Early Chinese Astronomy

 China has a very long history of Astronomy. Their early astronomers discovered Eclipses 


and novae They recorded this information on oracle bones   (turtle shells) as far back as the 2nd millennium BC.

Detailed records of astronomical observations were kept from about the 6th century BC until the introduction of Western astronomy and the telescope in the 16th century. The practice of astronomy in China was fundamentally changed by extended contact with Western astronomy. Today, China continues to be active in astronomy, with many observatories and its own space program

Seen Below is an ancient Chinese star map.

The early astronomers observed the cosmos for the purpose of timekeeping.  The Chinese used a lunisolar  calendar , but because the cycles of the Sun and the Moon are different, intercalation had to be done.

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. (Divination is the attempt to ascertain information by interpreting omens or supposed supernatural entities.  

Astronomers took careful note of "guest stars" which suddenly appeared among the fixed stars. The supernova that created the Crab Nebula in 1054 is an example of a guest star observed by Chinese and Arab astronomers. Their European counterparts had not yet discovered it. 

Ancient astronomical records of phenomena like supernovae 

 and comets are sometimes used in modern astronomical studies.

The Chinese lunisolar calendar known as the civil calendar, used in official records since at least the 10th century BC consisted of 12 months each of 29 or 30 days.

Each month began on a new moon. (The moon and its phases are seen on the left.) Because of various cosmic anomalies adjustments had to be made to the calendar every 60 years.

The various early calendars differed mainly in the day on which the year began.  By 104 bce it had been settled that the year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice.

The introduction of Western science to China by Jesuit priest astronomers occurred during the late 16th century and early 17th century.



Chinese constellations

Early Chinese astronomers devised a way of dividing the sky into 4 separate quadrants beginning with the Northern Dipper and the 28 mansions.

The 28 lunar mansions refer to how Chinese astronomers divided the sky into four regions, each assigned with an animal, they are Azure Dragon (青龍) on the east


, Black Tortoise (玄武) on the north


, White Tiger (白虎) on the west


 and Vermilion Bird (朱雀) on the south.


 Each region contains seven mansions, totaling 28.

In early 1980s, a tomb was found at Xi Shui Po (西水坡) in Pu Yang, Henan Province. There were some clamshells and bones forming the images of the Azure Dragon, the White Tiger and the Northern Dipper. It is believed that the tomb belongs to the Neolithic Age, about 6,000 years ago.

Besides 28 lunar mansions, most constellations are based on the works of Shi Shen-fu and Gan De, who were astrologists during the period of Warring States (481 BC - 221 BC) in China.

In the late period of the Ming Dynasty, the agricultural scientist and mathematician Xu Guangqi (1562 - 1633 AD) introduced 23 additional constellations which are near to the Celestial South Pole 


, which are based on star catalogues from the West (see Matteo Ricci,1582). 


Famous Chinese astronomers

Inventions in early Chinese Astronomy

Armillary sphere http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armillary_sphere

 Chinese Celestial Sphere http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_globe

Beijing Ancient Observatory http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing_Ancient_Observatory