Astronomy’s impact on Chinese culture

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

Some of the most ancient star stories come not from the Greeks and Romans but ancient China.

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 necessary 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 they called it, 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 a highly regarded advisory staff in their royal entourage. It consisted of astronomers, astrologers, and meteorologists.

The astronomers carefully cataloged and mapped the stars and meticulously recorded unexpected astronomical events like comets and supernovas, collectively called “guest stars.”

Chinese meteorologists carefully recorded the weather because, after all, it is a sky phenomenon as well.

The emperor expected astrologers to discover the deeper meaning of sky phenomena and predict the course of future occurrences 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 regard astrology as a science, its 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: Chinese astronomers recorded a “guest star” in the western constellation Centaurus, the Centaur. The observation is chronicled in the “Book of Later Han,” a history of the Han Dynasty, which stretched from 6-189 CE.

The book describes it this way:

“In the 2nd year of the epoch Zhongping, the 10th month, on the day Guiha, a ‘guest star’ appeared in the middle of the Southern Gate. The size was half a bamboo mat. It displayed various colors, both pleasing and otherwise. It gradually lessened. In the 6th month of the succeeding year, it disappeared.”

The description is remarkable for several reasons. First, it gives an exact date. The epoch, month, and day translate in our modern western calendar to December 7, 185 CE.

Second, the passage describes an exact location. The “guest star” appeared between the stars Epsilon and Alpha in the constellation Centaurus.

Third, the “guest star” must have been enormously bright to appear “half the size of a bamboo mat.” And finally, the star was visible to the unaided eye for eight solid months.

Modern astronomy tells us that there is only one explanation for such an event. The Chinese astronomers provided us with the first description of a supernova in recorded human history.

Here’s another, more-famous example. The Chinese astronomers were the only people to record the supernova of 1054 CE 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 rapidly expanding gas cloud we call the Crab Nebula.

No one knows why such an obvious stellar phenomenon does not appear in European, Arabic, or Persian records. Perhaps nobody was looking up at the time. However, a more likely explanation is a run of cloudy skies in those regions.

The Chinese astronomers were particularly adept at observing another “guest star” category that modern astronomers call comets. They gave those transitory celestial events names like chang xing (“long star”) and zhu xing (“candle-flame star”).

The recorded observations date back to at least 613 BCE. However, the records sometimes refer back to observations long before that. A notable case in point: the Chinese records refer to a sighting of Halley’s Comet in 1059 BCE.

Modern astronomers still use the Chinese records to determine the exact orbits of comets like Halley and the ways that the comets’ orbital paths have changed over the years because of close encounters with Earth and other astronomical objects.

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 sun’s path as it appears to move 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 astronomers organized the sky.

Around the Big Dipper are 28 “mansions,” each of which reflects 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.

The stars of the Dipper’s handle represent governmental officials waiting for an audience with Wen-chang. 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.

As an old English teacher, I have a definite affinity for Wen-chang’s celestial circumstances. The Chinese culture has always valued learning above all else, and Wen-chang’s responsibility is to foster the love of literature.

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 principal 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 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 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 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, protects 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 another stack of papers magically appeared.

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. He asks them to study hard. The emperor would eventually reward them 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, unwavering integrity, and quiet strength. Together, let’s keep the god of war waiting a bit longer at the glorious throne of heaven.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.