WHILE the Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy were cataloguing the stars as
seen from the Mediterranean and dividing them into the patterns that we still
know today, Chinese astronomers were developing a completely different
celestial tradition in the far east. If China can be said to have an equivalent
of Ptolemy and the star catalogue in the Almagest, it would be Chen Zhuo (c. AD 220–280) and the list of over 1400 stars that he compiled. Chen himself post-dates
Ptolemy by a century, but in his unnamed catalogue he collated observations by
Chinese astronomers who worked several centuries before him, earlier even than
the Greek Hipparchus.
As in the west, different sets of constellations were invented by different
astronomers, although in China the final selection was fixed much earlier. Chen’s catalogue was a synthesis of the work of three previous authorities and their
respective followers: Shi Shen and Gan De, who both lived around 300 BC; and Wuxian (or Wu Xian), whose dates are completely uncertain and who might
even have been fictional. Shi Shen and his school is credited with 93
constellations, Gan De with 118, and Wuxian with 44, giving a total of 255.
Most of these constellations consisted of only a handful of stars, and some were
just a single star; very few of the ancient Chinese constellations contained
more than a dozen stars. There were no later additions to the Chinese
constellation pantheon after Chen’s time, although some of the existing ones were modified.
Additional to these 255 star groups, and predating them, were 28 ancient
divisions of the ecliptic known as xiu (formerly transliterated as hsiu), or mansions, as listed in the table below. These were vertical strips of sky
that acted as markers for following the nightly progress of the Moon as it
orbited the Earth each month, like a kind of zodiac, thereby providing the
basis for a lunar calendar. Since the names of these mansions are so old, the
origin and meaning of many of them is no longer understood.
Unlike the 12 houses of the zodiac familiar to western astrologers the 28 xiu were not equally spaced but varied considerably in width, from a mere 2° (Zi, the 20th mansion) to 33° (Jing, the 22nd), and stretched from pole to pole. Each xiu was named after a constellation within it, not necessarily on the ecliptic – another difference from western zodiacal constellations, all of which lie on the
Although Chen Zhuo’s original catalogue was lost some time in the 6th century, we know from later
works that it contained 1464 stars, over 400 more than the Almagest. When we talk of the Chinese sky and Chinese constellations, it is this
blending of the three traditions of Shi Shen, Gan De, and Wuxian with the 28 xiu of the zodiac that we mean, giving a total of 283 constellations. What’s more, the Chinese system spread to Japan and Korea, so Chen’s catalogue and the maps made from it are the basis of a more general
far-eastern tradition. This combined set of constellations remained in use
until the early 17th century, when western constellations were introduced by
Jesuit missionaries such as Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666).
Chinese star charts
When Chinese celestial cartographers came to depict the sky, they at first used
different colours to distinguish the constellations of the three different
schools. Around AD 440 the Chinese astronomer Qian Lezhi made a bronze celestial globe (some
describe it as a planisphere rather than a globe) on which the stars attributed
to Shi Shen were shown in red, those of Gan De in black, and those of Wuxian in
white (open circles). China was also the source of the first star charts on
paper, the oldest known example being the Dunhuang chart, now thought to date from the mid to late 7th century AD.
Since Chinese constellations were symbolic, rather than pictorial as in the
West, their member stars were usually not identified with any precision and
could change over time. Hence there is considerable variance in the depiction
and interpretation of Chinese constellations from different eras. These
differences can be confusing and frustrating to anyone trying to reconstruct
the Chinese sky.
Adding to the difficulty of identification is that Chinese astronomers made no
attempt to convey the relative brightnesses of the stars by the sizes of the
individual dots on their charts. This lack of interest in star magnitudes is
characteristic of all Chinese (and Korean) star charts, and reveals an
uncomfortable truth: they are primarily a canvas for the ruminations of
astrologers, rather than a blueprint of the sky for scientific purposes. Chinese Emperors were considered to rule under a
mandate from heaven, but this mandate could be revoked if they ruled badly; signs of heavenly
displeasure would, it was thought, be seen in the form of celestial phenomena
such as eclipses, comets, and ‘new’ stars (novae). So it was important for the Emperor and his advisors to know
what such events meant whenever they occurred.
Given the various depictions and interpretations of constellations to be found
in Oriental treatises down the ages, it seems that the size and shape of each
constellation, as well as its significance, could be moulded at will to suit
the requirements of the individual practitioner. By the time this Korean star chart, the Cheonsang yeolcha bunya jido, was drawn at the end of the 14th century,
constellation shapes had become so stylized as to be almost meaningless
The Chinese divided the zodiacal region of the sky into four quarters, as shown
at the right (click on it to see the original on the British Library’s website). Each quarter was associated with a cardinal point of the compass and
with a season, and each was given the name of a mythical creature. Confusingly,
there is more than one possible translation for several of the names, since
they are very ancient and the original meanings are now uncertain. Each quarter
contains 7 of the 28
xiu, or lunar mansions. The four sections of the sky are as follows:
1. The Blue (or Azure) Dragon of the east, cang long or qing long (its colour is sometimes described as green rather than blue); associated with
spring. It consists of stars in the modern constellations Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, and Sagittarius. The dragon’s heart was represented by what the Chinese called the fire star, Huo – the modern Antares.
4. The Black Tortoise (or Turtle) of the north, xuan wu, associated with winter. It is also known as the Black Warrior because the
tortoise’s shell resembles a suit of armour. To add to the confusion, the tortoise is
depicted with a large snake wrapped around it. The Black Tortoise was formed
from stars in Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pegasus.
These four divisions were later extended into a system of five celestial
palaces, the additional fifth section being the circumpolar region known as the
Purple Palace or Central Palace which incorporated Ursa Minor and parts of Camelopardalis, Draco, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia. This circumpolar
region symbolized the central authority of the Emperor and hence was the most
exalted of all.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved