Beginnings of indian and chinese calendrical astronomy.

Author:Parpola, Asko
Position:Essay
 
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A purely lunar calendar is out of step with the seasons, so the Muslim Ramadan circulates around the year. A solar calendar is needed to determine the seasons. Ancient astronomers therefore observed the changing position of the sun on its heavenly path, the ecliptic. In Egypt and the Near East they looked directly for which star the sun rises with. In this heliacal observation the star is visible very briefly. The Chinese and Indian astronomers therefore resorted to luni-solar observation. When the moon is full, it is exactly opposite the sun. Calendar asterisms were chosen so that they form opposing pairs (cf. Filliozat 1962: 350). The sun's stellar position could then be seen easily from the full moon's conjunction with the opposing star. Selecting twenty-seven or twenty-eight marking stars made it possible to label also the days of the month, as the moon had a different lodge each day of its monthly journey.

The Indian and Chinese star calendars sharing these fundamental structures have long been thought to have a common origin, but their source has been much debated (cf. Needham 1959: 184,252-59). Both calendars begin with the Pleiades, suggesting that their rise with the sun at the vernal equinox started the New Year. This astronomical event took place in the second half of the third millennium B.C.E. (cf. Needham 1959: 245-46). But Indian texts mentioning calendar stars date from just about 1000 B.C.E. In China the oldest date could be about 1300 B.C.E., when oracle bone inscriptions mention asterisms later marking the quadrants of the year, such as the "Bird star" identified with the later "Red Bird."

This was the situation in 1959 when Joseph Needham published the astronomy volume of his Science and Civilization in China. Archaeological discoveries made thereafter in China now make it probable that the Chinese started developing their calendar independently of others in the early third millennium B.C.E. From a tomb dated to 433 B.C.E. we now have the earliest list of all the twenty-eight hsiu constellations on the cover of a lacquered wooden

This paper was read at the 223rd Annual Meeting of the American Oriental Society in Portland, Oregon, 17 March 2013. It is published here with minimal changes; only some annotation has been added. A much extended version, with detailed documentation and illustrations, has been published in the meanwhile with the title "Beginnings of Indian Astronomy, with Reference to a Parallel Development in China" in the open access on-line journal History of Science in South Asia (HSSA) 1(2013): 21-78; it can be downloaded at http://hssa.sayahna.org/. I would like to thank David Pankenier for his generous help with early Chinese astronomy. box. The star names are written in seal script around the large character dou denoting "Ursa Major." The names are flanked by two images, the tiger of the west and the dragon of the east, animals associated with the autumnal and vernal equinoxes (cf. Pan.kenier 2013: 133 fig. 4.3). In a Neolithic Yangshao culture elite tomb excavated in 1987, the south-north oriented corpse was flanked by two large shell mosaic images depicting a tiger and a dragon or crocodile (cf. Pankenier 2013: 39 fig. 2.1).

Because opposing asterisms can only be found with the help of circumpolar stars, which are always in the sky. the Pole Star and Ursa Major play a dominant role in Chinese astronomy and cosmology (cf. Needham 1959: 230). Besides astral palaces of the quadrants, the Chinese distinguish a fifth, central palace, a celestial archetype cosmically empowering the Emperor. 500 B.C.E. Confucius (Lunyu 2,1) equates the King with the -Northern Asterism," which "occupies its place, while all other stars...

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