The Dunhuang star chart
This chart, drawn on a long paper scroll, was found in Buddhist caves near
Dunhuang on the Silk Road trade route. The caves had been sealed around AD 1000 and were not rediscovered by local people until 1900. Inside the caves were
thousands of manuscripts and paintings on paper and silk that had survived
almost unaltered in the dry conditions at the edge of the Gobi desert. The
explorer Marc Aurel Stein visited Dunhuang in 1907 and obtained many
manuscripts, including the star chart, which he sent back to the British
Museum. Despite the chart’s significance, it was not fully studied until very recently.
The 13 panes of the Dunhuang star chart form a near-complete atlas of the
Chinese sky. It reads from right to left and is divided into two here for
convenience of reproduction. Click on the image for an enlargement. © British Library.
The Dunhuang star chart is drawn in pen and ink on a roll of paper 3.9 metres
long and some 24 cm wide. The first third of the scroll is taken up with cloud
shapes and their supposed meanings, a reminder that the Chinese observed the
sky for the purpose of divination rather than pure science. The section of
specific astronomical interest, shown above, is 2.1 metres long. It consists of
12 panels corresponding to the 12 months of the year, with vertical lines of
descriptive text to the left of each panel, plus a north polar chart. Hence it
can be thought of as not simply a chart but a complete atlas consisting of 13
plates. The scroll ends with the depiction of an archer, thought to represent
the god of lightning.
Each of the 12 monthly panels is centred on the celestial equator and extends
from about 50 degrees north to 50 degrees south. The polar chart is centred on
the celestial pole and shows an area from 90 to about 50 degrees north. Despite
a lack of coordinate lines, the placing of the stars is good enough for almost
all of them to be identified. Most likely, though, this is a copy of an earlier
original, and the copy was probably made by tracing since the paper is
semi-transparent, like tracing paper.
Three different styles of dot are used to represent the three different schools
of constellation study. In general, the black dots correspond to Gan De’s constellations, the open circles to those of Wu Xian and the orange dots to
Shi Shen, although the artist has confused the latter two in many cases. The
faintest stars on the chart are around magnitude 6.5, close to the naked-eye
limit under the very best conditions. As with all far-eastern star charts,
there is no attempt to distinguish the brightnesses of the stars with
differently sized dots.
In 2009, a detailed study of the Dunhuang star chart was published by two French
astronomers, Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud and Françoise Praderie, working with Susan Whitfield of the British Library. You can read
it in full here. By their count, the chart contains 1339 stars divided into 257 constellations,
fewer than the number of stars and constellations in Chen Zhuo’s catalogue; why some were left out remains unknown. Various references in the
text and the style of the writing pin down the date of the chart to between AD 649 and 684; although the chart is almost certainly a copy, it was made not
long after the original, in that same era. The star positions, which had been
updated since the time of Chen Zhuo, also point to a date in the mid to late
7th century. Possibly the positions were observed by Li Chunfeng (602–670), a prominent Chinese astronomer of the right era whose name is mentioned in
the text accompanying the maps and who may have been the author of the original
chart from which the Dunhuang manuscript was evidently copied.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved