My family is traveling in China, so my thoughts naturally turn to ancient Chinese astronomy.
Ancient China was for the most part a feudal society. Local areas had rulers of their own, but the whole of China was ruled first by kings and then by semi-divine emperors.
The Chinese people believed that their rulers received their political power from the sky. It thus became important for rulers to know what was going on there.
Most of all, rulers were obliged to keep Earth in harmony with the sky. This “Mandate of Heaven,” as it was called, required a deep understanding of everything above the horizon. The connection between a ruler and the sky eventually took on deep religious significance. The Emperor of China was more than a ruler. He was a god called Tian Zi, the “Son of Heaven.”
As a result, emperors had in their royal retinue a highly regarded advisory staff consisting of astronomers, astrologers and meteorologists.
The astronomers carefully cataloged and mapped the stars and carefully recorded unexpected astronomical events like comets and supernovas, which were called “guest stars.”
Meteorologists carefully recorded the weather because, after all, it is a sky phenomenon as well.
Astrologers were charged with discovering the deeper meaning of sky phenomena and predicting the course of future events based on those astronomical and meteorological events. Conditions in the sky even determined what political and military strategies a ruler should choose for maximum effectiveness.
Although most people today do not agree with astrology in any form, such careful observation of the sky has distinct advantages for present-day astronomy.
Because China is the oldest continuously surviving civilization on the planet, Chinese astronomers have given us the gift of detailed astronomical observations that stretch back 4,000 years.
Here’s a case in point: The Chinese astronomers were the only people to record the supernova of 1054 in the constellation we now call Taurus. When we point a telescope at the place where the supernova flared and then faded to invisibility, we see a cloud of rapidly expanding gas we call the Crab Nebula.
The Chinese divided the sky into star grouping, but they are not constellations in the conventional European sense. The west organizes its constellations around the ecliptic, the path that the sun moves around the sky.
The ancient Chinese astronomers started with the stars closest to Polaris, the Pole star. The stars we call the Big Dipper provide a central point around which the sky is organized.
Around the Big Dipper are 28 “mansions,” each of which reflect some aspect of China’s feudal society.
One or more stars of a given group might represent a god or emperor, who is also a god. Nearby stars symbolize members of the god’s retinue. Those courtiers are arranged around a heavenly throne as if they are waiting for an audience with the Emperor.
The stories connected with the celestial tableaus are usually moral tales. They suggest the right way for us to act in support of the greater good of the culture (or the greater good of the power elite if you wish).
Such is the case for the stars that Americans call the Big Dipper. The bowl of the Dipper is a heavenly throne. Poised in that celestial seat is Wen-chang, the god of literature and learning. Waiting for an audience with the literary god are the stars of the handle of the Dipper. At the end of the handle is Kuan-ti, the god of war. Working inward toward the bowl, Chin-chia (minister of talent), Chu-i (the minister of students), and K’uei (minister of literary affairs) complete the retinue.
Truth is, as an old English teacher, I have a definite affinity for Wen-chang’s celestial circumstance. Chinese culture has always valued learning above all else, and Wen-chang’s responsibility is to foster the love of literature among the people.
To that end, he has lifted K’uei, who stands nearest to him in the sky, from the life of a simple student to the vaunted position of his main and most trusted minister.
Long ago, K’uei passed his literary examinations with the highest score of any student. Every year, the Emperor presented the top student with a golden rose. As the Emperor extended the rose, his gaze fell upon K’uei’s hideously deformed face. The rose fell to the ground and shattered.
In his shame and sorrow, K’uei ran from the throne room and threw himself from a high cliff into the sea.
As a watery death began to claim him, he felt himself lifted up by Ao, a hideous sea monster. Ao carried him all the way to the feat of the Emperor, who appointed him the heavenly minister responsible for looking after the literary affairs of all humanity.
Ao knew a final lesson that K’uei had to learn. The so-called “ugliness” of his face could not hide the gentle beauty of the knowledge that lay behind it. To this day, I am told, students in China who do well on their exams say that they passed those tests “Tu-chun-Ao-t’ou,” standing on Ao’s head.
Chu-i, Mr. Red Coat, is the protector of all students, especially when they have to take examinations. Long ago, a teacher was grading a stack of literary final exams when he placed one of them to the side. The student, he thought, had failed miserably. When the teacher again looked at the exam, it disappeared and was replaced by another stack of papers.
Into the room strode an old man in a red coat. Mr. Red Coat nodded at the teacher as if to say that the student should pass the examination. Realizing that this was a heavenly intervention, the teacher passed the student.
Chin-chia, Mr. Gold Armor, searches the world for talented students who will be asked to study hard and eventually be rewarded with high offices in education and government. When he finds a child blessed with talent, he waves his flag in front of the child’s home, marking the student for future honors. However, Mr. Gold Armor also carries a sword. Woe be unto the gifted child who betrays that inborn talent through lack of effort.
And thus it is that Kuan-ti, the god of war, stands waiting at the end of the line.
Study hard, oh my students. Upon your shoulders sits the fate of our world. Fill that world with your gentle knowledge, unflagging integrity, and quiet strength. Together, let’s keep the god of war waiting a little while longer at the glorious throne of heaven.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.