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Book Review

THE CHINESE SKY DURING THE HAN: Constellating Stars and Society
By Sun Xiaochun and Jacob Kistemaker

[Series: Sinica Leidensia, volume 38]


Published by Brill (1997)

Retail Price: EUR 108; US$ 160.
ISBN: 9789004107373 - 244 Pages, 31 figures, 12 illustrations, 8 tables

Reviewed by Gavin White


This book is a significant contribution to the study of ancient astronomy and astrology. It opens up a whole new world of knowledge, unfamiliar to the majority of western academics and researchers, that will prove to be a reliable foundation stone for innumerable future studies.

Its importance relies on two main factors. Firstly, through the process of reviewing and analysing all the historical materials at their disposal, the authors have succeeded in making a trustworthy reconstruction of the ancient Chinese constellation map. Secondly, and perhaps of greater importance to the wider study of ancient astrology, it investigates the origins and meanings of the Chinese constellations. From a cultural and historical point of view this is of inestimable value, as the constellations reveal so much about the society that created them. This aspect of the book is truly fascinating as the authors attempt to describe the overall structure of the heavens and how man-made meanings are ascribed to this structure in the form of constellation groupings. In both aspects 'The Chinese Sky during the Han' proves itself a groundbreaking study.

The Han Period [206 BCE to 220 CE] was a seminal epoch in Chinese history; it could rightly be called China's 'Classical Age. During this era all the familiar elements of traditional Chinese culture - the Yin-Yang philosophy, the theory of the 5 elements, Heaven and Earth, Confucian morality - were brought together for the first time to form the philosophical foundations of all the sciences and arts of the day. Thus the underlying principles of Chinese medicine and divination, astrology and alchemy, were all formalised during this brief but dazzling era.

The historical evidence actually indicates that many of the traditional constellations were first created in the earlier Warring States period [476-221 BCE]. During this time of social and political upheaval several different schools of stellar cartography grew up, each with its own constellations and traditions. Sadly much of this material is irretrievably lost - for instance the star-lore of the Hairen or Marine People, which might have told us so much about the use of the stars in ancient navigation. The Warring States period was eventually ended by the political ascent of Qin Shi Huangdi who was the first emperor to unify China (he incidentally lent his first name 'Qin' to the whole country). It was only in the succeeding Han period that the different schools of constellation lore were unified into a coherent system.

In all some 283 constellations were recognised in traditional Chinese astronomy. This rather daunting figure (in comparison with the 48 traditional Greek constellations) is fortunately resolved into what we may call primary and secondary groupings. The primary organisation of the heavens, attributed to the school of Shi Shen, divided the heavens into 120 constellations. These were then complimented by two further astronomic schools (the schools of Gan De and Wuxian) that filled out the intervening spaces with supplementary asterisms that harmoniously developed the ideas expressed in the original scheme of Shi Shen. The combined infrastructure created by the three schools constitutes the cultural bedrock upon which the edifice of Chinese astrology was built. It reveals, in a surprisingly intimate and instructive way, the very essence of the refined and articulate culture that created it.

The constellations were thought of as Celestial Officials, who like their earthly counterparts had specific functions and duties in their administrative spheres. The rationale underpinning Chinese astrology is very similar to the Mesopotamian model - rulers believed that they held a mandate from heaven to rule over the earth, heaven would send them good and bad signs such as eclipses, comets, meteorite showers etc to warn the king, and it was the duty of astrologers to explain to their rulers what the heavens portended by such signs.

Outside of academic circles, 'The Chinese Sky during the Han', is only for the serious researcher, who will find therein a wealth of fascinating information. It presents a detailed picture of an integrated ideological construction transposed onto the stars. This book is a significant step in our understanding of the Chinese heavens and it further fully affirms the importance of ancient astronomy and astrology in broader historical studies.

Chapter one is a general survey of Chinese astronomy and serves as an introduction to the methods and materials utilised in the main body of the book. It discusses the basic nature of the constellations as seasonal markers, and as a historical phenomenon in their own right and finally as a cultural expression reflecting the cosmological and philosophical views of their creators.

Chapter two comprises a very useful survey of the history of the constellations in ancient China. Starting with the very earliest star-gazers in the latter half of the 3rd millennium who used the Four Cardinal Asterisms to determine the solstices and equinoxes the authors go on to describe the early appearance of asterisms belonging to the Chinese Lunar Mansions. Even though the first complete set of 28 mansions can only be dated to the 5th century BCE, there is sufficient evidence to show they originated many centuries earlier. Throughout the book the authors wisely avoid searching for the origins of the lunar mansions and their relationship to other series; instead they focus on their symbolism and use in astrology. The authors then describe the first systematic exposition of the heavens, called the Tianguan shu or 'Monograph of Celestial Officials'. This seminal text written by Sima Qian (145-87 BCE), the Prefect Grand astrologer who organised the great calendar reform of Emperor Wu, describes the stars in terms of a centralised imperial court located in the northern regions that ruled over the outer provinces which were represented by the more southerly constellations.

Chapter three describes in greater detail the stars recognised in the primary model traditionally ascribed to the astrologer Shi Shen. Like many traditional literary works, the writings of Shi Shen have been supplemented and expanded upon over the succeeding centuries. Even though Shi Shen probably lived in the earlier Warring States period many of his 'quotations' bear the indelible mark of the Han period. The final redactions of Shi Shen's work, dated to the last centuries of the 1st millennium CE, form the material basis of the authors first comprehensive reconstruction of the Chinese heavens - resulting in a series of five star maps that correlate the Chinese constellations with their Greek equivalents.

Chapter four details the later development of the two secondary schools of constellation lore. These are traditionally attributed to the astrologers Gan De and Wuxian - the former being a rather vague historical figure and the latter probably entirely mythical. By tradition their respective schools added a further 118 and 44 constellations to the original 120 recognised by Shi Shen.

Chapters five and six are the most accessible and the most interesting for astrologers. Chapter five explores the idea that the stars and constellations are organised as an imperial court. At the centre lies the royal court, which is transposed onto the polar stars. Around it, set in various buildings, can be found the court's bureaucratic organisations busily running all celestial affairs on behalf of their masters. Elsewhere various military buildings and even armies are depicted among the stars; they are chiefly deployed in the more outlying areas represented by the constellations of the southern skies.

Understandably parts of the ecliptic are likened to a road with its gates and passes, and there are celestial rivers, the greatest being the Milky Way cascading through the skies, boats and all. Woven into this geo-political matrix are various themes concerning the social and religious life of the people and of course imagery reflecting the passing of the seasons. Like their Greek counterparts the Chinese also placed gods and legendary figures among the stars as well as mystical concepts such as Santai, the ladder to heaven (found in the region of Ursa Major's feet). The whole complex far from being a daunting array of information starts to be resolved into clear structures informed by an elegant philosophical rationale. As the authors say 'we see an entire cultural complex projected onto the sky, characterising an imperial society' (page 96).

Chapter six explores the several large-scale organisational features found in the Chinese heavens. One of the principle structures divides the stars into Five Palaces based on the sun's annual journey through the four cardinal palaces and the fifth central palace in the north. Other areas of the skies are dominated by seasonal activities such as hunting and harvesting. There also appears to be a strict social hierarchy displayed in the stars as the army, largely drawing its personnel from the peasantry, seem to be deliberately placed in the lower, less 'dignified', regions of the skies, whereas the imperial court lies in the exalted regions of the northern skies.

The three appendices list the names of all the constellations found in the three schools alongside a brief description of their nature and meaning. This constitutes a veritable mine of previously difficult to obtain information that will prove essential to the deeper study of the Chinese heavens.

At the very end of the book the authors present a set of constellation maps that details the locations of the constellations belonging to all three schools.

This study allows scholars and researchers to explore a detailed and coherent system of celestial lore from a variety of perspectives - from its seasonal symbolism to its astrological applications and on to its philosophical and cultural basis. It would certainly prove to be an excellent source for any cross-cultural study of the heavens and in particular it will prove very helpful in investigating the undoubted links between early Chinese astronomy and the ancient astronomies of India, Egypt and Mesopotamia.


Gavin White
December, 2009



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More recent reviews:
   Campion: Astrology and Popular Religion in the Modern West
Graves: From Sibley to Simmonite
Kolev: The Babylonian Astrolabe: the Calendar of Creation
Holden: Biographical Dictionary of Western Astrologers
Nasser: Under One Sky
White: Three books by Gavin White: Babylonian Star-Lore, The Queen of Heaven, Queen of the Night

All Reviews
       
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