don’t know enough to determine it as facts. But the stars in the Dipper (of course) are not aligned as they appear. From another angle or position in space, they are light years away from one another.
All Things Chinese:
Ancient Chinese did use the Big Dipper to view the reflection of earthly affairs, particularly those related to major political and military events.
Can it still be used as a sounding board today? Certainly.
In fact, all constellations and all stars and all heavenly and earthly objects possess clues to whatever things you want to know.
Because everything, from as tiny as protons to as large as a universe, all contain the same taichi core which includes all information about your world.
Think about mirrors. You can smash a mirror into thousands of pieces, yet each piece will still reflect the same landscape around you.
The big challenge is you’ll have to know how to interpret the cues.
As for the footprints of life. Yes, after we die, in theory, this world no longer exists to us, as our consciousness finds another media to position its habitual focus. It is like we turn a piece of mirror to reflect another part of the landscape.
However, as long as there are people here who keep thinking of us, talking about us, viewing our images or reading our writings, this world still sustains its relevance to us, even though we will not consciously be aware since our focus is on somewhere else. (So long as we use the mind instead of the whole consciousness to perceive the world, we can only focus on one thing at a time)
So the karmic credit or debt from this life will still be generating for us long after our death, depending on our influence on others, positive or negative, i.e. making other people’s lives better or worse.
That is why historically, the Chinese would take their post-life reputation so serious because it does affect their future lives, just like how all their previous lives affect their present life.
Understandably, some people would prefer to leave no trace in this world and in all other worlds they frequent on their way to reconciling their karmic balance.
Aquil A Rahman:
I am reminded of a phrase made by an archaeologist ” everyone talks of going to heaven and very few talk about how the heavens go.
Speaking of the Big Dipper and how the stars are used as sounding boards……August is referred to as the “dog days”.
People leave town because of the intense or threat of heat.
Historically, when the “dog star” Sirius appeared, it signalled the flooding of the fertile crescent from the overflowing of the Nile River.
According to scientists, Sirius is estimated to be 23 times larger than the sun in our universe. Perhaps ( since I don’t know for certain). But when Sirius comes into a certain alignment, the heat increases, and we arrive at the ” dog days of August”.
Other heavenly bodies do have an effect upon other heavenly bodies.
The world has become so mindless of the powers of Nature.
But it doesn’t mean Nature has ceased in its activity…The populations are simply blind.
Which reminds me, I practice Tai Chi and read a lot about Tai Chi …But somehow I get the feeling that I haven’t fully grasped the deeper definition.
All Things Chinese:
In Chinese tradition, there is a theoretical system called Five Circles and Six Qis (五运六气), which explores the relationship between epidemics on earth and the movement of the major objects in the sky.
Five Circles are determined by Five Agents for Qi, i.e., Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Six Qis are six climate conditions influenced by the cosmic rays, i.e., Wind (Wood), Warm (Fire), Hot (Fire), Wet (Earth), Dry (Metal) and Cold (Water).
While Five Circles shaped by Space on Earth are relatively stable, Six Qis swayed by Time in sky alter constantly. As everything in the universe keeps moving, the property and the total amount of the cosmic rays that reach the Earth from the combined heavenly bodies keep changing.
As such, cosmic rays become the primary factor affecting not only people’s mental and physical states but all things on the planet.
Five Circles and Six Qis are calculated using 10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches (known as Chinese zodiacs). Thus by examining the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, we can determine the proportion and intensity of various cosmic rays, as well as their effects on human mental and physical health.
During a certain period of time, a special combination of the rays may disrupt the human immune system, or cause the alteration of genetic properties, which could make people become more susceptible to a particular type of virus infection.
According to traditional Chinese cosmology, Sirius belongs to one of the 28 major constellations that have a strong influence on lives on earth, along with the sun the moon and the five large planets in our solar system, therefore its movement does generate a notable impact on the environment and on people, particularly in military aspects.
Lawrence Kedz (Aug 28, 2017)
Are there any constellations, other than the Big and Little Dippers, that look like what they’re named after? A bear or a scorpion? How popular was the use of hallucinogenics with those interested in the ether back then? My ignorance is well documented and readily accepted. So any enlightenment will be most appreciated.
All Things Chinese
Oh yeah, of course. In fact, the so-called 12 zodiacs are 12 groups of stars, each given a name related to their visual presentation, such as Scorpio (looks like a scorpion), Leo (looks like a lion), Turian (looks like bullhead), Pieces (looks like two fish), Virgo (looks a girl’s profile) …..
While astronomical names for the constellations in the Western tradition mainly derive from Greek mythology, the names in the Chinese version are primarily inspired by the reality in the human world, such as Vega in a constellation that looks like a woman sitting there weaving cloth, and Altair in a constellation that seems like a man leading a cow.
Talking about the Big Dipper. Different cultures visualize them in different ways. Ancient Greeks saw a bear’s tail, Romans spotted seven cows, Mayas discover seven parrots, Brits found a plow, Frenches regard it’s a frying pan while the Chinese consider it a wine ladle.
BTW, my information may not be 100% accurate, since my carelessness is widely acknowledged and repeatedly condemned (by my friends).
75 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to Ancient Chinese Cosmology”
Happy New Year of the Rabbit. There is always a confusion between a lunar and a lunisolar calender. Which one came first? Since the Chinese had creadted lunisolar calendar, were they aware of the planetary motion or astronomy and what mathematical method did they use to solve the planetary motion?
Hippy Rabbit Year Gary 😊
The archaeological digging in the late 1970s from a 9,000-year-old Jiahu Cultural site in Henan Province found Chinese began to survey the sky at least 11,000 years ago – evidenced by the discovery of Jiahu observatory ruin and the holed bone instruments utilized to measure the sun shadows and other heavenly bodies. Coupled with ancient Chinese mathematics, by the 4th century BC, Chinese astronomers were able to compile a star catalogue that reflects the positions and movements of the major heavenly bodies in our sky.
A further excavation in 1980 of a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty tomb unearthed a convex lens made of crystal, which can enlarge the image 4 to 5 times. Apparently ancient Chinese had a long tradition to produce optical lenses – they might have well developed kind of telescopes.
As far as I know, the only lunar calendar currently used is the Islamic calendar based on the relationship between the earth and the moon which was created 1445 years ago. However, it is believed ancient Egyptians compiled a lunar calendar 6000 years ago but later they abandoned it in favour of solar calendars.
Today’s popular yet less practical Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar created by ancient Romans based on the Egyptian calendar.
So I would say lunar calendars appeared earlier than solar calendars. For one thing, it’s much easier to observe the moon’s impact than the sun.
Historically, China had over a hundred different calendars, but commonly consider Yellow Emperor’s Calendar (黄历) the earliest which is also known as the Chinese Calendar. It is based on yin-yang theory and the most direct and potent yin-yang forces in our world are the moon and the sun, therefore Chinese calendar is a lunar-solar combined calendar. The tools and references for the calendar include 10 celestial terms, 12 terrestrial branches, 5 major planets, 3 Celestial Enclosures (三垣) near the leading star Polaris and 28 constellations. The mathematics involves Chordal Graphs, Interpolation and Remainder Theorem, just to mention a few, employed to calculate, for example, the starting point of the calendar.
The references to the lunisolar calendars are found on various excavated Oracle Bones.
A box unearthed in the 1970s from a Warring States tomb has 28 constellations painted on the cover, and the positions of the constellations were found to have appeared in the sky in 3000 BC. This means the lunisolar calendar was formulated at least 5,000 years ago. In fact, Black Rabbit Year 2023 is Chinee year 4721.
Sima Qian noted in Records of the Grand Historian (史记): During Yellow Emperor’s era, the movements of the stars and planets were measured, calendars were established, thus the order of Five Agents was discovered, the law of the yin-yang transformation was detected, and the discrepancies between the actual movements of the heavenly bodies and the calenders were fixed (神农以前尚矣。盖黄帝考定星历，建立五行，起消息，正闰馀).
Since the Yellow Emperor, Chinese calendar faithfully reflects the sun’s movement with 24 seasonal turning points and marks the moon’s movement with months. It is a highly advanced calendar system as you can accurately know the relationships between the Earth and both the sun and the moon on any given day.
According to biblical stories (Matthew 2), wise men from the East tracked the star which led them to pay respects to the newborn baby, Jesus. They brought gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. The star led them to Bethlehem in Judea, where they found the infant in a stable. I always wonder whether these were Chinese astrologers.
That’s a fascinating thought. What a difference it would make to how we understand this Biblical story if one or all of the ‘wise men’ had come from China. I can recommend a lovely novel, very well written, which is based on this very idea: “The Chinese Magus” by Richard Yeo.
There was a question about where the Pythagorean Theorem was first proved. According to some interesting accounts, the Chinese during the the beginning of Zhou dynasty around 1100 BC have described or proved the theorem that will later be compiled or composed between 600 BC and 400 BC. Did the Chinese discover the theorem before it was compiled or composed? And what is the difference between the time of description and compilation of the theorem? Thanks.
A good question.
According to Zhoubi Mathematics (周髀算经), Mr Gao of the former Shang Dynasty once explained to Duke Zhou (the founding father of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC)) about the Gougu Theorem (Pythagorea Theorem): We can get a round shape from a square, get a square from a rectangle … fold a rectangle crosswise, we will get a Gougu with the lengths in 3, 4 and 5 in three sides respectively (圆从方来，方从矩来 … 故折矩，勾广三，股修四，经隅五).
The Shang Dynasty was an era before the Zhou.
However, Zhoubi Mathematics was a book compiled in 100BC.
Again, based on Twelve Notes On Lu History (路史后记十二注), when Yu the Great designed his hydraulic projects, he used Gougu Mathematics to work out the plan.
Yu the Great was said to be the founding father of the Xia Dynasty, and the Xia was an era before the Shang.
However, Twelve Notes On Lu History was a book compiled during Warring State Period (403-221BC).
It is also believed that ancient Babylonians used this formula when building their cities which was 3,000BC.
For whatever the case may be, I think it’s very unlikely Pythagorea would be the first person to discover this theorem.
Thanks for your response. According to Needham, Mr. Gao appeared to have described or proved the theorem during or before the Zhou dynasty. You have mentioned Yu the great, who lived before 2000 BC. Did it mean that the Chinese must have known the theorem before applying the theorem around or before 2000 BC as mentioned. Do you think that the Chinese astronomers also applied the theorem in astronomy, especially determining the latitue of the shadow of the axial tilt of the earth or earth orientaion around 14th century BC? According to surving clay tablets, the Babalonians were also aware of the Pythagorean theorem around 1700 BC – 1800 BC, around the same time as the Chinese. Was the claim of the theorem widely disputed or accepted by most scholars?
Many do believe it was for calculating the distance between the earth and the sun, therefore establishing a model of cosmic structure, that ancient Chinese discovered the Gougu theorem, which involves figuring out the Gougu relationship between a pole, a shadow behind the pole and the hight of the sun.
Some also noted that three-leg creature isn’t a norm in nature but pots with trio footing were common in Chinese relics unearthed that can date back to 6,000 years ago. The wide use of triangle objects leads to a good understanding of triangle geometry including Gougu theorem.
I believe Babylonians had advanced knowledge of mathematics and geometry, as well as the ancient Egyptians when they work on their pyramid and Nile river flood prevention projects.
Thanks for you informative knowlege of this important theorem. If the Chinese astronomers can determine the axial tilt of earth or earth orientation even before the Zhou dynasty, would they have understood or at least aware of the spherical earth or almost spherical earth? There are always some popular questions that the Chinese only knew the round earth when intruduced by the Juisuits in the 17th century CE. Why were the Chinese so late to know that the earth is or is almost spherical even if they knew and accurately calculated the inconsistent motion of the moon and predicted the eclipse for serveral thousand years? Another question follows as: Did the equatorial coordinate system or mounting system for a sighting tube, a precursor to telescope, originate in China or elsewhere?
In the East Han dynasty, a Chinese man called Zhang Heng built a water-power-based sphere to visually illustrate Chinese cosmological theory.
According to this theory, the cosmos is like an egg, with celestial layers wrapped around the Earth’s core.
This is more than a thousand years before any Jesuits appeared in China.
Most Jesuits came to China during the late Ming Dynasty and successfully converted the desperate last Ming emperor (at least for a while) and many of his high officials to Christianity. The Catholic Chinese emperor and officials began to denounce traditional Chinese culture and values when they are not agreeable to the Holy Text and would utter no objection to any claims made by the Jesuits if that could honour God’s glory. Naturally, the Jesuits had a free hand to make up whatever stories they feel fit with the help of Chinese Christian officials and scholars like Xu Guangqi.
As for the telescopes, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest they might originate in China. For one thing, the first batch of glasses was imported to China from the Mideast by Zheng He’s fleets in the 15th century.
You may wonder how did the ancient Chinese get to know the stars so well without telescopes? Look, telescopes are just one way for humans to view the world. In history and even today, some people can see the universe directly with or without their eyes.
Thanks for your informative response. Totally agree with you that the spherical earth may have been known prior to the Han Dynasty or Chang Heng devised a hydraulic armillary sphere to visualize the heaven with the rotating earth. As it has been known that flat earth does hinder the axial tilt or rotation of the earth. The earth must be round or a sphere to rotate its axis as described in the axial tilt of the earth during the early Zhou dynasty.
There must be some astronomical and mathematical activies during the Jesuits’ stay in China. The flow of mathematical ideas was said to be one way or inflow into China. Will there be two-way traffic of astronomical and mathematical transmission between the East and West during those times? There is an interesting link below that you may help to discuss.
Thanks for your kind comment and interesting link.
In fact, in the classic Chinese culture, viewing the earth as a spherical and rotating object is regarded as just one perspective, and a rather superficial one. A square earth covered by a dome-shaped heaven (天圆地方) is a more common description of our world, which reflects more fundamental nature between the two — Earth the space that is solid and stable while Heave the time that is diffusing and fluid. The interplay between the space and the time forms the universe.
The two-way traffic of astronomical and mathematical transmission happened between China and the other civilisations occurred much earlier, mainly with the ancient kingdoms in today’s India and countries in far Middle East. When Jesuits arrived in China, classic Chinese civilisation was already on its last leg, and just decades later, China slide backward in thoughts, arts, science and technologies following systematic cultural genocides carried out first by a primitive Manchu culture, then by an aggressive Western culture. Therefore the actual contributions of the Jesuits’ input to the classic Chinese science and technologies are very limited.
Take Nine Time Table, that is still used by Chinese kids today in school, was formulated at least 2,200 years ago. A bamboo slip with this formula has been unearthed from a Qin Dynasty grave.
The Nine Chapters On The Mathematics (九章算术) was also compiled 2,000 years ago. The method of Excess and Deficit (盈不足 Linear problems solved using the concept of false position) was not found in Europe until the 13th century — just one example.
Did the 28 mansions of the Chinese constellations originate in China or elsewhere?
Sorry, once again a late reply. 😏
Regarding its origin, so far the jury is still out since the so-called 28 mansions of the constellations can also be found in some other ancient civilisations, like Babylon. However, most researchers tend to believe it has a Chinese origin as the system is centred with Big Dipper, while Big Dipper plays the central role in the classic Chinese cosmology, which aren’t the cases in other cultural traditions.
Thanks for you informative response. Your response appears to be correct since the Chinese prefer the equilaterial system than the eliptic system. So far, the equilaterial system has a global effect and been used globally in astronomy.
You’re most welcome.
Thank you for your interesting input 👍
Happy New Year of the Rabbit
Happy Rabbit Year to you too.
I was wondering what text or document did the image of the Cosmic Chart with Nine Layers of Sky came from? Your article is absolutely fascinating! So you have any other sources you could reference for the information that you presented? I would like to study in more depth the ideas you presented. Thank you so much!
Best wishes, Ronda
Sorry for the late reply Ronda, I didn’t check this website often lately.
You can find one of the early official references to the Nine Skies concept in Master Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals (吕氏春秋), an encyclopedic Chinese classic text compiled around 239 BC:
“There are nine skies in heaven. Mighty Sky at the centre, Blue Sky in the east, Changing Sky in the northeast, Black Sky in the north, Dark Sky in the northeast, White Sky in the west, Red Sky in the southwest, Hot Sky in the south, Sunny Sky in the southeast. (天有九野，何谓九野，中央曰钧天，东方曰苍天，东北曰变天。 北方曰玄天，西北曰幽天，西方曰颢天，西南曰朱天，南方曰炎天，东南曰阳天)”
The same description also appears in The Huainanzi (淮南子), published around 139 BC.
Other early references include The Great Wonder (太玄经) compiled during the West Han Dynasty in 2 BC, a book about the structure of the universe. (有九天，一为中天，二为羡天，三为从天，四为更天，五为睟天，六为廓天，七为咸天，八为沈天，九为成天).
The most detailed depiction probably comes from The Easy Reading of Twenty-four Histories (二十四史通俗演义), an entrance-level history book covering from the earliest Chinese dynasty in 3000 BC to the Ming dynasty in the 17th century.
That is brilliant
Thank you for such an interesting website. I am reading and studying the Shan Hai Jing or ‘Classic of Mountains and Seas,’ focussing for the moment on the various descriptions of the sacred mountain Kunlun. The earliest description (said to be 300 B.C.) describes the principle deity of Kunlun (a tiger with a human head) as ‘presiding over the Nine Parts of the sky.’ I am not clear as to what these Nine Parts might be. Are they perhaps the “nine layers of sky viewing from the Earth” shown above, the diagram reprinted in 1602 based on the ancient Chinese cosmology? Or would they be the nine divisions of the sky arranged as north and northwest, east and northeast etc – plus the central part?
Other world mythologies often describe the ‘parts’ of heaven, particularly when associated with a sacred mountain, as more as layers of a sort of increasing spiritual refinement: humans, immortal beings, angels, archangels, gods and so on. I would like to find something like this in Chinese mythology.
Thank you in advance for any help or suggestions.
Hello Wendy, thank you for your interesting question.
There are numerous ways to explain the structure of the universe, just like there can be endless ways to describe the environment we are in. What the world we see is certainly different from what the world a butterfly may perceive, a case to the point.
Nine Sky theory is just one of the practical thus popular methods to categorise the cosmos. It is based on Eight Trigrams from I Ching that divides any given space into eight directions, each corresponding to a particular graph with unique attributes. Adding the central position to the eight directions, it makes nine.
The same method can be applied to any given spot on earth, in sky and beyond, from as big as the entire universe to as tiny as unimaginable, because the universe is layered, and the layers are overlapped, and most importantly, it is holographic.
Of the nine directions, southeast is on the lowest position while the northwest occupies the highest location with some certain areas shared between mortals and immortals, according to Chinese mythology, thus Mt Kunlun in China’s northwest is considered sacred.
I very much appreciate your helpful reply, thank you! I wonder if you would be able to answer another question about Kunlun? In the translation of the Shan Hai Jing by Anne Birrell, the word Kunlun is translated as ‘Offspringline’ which suggests, to me, that Kunlun can be thought of as a type of omphalos or ‘navel’ of the earth. This idea makes a lot of sense to me, but I have just come across another translation of ‘kunlun’ as ‘High and Precarious.’ I have no ability to translate the Chinese characters and I’m wondering if you know what the correct translation might be?
It’s hard to tell why ancient Chinese named this mountain Kunlun (昆仑), since the two characters do not give away too much information, unlikely the names of the most Chinese locations. “High and Precarious” shall be a proper term to describe the mountain’s physical feature.
I think the best way to translate its name might just be Kunlun.
Thank you for that information, and how interesting! As you say, the name seems to be a bit of a mystery, and perhaps that is quite appropriate.
You are most welcome Wendy. Have a wonderful new year 😊
It was true that finding the axial precession was really challenging for the ancients, even for the Greeks and Chinese or Indians. Even though, it is usually credited to and noticed by the Greeks or Hipparchus (190–120 BC) of Rhodes or Nicaea, a Greek astronomer, who cannot explain and was uncertain about the axial precession until another Greek Claudius Ptolemy (100 AD – 170 AD) attempted and also failed to measure the accurate axial precession. Yu Xi (307–345 AD) also calculated the precession, which was also off until another Chinese polymath Zu Chongzhi (429–500 AD) developed his method of interpolation to make more accurate measurement of the axial precession for his Daming calendar and another Chinese polymath Shen Kua (1031–1095 AD) accurately calculate the rate of precession. And note that these two Chinese astronomers and mathematicians were rarely mentioned in this important astronomical discovery. A better understanding of axial precession was described and explained by the English mathematician and astronomer Newton (1642 – 1726 AD), who was also influenced by a German polymath Johannes Kepler (1571 -1636 AD). From this observation, the Chinese had made the first accurate calculation of the rate of precession and possibly the first to become aware of the precession during or before the Zhou Dynasty or the Rites of Zhou (1100 BC), who discovered the axial tilt of earth on 23 degrees, which is reasonably close to the modern obliquity of 23.5 degrees calculated more than 3000 years later. Please see the attached link for Zu Chongzhi and Shen Kua for the calculation of the rate of precession. https://www.chinasage.info/stars.htm
There is one more question for you regarding the time of discovery or notice of the precession. When did the Chinese discover or become aware of the precession, during the Zhang dynasty, Zhou Dynasty, or later during the Warring States? If the notice of precession was recorded during one of those periods, it means that the Chinese were aware of the procession prior to the Greeks as some sites mentioned it, too. Thanks.
Hello Xu, thank you so much for the rich info.
I doubt ancient Shang or Zhou Chinese were aware of precession. When Zu Chongzhi of the fifth century tried to introduce the concept into the calendar, he was met with strong resistance and eventually gave up the attempt. Even the great Li Chunfeng of the early Tang Dynasty didn’t believe in the existence of the precession.
Check out these two links below about precession. The link to video perhaps discusses about the precession of equinox and the link to the website also discusses the “Defining Discovery.”
The Chinese were possibly aware of the precession at least 2000 BC until it was fully recognized in China in 400 AD according to the sites above or some accounts. The precession was also noticed by Hipparchus (190–120 BC) of Rhodes or Nicaea, a Greek astronomer. The calculation of precession by Hipparchus was one degree in 100 years and Yu Xi (307–345 AD) was one degree in 50 years, which were way off the modern and correct rate of precession of one degree in 72 years. It was inclusive whether the Chinese calculated the rate of precession by the time they discovered the precession earlier. But Zu Chongzhi (429–500 AD) was the first to take into account of the precession and gave a more accurate calculation of the precession, and later Shen Kua (1031–1095 AD) accurately calculated the rate of precession. Of course, precession is a very complex astronomical phenomena, which took many centuries after its discovery to be better described and understood by Issac Newton (1642 – 1726 AD) and followed by some European scientists or world wide scientist later on. And note that sources from Wikipedia are not as credible as being thought.
It’s quite convincing, Xu, I will certainly watch the video as well. Thanks so much for your valuable input. 😊✨
How do you think after you watch the video?
I watched the beginning and the last 10 minutes of the video related to the ancient Chinese astronomy. He won my great respect.
I also read the article. With regard to precession, Gary Thompson seems by and large in agreement with the popular opinions. A good article I have to say and I will read more about Babylon. Ancient Egypt is all I know about that region because I have a friend who studied archaeology and Egyptology.
Thank you soooooo much for your wonderful links, deeply appreciated. 🌑🌒🌓🌕🌝
“The earliest Chinese record on solar eclipse dates back to 2,000 BC, but Shi Shen was the first to discover the cause of the solar and lunar eclipses – the shadows cast by either the moon or the earth itself. For commemorating his contribution, crater Shi Shen on the Moon is named after him.” Some accounts mentioned that Chinese astronomers understood the cause of the solar and lunar eclipses later than the Greeks. Can you explain and describe?
You asked an excellent question, Xu, but I don’t know how to answer. I guess Shi Shen’s discovery was not widely accepted among Chinese sky watchers for thousands of years.
Read this interesting link:
The link is broken 😜
Thank you very much for the very interesting explanation provided. I am sorry, still I am not clear regarding Chinese cosmology, its derived thoughts and relation with medical system. What parts of these thoughts have been inherited, innovated or/and rejected in contemporary China? Thank you very much.
Its our assignment …..
Chinese cosmology is not derived from Chinese medical system. Both of them, along with many other systems, are derived from Yin-Yang foundation, Five Agents circulation and Eight Trigrams structure, all of which are expressed in a single I Ching system.
While Chinese cosmology is the application of this system on the scale of heaven, Chinese medicine applies it on human, both physically and mentally. When it is used on earth, various feng shui theory and practice were born.
Heaven, earth and man in between are the three basic components in the uniserve.
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Thank you for another fantastic post. Where else could anyone get that type of info in such a perfect way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m on the search for such information.
I’ve tried to find “The Five Star Oracle” text that you mention in this article and there are hardly any results when I google it. Has this been translated into English? I would absolutely love to read it. There is no mention of it in the English wikipedia entry on Mawangdui either, so I don’t think that this work has found it’s way into English translation yet. If there is a Chinese text online somewhere could you point me to it and I can at least try to work my way through it with google translate. Thanks!
Hi, Samuelis, you are right, it hasn’t been translated into English.
These are the links to the original Chinese text:
Sorry for late reply.
I am a long time user of the I Ching. There is a passage in the Wilhelm/Baines translation where it quotes Confucius, referring to a type of ritual, as saying “He who could wholly comprehend this sacrifice could rule the world as though it were spinning on his hand.”
My questions are:
Did Confucius (and the scholars of his time) know the Earth spun on its axis those 500 years before (or a few thousand years before!) the Western acceptance of heliocentrism?
And did those ancient Chinese think in heliocentric terms?
Sorry.. I mean 2000 years before.. if not longer.
Hi Peter, you’ve got some very good questions. Sorry for the late reply as the website encountered some problems lately.
There were many hypotheses on the model of the cosmic system more than 2,000 years ago in China, and regarding Earth as an egg-like ball floating in the soup of qi (air or energy) was one of them.
I haven’t seen hard evidence (maybe there are but I do not yet know) demonstrating that Confucius knew the planet is spun on its axis.
However, some ancient Chinese astronomers (or astrologers) did consider the Earth is moving around the sun, otherwise, they wouldn’t suspect the ellipse is caused by the planet’s own shadow.
Check the website that told “who (or when) discovered the axial tilt of the earth.”
Check the link here.
It’s astonishing that they did this during the Warring States period! Really shows the ingenuity of the Chinese people.
It’s interesting how they said that environment reacts not only to people’s actions, but also their thought and emotion. Reminds me so much of the Law of Attraction!
Thank you for an interesting read 🙂
Hi Nemanja, thanks for your interesting comment.
Law of Attraction is totally valid, but it is just one side of the coin, which is generated by our desire (what we think); the other side of the coin is deserve, which is based on our actions (what we say and do).
In other words, Law of Attraction is our order — we’ll only get what we ordered; but we also need to have enough credit in our bankcard to enable the order to be delivered to us.
That means you can keep ordering, but if you don’t have enough money, you won’t get what you want.
However, once you have some credit in your account, you will be dished out what you ordered before, even you no longer want that product by then or are not happy with a modified/discounted version of the product. The delivery of the order does not depend on whether you still desire that product, but if the product is ready for dispatch.
It is why the New Age (religion or spiritual movement) can be quite misleading in a way. It tells one side of the story with no mentioning of the other side of the story.
The LOA is based on greed and desires. Like you said, without deserving(merit or good karma) it no good fruit will come.
Law of Attraction, Cause & Consequences, Action vs Reactions, Karma – basically they describe the same and only foundational principle of the universe. It is the holographic mirror effect on every level and at an overall scale.
It is not our greed and desires that give rise to the LOA, it is our greed and desires attracting obsessive and undesirable people and events to our lives.
You’re absolutely right, without deserving, no desirable consequences will be generated.
This was really cool to read about. I don’t know much about Chinese cosmology but this is definitely interesting, especially because China has been long versed in universe studies and the stars. I’d love to hear more about this kind of information. Is this something you specialize in or is just a hobby or something?
I think this is just my hobby 😉
Great you like it.
I am interested in Chinese armillary sphere and when it was invented or constructed. I have read different accounts that sometimes armillary sphere was attributed to the Greek’s invention around 250 – 300 BC. Was it true that armillary sphere was invented by Shi Shen or Gan De between 390 BC and 365 BC?
Hello, should I address you Peter or Paul?
Yes, it is correct that Chinese invented armillary sphere before 365 BC as it was recorded on the historical records.
Thanks for your reply.
The date of invention of armillary sphere in China was rejected by a sinologist Christopher Cullen, who suggested about 100 BC or later would be appropriate. How do you think about his hypothesis since there are historical records that it was invented before 365 BC? Or is his hypothesis a just debate?
Check out the early invention of armillary sphere from this link attached below.
Hi Xu, thanks for your link. I will check.
Hi Peter, I haven’t read anything penned by Christopher Cullen. To be honest, I hardly pay any attention to “sinologists”.
If I face two contradictory descriptions over a same historical event in the ancient Egypt, one carved inside the Pyramid with carbon dating suggesting it was produced thousands of years ago shortly after the event occurred, another published by an English Egyptologist, I wouldn’t waste my time to ponder who’s description might be more credible.
I agree with you that most of those sinologists are biased against or overlook the Chinse.
Why was this date of invention of armillary sphere before 365 BC disputed by the sinologist Cullen? Did he only study the Chinese history of astronomy during the Han dynasty or later dynasties?
Are you Peter right? I wish I can explain that to you Peter, but I haven’t read his book so I don’t know what his reason might be.
Setting the calendar
Astronomical observations were also needed to work out the accurate start of each year and month so they could be formally proclaimed in advance – setting everyone’s calendars into synchronization. It is all very complex because the simplistic view of circular orbits in a single plane is inaccurate. The moon’s orbit is tilted 5° relative to the Earth’s equatorial and is slightly elliptical as well as precessing, so both detailed measurement and complex mathematics are needed to predict its path.
The Chinese concentrated on the pole star and the stars around it because the observed stars are not obscured by the bright sun or moon. Circular jade discs were made with notches filed into it to mark the position of key circumpolar stars so that the north pole and the time could be easily determined – and all this as far back as 1000BCE. This indirect measurement of the position of the sun is far easier to make but more complex to use than the European/Greek measurement of the stars visible just before sunrise and after sunset. The position of the full moon can also be used to determine the position of the sun as at this time it is directly opposite.
Can you explain whether or when the Chinese were aware of the precession from the above two paragraph?
The earliest Chinese calendar is based on the movements of both the sun and the moon, so is a lunisolar calendar, using ten stems to reflect the rotation of the sky and twelve zodiac branches to mark the change on the earth, with 60 days as the basic unit of a time circle.
Such system began since 2637 BC, so some Chinese knew how to calculate both solar and lunar orbit paths at least 5,000 years ago.
This calendar is still used today known as Agricultural Calendar (also commonly referred as Lunar calendar by mistake).
Apart from lunisolar calendar, Chinese also invented Constellation Calendar (Great Dipper Calendar), which was widely used in Chinese medicine and Chinese fengshui for 2,000 to 3,000 years to say the least.
Since the Chinese (or Chou Li) knew how to calculate or was the first to discover the axial tilt of the earth on 23 degrees in 1100 BC, did or when they somehow figure out or discover the axial precession of the earth around the same time as they discovered the axial tilt of the earth?
There are some accounts that the axial precession was also discovered by Yu Xi, Zu Zhonzi, and later by Shen Kuo who accurately calculated the rate of precession. Were they kind of late to take account of earth precession several centuries after the Greeks (200 BC – 100 BC)?
Chinese astronomy was believed to exist a long time ago. Based on some Western accounts, was Chinese astronomy somewhat influenced by Indian or Mesopotamian astronomy or the other way around since according to some historical accounts that the knowledge of Chinese astronomy was filtered down the Silk Road into the Middle East and Europe?
Hi Peter, sorry for the late reply. I haven’t logged into this website for quite a while.
According to historical records, 2,000 years ago, China had very little, if any, communication with India (by then there was no India but dozens even hundreds of small tribe states in that subcontinent). When Alexandra the Great conquered the region in today’s Afghanistan and India, he thought he had reached the end of the world and didn’t realise there was a kingdom called Great Han existed on the other side of the Mt Himalaya, yet by then China’s classic astronomy/cosmology had already advanced to a rather sophisticated stage way beyond the age of mythology.
The trading route of Silk Road became passible for caravans at a much later time, mainly started since the Tang Dynasty, which was almost a thousand years after the death of Alexander the Great.
There were Buddhists from Nepal and other small kingdoms in today’s India travelled to China during the third or fourth century, but their activities were mainly confined in the marginal areas in southern China like today’s Yunnan while China’s political, cultural and economic hubs were always along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in the central north, central south and mid-east coastal area.
It was not until Tang Dynasty Buddhism became popular in China after it successfully modified its narration of the world and beyond, and the approach to life and cultivation, based on Daoism, the theoretical foundation of classical Chinese cosmology.
I’m not sure if the ancient Chinese cosmology had spread its influence to the Mideast or Indian subcontinent. I don’t know much about Mideast history. As for India, their classic cosmic view seemingly remains at a mythological stage, which did have a strong influence on the culture of Tibet in China’s southwest corner though.
With regard to Axial Precession, the consensus option is Chinese man Yu Xi found a way to calculate it in the fourth century, about 500 years later than the Greeks.
Thanks for your reply. There is a website attached here that some resolutely claimed that the Chinese discovered the precession prior to the Greeks or Hipparchus (190–120 BC) of Rhodes or Nicaea, a Greek astronomer. And there were also multiple claims of the discovery of precession prior to the Greeks. Please check it out.
Thank you for your link. I think Chinese became aware of the Axial Precession much early but found a practical method to precisely calculate it was way later.
Further, as the heavenly bodies keep moving in the sky, so are their alignments and relationships to the Earth, therefore ancient Chinese had to modify the calculation methods from time to time.
My impression the accuracy of Axial Precession calculation had always been an issue in the ancient China until the 20th century.
It is astonishing about some of the things you can find out about in our history as they keep uncovering things.
The part that always surprises me the most is the acracy they tend to have without having the equipment we have today.
I find your article most interesting and a great read.
Thanks, Travis ^_^