A Brief Introduction to Ancient Chinese Cosmology

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.

Warring States sky map

Warring States sky map

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

Four quarters in the key

Ancient Chinese further divided sky into four quarters, each consisted 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.

28 Constellations

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 20sqm mural was unearthed from a Han Dynasty brick tomb in Yulin, Shaanxi Province. The mural illustrates ancient Chinese warriors, cavalrymen, wild landscape, horse carriages, garden residence, banquet, service girls, immortals, mythical animals and birds, as well as the sun, the moon and the 28 major constellations in the sky.

Han Dynasty map of 28 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 the 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 the 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 the 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

Ancient Chinese armillary sphere

Ancient Chinese armillary sphere

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, 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 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

Chinese astrologers researching the sky 2,500 years ago

Chinese astrologers researching the sky 2,500 years ago

The Star Catalogues

During the Warring States, Shi Shen compiled the star catalogues, that set up one of the foundations for Chinese cosmology.

The Cause of Solar/Lunar Eclipses

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.

The Discovery of Jupiter’s Third Satellite Ganymede

Jupiter's third satellite Ganymede

Jupiter’s third satellite Ganymede

Gan De was an expert specialised in Jupiter research. According to Chinese historical record, 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 the followers of the Taoist principles and practice.

The Earliest Record on Comet Halley

Ancient Chinese record on Comet Halley

Ancient Chinese record on Comet Halley

The earliest record on 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 being 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

2,200-Year-Old Chinese observatory siteDuring 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.

A ceramic pot unearthed from the offering altar site

A ceramic pot unearthed from the offering altar site with white spots painted on the surface representing certain stars in the sky.

The site plan of the superhighway purposefully resembles the figure of mythical goddess Nuwa (女娲), who allegedly had repaired 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 in the ground with her head in northwest (the location of Heaven Graph in Eight Trigrams) and feet in 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 a good order.

Traditionally, Chinese regard yin world as a timely 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 built 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

2,000-year-old Chinese skymap, collection of Nanjing Museum.

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 included 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 Milky Way, major stars, planets and constellations, with annotations.

A collection of Suzhou Museum.


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 the 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.

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 aware since our focus is on somewhere else. (So long as we use mind instead of whole consciousness to view 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, 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, the 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 the 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 a 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 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 a different way. Ancient Greeks saw a bear’s tail, Romans spot seven cows, Mayas discover seven parrots, Brits found a plow, Frenches regard it’s a frying pan while Chinese consider it’s a wine ladle.

BTW, my information may not be 100% accurate, since my carelessness is widely acknowledged and repeatedly condemned (by my friends).


  • Sugebo Tagesse

    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.

    • Anonymous

      Its our assignment …..

      • Anonymous

        hardluck Tagesse

        • Hi Sugebo,

          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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  • 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!

  • Peter Dyrhaug

    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?


    • Peter Dyrhaug

      Sorry.. I mean 2000 years before.. if not longer.

    • Awen

      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.

  • Nemanja


    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 🙂

    • Awen

      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.

      • Anonymous

        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.

  • Travis Smithers

    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.

  • Megan

    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?

    • Awen

      I think this is just my hobby 😉

      Great you like it.

      • Peter

        Hi Awen,

        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?



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