- Chinese astronomy
Astronomy in China has a very long history, with historians considering that "they [the Chinese] were the most persistent and accurate observers of celestial phenomena anywhere in the world before the Arabs." Star names later categorized in the twenty-eight mansions have been found on oracle bones unearthed at Anyang, dating back to the middle Shang Dynasty (Chinese Bronze Age), and the mansion (xiù:宿) system's nucleus seems to have taken shape by the time of the ruler Wu Ding (1339-1281 BC).
Detailed records of astronomical observations began during the Warring States period (4th century BC) and flourished from the Han period onwards. Chinese astronomy was equatorial, centered as it was on close observation of circumpolar stars, and was based on different principles from those prevailing in traditional Western astronomy, where heliacal risings and settings of zodiac constellations formed the basic ecliptic framework.
Some elements of Indian astronomy reached China with the expansion of Buddhism during the Later Han dynasty (25–220 AD), but the most detailed incorporation of Indian astronomical thought occurred during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when numerous Indian astronomers took up residence in the Chinese capital, and Chinese scholars, such as the great Tantric Buddhist monk and mathematician Yi Xing, mastered its system. Islamic astronomers collaborated closely with their Chinese colleagues during the Yuan Dynasty, and, after a period of relative decline during the Ming Dynasty, astronomy was revitalized under the stimulus of Western cosmology and technology after the Jesuits established their missions. The telescope was introduced in the 17th century. In 1669, the Peking observatory was completely redesigned and refitted under the direction of Ferdinand Verbiest. Today, China continues to be active in astronomy, with many observatories and its own space program.
Purpose of astronomical observations in the past
The Chinese calendar was considered to be a symbol of a dynasty. As dynasties would rise and fall, astronomers and astrologers of each period would often prepare a new calendar to be made, with observations for that purpose.
Astrological divination was also an important part of astronomy. Astronomers took careful note of "guest stars", which suddenly appeared among the fixed stars. The supernova that created the Crab Nebula observed in 1054, now known as the SN 1054, is an example of a guest star observed by Chinese astronomers, recorded also by the Arab astronomers, although it was not recorded by their European contemporaries. Ancient astronomical records of phenomena like supernovae and comets are sometimes used in modern astronomical studies.
The Chinese developed three different cosmological models. The Gai Tan, or hemispherical dome, model conceived the heavens as a hemisphere lying over a dome-shaped earth. The second cosmological model, associated with the Hun Tian school, saw the heavens as a celestial sphere not unlike the spherical models developed in the Greek and Hellenistic traditions. The third cosmology, associated with the Xuan Ye school, viewed the heavens as infinite in extent and the celestial bodies as floating about at rare intervals, and "the speed of the luminaries depends on their individual natures, which shows they are not attached to anything."
The divisions of the sky began with the Northern Dipper and the 28 mansions.
In 1977, a lacquer box was excavated from the tomb of Yi, the marquis of Zeng, in Suixian, Hubei Province. Names of the 28 lunar mansions were found on the cover of the box, proving that the use of this classification system was made before 433 BC.
As lunar mansions have such an ancient origin, the meanings of most of their names have become obscure. Even worse, the name of each lunar mansion consists of only one Chinese word, the meaning of which could vary at different times in history. The meanings of the names are still under discussion.
In the late period of the Ming Dynasty, the agricultural scientist and mathematician Xu Guangqi (1562 - 1633 AD) introduced 23 additional constellations near to the Celestial South Pole, which are based on star catalogues from the West (see Matteo Ricci).
Star catalogues and maps
Author Transliterated name Chinese Catalogue name Pinyin Shi Shen Shi Shen astronomy 石申天文 Shi Shen tienwen Gan De Astronomic star observation 天文星占 Tianwen xingzhan
These books appeared to have lasted until the 6th century but were lost after that. A number of books share similar names, often quoted and named after them. These texts should not be confused with the original catalogues written by them. Notable works that helped preserve the contents include:
Author Transliterated name Chinese name Pinyin Comments Sima Qian Book of Celestial Offices 天官書 Tianguan shu This is the astronomical chapter of the Records of the Grand Historian, a massive history compiled during the late 2nd century BC by the Han-era scholar and official Sima Qian. This chapter provides a star catalogue and discusses the schools of Gan De and Shi Shen. Ma Xian (馬顯) Star Manual of the Masters Gan and Shi 甘石星經 Gan Shi Xingjing Despite having the name credited to Shi and Gan, it was lost and actually compiled circa 579 AD as an appendix to the Treatise on Astrology of the Kaiyuan Era, and summarized in the book 郡齋讀書志. Book of Jin 晉書 Jin shu In the astronomical chapters of the text Book of Sui 隋書 Sui shu  Gautama Siddha Treatise on Astrology of the Kaiyuan Era 開元占經 Kaiyuan Zhanjing During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (712-756 AD). After analyzing and providing a summary on the work of Gan De and Shi Shen, Tang era astronomers mentioned the names of more than 800 stars that were found, 121 of them marked with positions. The astronomical table of sines by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata were also translated into the Kaiyuan Zhanjing. The Great Firmament Star Manual Common to Astrology 通占大象曆星經 Tongzhan taxiangli xingjing This renamed star manual is incorporated in the Taoist book Daozang.
Wu Xian (巫咸) has been one of the astronomers in debate. He is often represented as one of the "Three Schools Astronomical tradition" along with Gan and Shi. The Chinese classic text Star Manual of Master Wu Xian (巫咸星經) and its authorship is still in dispute, because it mentioned names of twelve countries that did not exist in the Shang Dynasty, the era of which it was supposed to have been written. Moreover, it was customary in the past for the Chinese to forge works of notable scholars, as this could lead to a possible explanation for the inconsistencies found. Wu Xian is generally mentioned as the astronomer who lived many years before Gan and Shi.
The Han Dynasty astronomer and inventor Zhang Heng (78-139 AD) not only catalogued some 2500 different stars, but also recognized over 100 different constellations. Zhang Heng also published his work Ling Xian, a summary of different astronomical theories in China at the time. In the subsequent period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD), Chen Zhuo (陳卓) combined the work of his predecessors, forming another star catalogue. This time, 283 constellations and 1464 stars were listed. The astronomer Guo Shoujin of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 AD) created a new catalogue, which was believed to contain thousands of stars. Unfortunately, many of the documents of that period were destroyed, including that of Shoujin. Imperial Astronomical Instruments (儀象考成) was published in 1757 and contains 3083 stars exactly.
The Chinese drew many maps of stars in the past centuries. It is debatable as to which counts as the oldest star maps, since pottery and old artifacts can also be considered star maps. One of the oldest existent star maps in printed form is from Su Song's (1020-1101 AD) celestial atlas of 1092 AD, which was included in the horological treatise on his clocktower. The most famous one is perhaps the Dunhuang map found in Dunhuang, Gansu. Uncovered by the British archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein in 1907, the star map was brought to the British Museum in London. The map was drawn on paper and represents the complete sky, with more than 1,350 stars. Though ancient Babylonians and Greeks also observed the sky and catalogued stars, no such complete record of the stars may exist or survive. Hence, this is the oldest chart of the actual skies at present.
According to recent studies, the map may date the manuscript to as early as the 7th century AD (Tang Dynasty). Scholars believe the star map dating from 705 to 710 AD, which is the reign of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang. There are some texts (Monthly Ordinances, 月令) describing the movement of the sun among the sky each month, which was not based on the observation at that time.
Lunar and solar eclipses
The ancient Chinese astronomer Shi Shen (fl. 4th century BC) was aware of the relation of the moon in a solar eclipse, as he provided instructions in his writing to predict them by using the relative positions of the moon and the sun. The radiating-influence theory, where the moon's light was nothing but a reflection of the sun's, was supported by the mathematician and music theorist Jing Fang (78–37 BC), yet opposed by the Chinese philosopher Wang Chong (27–97 AD). In his writing, Wang admits that this theory was nothing new in China. The Chinese astronomer and inventor Zhang Heng (78–139 AD) wrote of both solar eclipse and lunar eclipse in the publication of Ling Xian (靈憲), 120 AD:
The sun is like fire and the moon like water. The fire gives out light and the water reflects it. Thus the moon's brightness is produced from the radiance of the sun, and the moon's darkness (pho) is due to (the light of) the sun being obstructed (pi). The side which faces the sun is fully lit, and the side which is away from it is dark. The planets (as well as the moon) have the nature of water and reflect light. The light pouring forth from the sun (tang jih chih chhung kuang) does not always reach the moon owing to the obstruction (pi) of the earth itself—this is called 'an-hsü', a lunar eclipse. When (a similar effect) happens with a planet (we call it) an occulation (hsing wei); when the moon passes across (kuo) (the sun's path) then there is a solar eclipse (shih).
The later Song Dynasty scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) used the models of lunar eclipse and solar eclipse in order to prove that the celestial bodies were round, not flat. This was actually an extension of the reasoning of Jing Fang and other theorists as early as the Han Dynasty. In his Dream Pool Essays of 1088 AD, Shen related a conversation he had with the director of the Astronomical Observatory, who had asked Shen if the shapes of the sun and the moon were round like balls or flat like fans. Shen Kuo explained his reasoning for the former:
If they were like balls they would surely obstruct each other when they met. I replied that these celestial bodies were certainly like balls. How do we know this? By the waxing and waning of the moon. The moon itself gives forth no light, but is like a ball of silver; the light is the light of the sun (reflected). When the brightness is first seen, the sun (-light passes almost) alongside, so the side only is illuminated and looks like a crescent. When the sun gradually gets further away, the light shines slanting, and the moon is full, round like a bullet. If half of a sphere is covered with (white) powder and looked at from the side, the covered part will look like a crescent; if looked at from the front, it will appear round. Thus we know that the celestial bodies are spherical.
When he asked Shen Kuo why eclipses occurred only on an occasional basis while in conjunction and opposition once a day, Shen Kuo wrote:
I answered that the ecliptic and the moon's path are like two rings, lying one over the other, but distant by a small amount. (If this obliquity did not exist), the sun would be eclipsed whenever the two bodies were in conjunction, and the moon would be eclipsed whenever they were exactly in position. But (in fact) though they may occupy the same degree, the two paths are not (always) near (each other), and so naturally the bodies do not (intrude) upon one another.
Equipment and innovation
Armillary sphere (渾儀)
The earliest development of the armillary sphere in China goes back to the astronomers Shi Shen and Gan De in the 4th century BC, as they were equipped with a primitive single-ring armillary instrument. This would have allowed them to measure the north polar distance (去極度, the Chinese form of declination) and measurement that gave the position in a hsiu (入宿度, the Chinese form of right ascension).
During the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD), additional developments made by the astronomers Luoxia Hong (落下閎), Xiangyu Wangren, and Geng Shouchang (耿壽昌) advanced the use of the armillary in its early stage of evolution. In 52 BC, it was the astronomer Geng Shou-chang who introduced the first permanently fixed equatorial ring of the armillary sphere. In the subsequent Eastern Han Dynasty (23-220 AD) period, the astronomers Fu An and Jia Kui added the elliptical ring by 84 AD. With the famous statesman, astronomer, and inventor Zhang Heng (78-139 AD), the sphere was totally completed in 125 AD, with horizon and meridian rings. It is of great importance to note that the world's first hydraulic (i.e., water-powered) armillary sphere was created by Zhang Heng, who operated his by use of an inflow clepsydra clock (see Zhang's article for more detail).
Abridged armilla (簡儀)
Designed by famous astronomer Guo Shoujing in 1276 AD, it solved most problems found in armillary spheres at that time.
The primary structure of abridged armilla contains two large rings that are perpendicular to each other, of which one is parallel with the equatorial plane and is accordingly called "equatorial ring", and the other is a double ring that is perpendicular to the center of the equatorial ring, revolving around a metallic shaft, and is called "right ascension double ring".
The double ring holds within itself a sighting tube with crosshairs. When observing, astronomers would aim at the star with the sighting tube, whereupon the star's position could be deciphered by observing the dials of the equatorial ring and the right ascension double ring.
A foreign missionary melted the instrument in 1715 AD. The surviving one was built in 1437 AD and was taken to what is now Germany. It was then stored in a French Embassy in 1900, during the Eight-Nation Alliance. Under the pressure of international public discontent, Germany returned the instrument to China. In 1933, it was placed in Purple Mountain Observatory, which prevented it from being destroyed in the Japanese invasion. In the 1980s, it had become seriously eroded and rusted down and was nearly destroyed. In order to restore the device, the Nanjing government spent 11 months to repair it.
Celestial globe (渾象) before Qing Dynasty
Besides star maps, the Chinese also made celestial globes, which show stars' positions like a star map and can present the actual sky at a specific time. Because of its Chinese name, it is often confused with the armillary sphere, which is just one word different in Chinese (渾象 vs. 渾儀).
According to records, the first celestial globe was made by Geng Shou-chang (耿壽昌) between 70 BC and 50 BC. In the Ming Dynasty, the celestial globe at that time was a huge globe, showing the 28 mansions, celestial equator and ecliptic. None of them have survived.
Celestial globe (天體儀) in the Qing Dynasty
Celestial globes were named 天體儀 ("Miriam celestial bodies") in the Qing Dynasty. The one in Beijing Ancient Observatory was made by Belgian missionary Ferdinand Verbiest (南懷仁) in 1673 AD. Unlike other Chinese celestial globes, it employs 360 degrees rather than the 365.24 degrees (which is a standard in ancient China). It is also the first Chinese globe that shows constellations near to the Celestial South Pole.
The water-powered armillary sphere and celestial globe tower (水運儀象台)
The inventor of the hydraulic-powered armillary sphere was Zhang Heng (78-139 AD) of the Han Dynasty. Zhang was well known for his brilliant applications of mechanical gears, as this was one of his most impressive inventions (alongside his seismograph to detect the cardinal direction of earthquakes that struck hundreds of miles away).
Started by Su Song (蘇頌) and his colleagues in 1086 AD and finished in 1092 AD, his large astronomical clock tower featured an armillary sphere (渾儀), a celestial globe (渾象) and a mechanical chronograph. It was operated by an escapement mechanism and the earliest known chain drive. However, 35 years later, the invading Jurchen army dismantled the tower in 1127 AD upon taking the capital of Kaifeng. The armillary sphere part was brought to Beijing, yet the tower was never successfully reinstated, not even by Su Song's son.
Fortunately, two versions of Su Song's treatise written on his clock tower have survived the ages, so that studying his astronomical clock tower is made possible through medieval texts.
True north and planetary motion
The polymath Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) was not only the first in history to describe the magnetic-needle compass, but also made a more accurate measurement of the distance between the polestar and true north that could be used for navigation. Shen achieved this by making nightly astronomical observations along with his colleague Wei Pu, using Shen's improved design of a wider sighting tube that could be fixed to observe the polestar indefinitely. Along with the polestar, Shen Kuo and Wei Pu also established a project of nightly astronomical observation over a period of five successive years, an intensive work that would even rival the later work of Tycho Brahe in Europe. Shen Kuo and Wei Pu charted the exact coordinates of the planets on a star map for this project and created theories of planetary motion, including retrogradation.
Indian astronomy reached China with the expansion of Buddhism during the Later Han dynasty (25–220 CE). Further translation of Indian works on astronomy was completed in China by the Three Kingdoms era (220–265 CE). However, the most detailed incorporation of Indian astronomy occurred only during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when a number of Chinese scholars—such as Yi Xing—were versed both in Indian and Chinese astronomy. A system of Indian astronomy was recorded in China as Jiuzhi-li (718 CE), the author of which was an Indian by the name of Qutan Xida—a translation of Devanagari Gotama Siddha—the director of the Tang dynasty's national astronomical observatory.
The astronomical table of sines by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhatan was translated into the Chinese astronomical and mathematical book Treatise on Astrology of the Kaiyuan Era (Kaiyuan Zhanjing), compiled in 718 AD during the Tang Dynasty. The Kaiyuan Zhanjing was compiled by Gautama Siddha, an astronomer and astrologer born in Chang'an, and whose family was originally from India. He was also notable for his translation of the Navagraha calendar into Chinese.
Islamic astronomers were brought to China in order to work on calendar making and astronomy during the Mongol Empire and the succeeding Yuan Dynasty. The Chinese scholar Yeh-lu Chu'tsai accompanied Genghis Khan to Persia in 1210 and studied their calendar for use in the Mongol Empire. Kublai Khan brought Iranians to Beijing to construct an observatory and an institution for astronomical studies.
Several Chinese astronomers worked at the Maragheh observatory, founded by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in 1259 under the patronage of Hulagu Khan in Persia. One of these Chinese astronomers was Fu Mengchi, or Fu Mezhai. In 1267, the Persian astronomer Jamal ad-Din, who previously worked at Maragha observatory, presented Kublai Khan with seven Persian astronomical instruments, including a terrestrial globe and an armillary sphere, as well as an astronomical almanac, which was later known in China as the Wannian Li ("Ten Thousand Year Calendar" or "Eternal Calendar"). He was known as "Zhamaluding" in China, where, in 1271, he was appointed by Khan as the first director of the Islamic observatory in Beijing, known as the Islamic Astronomical Bureau, which operated alongside the Chinese Astronomical Bureau for four centuries. Islamic astronomy gained a good reputation in China for its theory of planetary latitudes, which did not exist in Chinese astronomy at the time, and for its accurate prediction of eclipses.
Some of the astronomical instruments constructed by the famous Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing shortly afterwards resemble the style of instrumentation built at Maragheh. In particular, the "simplified instrument" (jianyi) and the large gnomon at the Gaocheng Astronomical Observatory show traces of Islamic influence. While formulating the Shoushili calendar in 1281, Shoujing's work in spherical trigonometry may have also been partially influenced by Islamic mathematics, which was largely accepted at Kublai's court. These possible influences include a pseudo-geometrical method for converting between equatorial and ecliptic coordinates, the systematic use of decimals in the underlying parameters, and the application of cubic interpolation in the calculation of the irregularity in the planetary motions.
Emperor Taizu (r. 1368-1398) of the Ming Dynasty (1328–1398), in the first year of his reign (1368), conscripted Han and non-Han astrology specialists from the astronomical institutions in Beijing of the former Mongolian Yuan to Nanjing to become officials of the newly established national observatory.
That year, the Ming government summoned for the first time the astronomical officials to come south from the upper capital of Yuan. There were fourteen of them. In order to enhance accuracy in methods of observation and computation, Emperor Taizu reinforced the adoption of parallel calendar systems, the Han and the Hui. In the following years, the Ming Court appointed several Hui astrologers to hold high positions in the Imperial Observatory. They wrote many books on Islamic astronomy and also manufactured astronomical equipment based on the Islamic system.
The translation of two important works into Chinese was completed in 1383: Zij (1366) and al-Madkhal fi Sina'at Ahkam al-Nujum, Introduction to Astrology (1004).
Around 1384, during the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the Chinese translation and compilation of Islamic astronomical tables, a task that was carried out by the scholars Mashayihei, a Muslim astronomer, and Wu Bozong, a Chinese scholar-official. These tables came to be known as the Huihui Lifa (Muslim System of Calendrical Astronomy), which was published in China a number of times until the early 18th century, though the Qing Dynasty had officially abandoned the tradition of Chinese-Islamic astronomy in 1659.
Jesuit activity in China
The introduction of Western science to China by Jesuit priest astronomers was a mixed blessing during the late 16th century and early 17th century.
The telescope was introduced to China in the early 17th century. The telescope was first mentioned in Chinese writing by Emanuel Diaz (Yang MaNuo), who wrote his Tian Wen Lüe in 1615. In 1626, Johann Adam Schall von Bell (Tang Ruowang) published the Chinese treatise on the telescope known as the Yuan Jing Shuo (The Far-Seeing Optic Glass). The Chongzhen Emperor (明思宗, 1627–1644) of the Ming Dynasty acquired the telescope of Johannes Terrentius (or Johann Schreck; Deng Yu-han) in 1634, ten years before the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. However, the impact on Chinese astronomy was limited.
The Jesuit China missions of the 16th and 17th centuries brought Western astronomy, then undergoing its own revolution, to China. After the Galileo affair early in the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Jesuit order was required to adhere to geocentrism and ignore the heliocentric teachings of Copernicus and his followers, even though they were becoming standard in European astronomy. Thus, the Jesuits shared an Earth-centered and largely pre-Copernican astronomy with their Chinese hosts (i.e., the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian views from Hellenistic times). The Chinese were often fundamentally opposed to this as well, since the Chinese had long believed (from the ancient doctrine of Xuan Ye) that the celestial bodies floated in a void of infinite space. This contradicted the Aristotelian view of solid concentric crystalline spheres, where there was not a void, but a mass of air between the heavenly bodies.
Of course, the views of Copernicus, Galileo, and Tycho Brahe would eventually triumph in European science, and these ideas slowly leaked into China despite Jesuit efforts to curb them in the beginning. In 1627, the Polish Jesuit Michael Boym (Bu Mige) introduced Johannes Kepler's Copernican Rudolphine Tables with much enthusiasm to the Ming court at Beijing. In Adam Schall von Bell's Chinese-written treatise of Western astronomy in 1640, the names of Copernicus (Ge-Bai-Ni), Galileo (Jia-li-lüe), and Tycho Brahe (Di-gu) were formally introduced to China. There were also Jesuits in China who were in favor of the Copernican theory, such as Nicholas Smogulecki and Wenceslaus Kirwitzer. However, Copernican views were not widespread or wholly accepted in China during this time.
Ferdinand Augustin Hallerstein (Liu Songling) created the first spherical astrolabe as the Head of the Imperial Astronomical Bureau from 1739 until 1774. The former Beijing Astronomical observatory, now a museum, still hosts the armillary sphere with rotating rings, which was made under Hallerstein’s leadership and is considered the most prominent astronomical instrument.
While in Japan, the Dutch aided the Japanese with the first modern observatory of Japan in 1725, headed by Nakane Genkei, whose observatory of astronomers wholly accepted the Copernican view. In contrast, the Copernican view was not accepted in mainstream China until the early 19th century, with the Protestant missionaries such as Joseph Edkins, Alex Wylie, and John Fryer.
Famous Chinese astronomers
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- ^ Ho, Peng Yoke. (2000). Li, Qi, and Shu: An Introduction to Science and Civilization in China, p. 105. Mineola: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-41445-0.
- ^ Yunli Shi (January 2003), "The Korean Adaptation of the Chinese-Islamic Astronomical Tables", Archive for History of Exact Sciences (Springer) 57 (1): 25–60 , doi:10.1007/s00407-002-0060-z, ISSN 1432-0657
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- Sun Xiaochun, "Crossing the Boundaries Between Heaven and Man: Astronomy in Ancient China" in Astronomy Across Cultures: The History of Non-Western Astronomy, edited by H. Selin, pp. 423–454. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000.
- Chan Ki-hung: Chinese Ancient Star Map, Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 2002, ISBN 962-7054-09-7
- Gems of the ancient Chinese astronomy relics, ISBN 962-7797-03-0
- The Mathematics of the Chinese Calendary by Helmar Aslaksen
- Copernicus in China by Nathan Sivin
- Boundaries Crossing: Western Astronomy in Confucian China, 1600-1800 by Pingyi Chu
- Homepage of the National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences
- Chinese Ancient Astronomy
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- Chinese astronomy at the University of Maine
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