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.
The earliest record that documents the 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 military, political, social and agricultural arenas.
The book also mentioned the 24 Solar Terms, that represent 24 seasonal turning points in a year, which is still part of Chinese calendar today.
Four Quarters of the Sky
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.
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 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.
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.
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, 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 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
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 casted 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
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 color of the satellite as being reddish, which puzzles the modern astronomical world, since it is considered to be impossible for 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
The earliest record on the sighting of Comet Halley was found in a historical annal 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 state 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 the 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 21th 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 sky watching 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 an 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 mythical goddess Nuwa (女娲), who allegedly had repaired damaged sky with precious stones in five different colours, and created 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 kms tall and 152 kms 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.