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

Five elements 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 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

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 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.

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 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 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

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 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

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 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.

9 comments

  • 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?

    Thanks

    • Peter Dyrhaug

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

    • Awen

      Hi Peter, you’ve got some very good questions. Sorry for 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 evidences (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

    Wow!

    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.

      That 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 mention of the other side of the story.

  • 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?

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