’art & soul
The Chinese sky

In ancient China, there was not only deep interest in knowing what was up there in that heavenly vault but also how those stars governed life on Earth

Not long ago, in March of the present year, in fact, an intriguing news item appeared in many papers, picking up from the Chinese television. Some people in China, it said, had reported seeing two suns in the sky, almost next to each other, "one fuzzy and orange, the other a crisp yellow orb". Scientists immediately set to work, and explanations started pouring in. It could be "the result of optical refraction", one said; another one, finding the phenomenon equally puzzling, wrote that "it would require certain very peculiar conditions indeed for particles in the air to refract the sunlight in such a way as to make the image appear as it did." And so on.

Knowing virtually nothing about science, and even less about the sky, I am completely at sea, able to state only that I find the whole thing truly intriguing. But then, knowing that this happened in China, one can keep wondering about it for a long time: like the rest of the world.

The one thing that the strange news item did, however, was to lead me towards trying and learning a bit more about the Chinese sky, in general and, almost as a corollary of that, about the Chinese signs of the zodiac. It is a fascinating area, raising thoughts about similarities — and differences — between the way ancient Indians saw and spoke of the sky and the way the Chinese did. The IDP — this stands for the remarkably widely-based International Dunhuang Project, which has been researching the Buddhist cave library near the oasis town of Dunhuang in western China: sealed and hidden at the end of the first millennium AD and only re-discovered in 1900 — published some time back a volume on the Chinese Sky during the Han period.

A visual representation of the Chinese Sky, with the animals of the four cardinal points, and the constellations, visually represented
A visual representation of the Chinese Sky, with the animals of the four cardinal points, and the constellations, visually represented

Based as it was on an analysis of the first star catalogue prepared some 2000 years back, it contained absorbing details: for instance, the fact that the sky as studied by Han astronomers featured five times the number of constellations that the west generally spoke of. Those constellations had figured in the work of Ptolemy: that greatly respected mathematician, astronomer, geographer and poet, who wrote, in the second century, scientific treatises of enormous value, including a definitive work on astronomy. Also in the Han reconstruction was outlined a systematic cosmology, uniting universe and the state. Clearly, in ancient China, there was not only deep interest in knowing what was up there in that heavenly vault, but lives were governed by it.

Astronomy and astrology had come to be very closely related. The belief was strong that events in the sky did not only directly reflect events on earth but influenced them. Thus, if a comet suddenly appeared in the sky, it was believed that some event of grave importance, like a war, was about to happen on earth. In the entire scheme of things, the Emperor — the Son of Heaven in all Chinese eyes — had received the mandate, "the right to rule’, from Heaven itself. It was vital, therefore, that he should be able to predict the movements of the sky accurately. For this, he had a team of astronomers, who were constantly at work, watching the sky very closely and keeping precise records of the movements of the stars and planets, recording events such as the appearance of comets and the eclipses of the sun and the moon. The royal astronomers were also responsible for producing the calendar each year — no one else had the permission to calculate one — a document commonly known as an almanac, which foretold major events in the sky, and therefore on the earth.

The details of how the sky was seen, and graphically represented, are complex but striking. Broadly, the Chinese sky was seen as divided into five great regions or palaces, four equated with the directions North, South, East and West; but also a fifth: the middle region. The middle region was in many ways the most important for, among its stars, it housed the celestial image of the emperor surrounded by his family and civil and military officials. In all senses, there was in the sky a reflection of life on earth.

The constellations were grouped in the four directions, each associated with an animal and a colour. The animals had mystical and mythical dimensions, and they held court over not only the directions of the earth, but also over the seasons of the year. Thus, the Black Tortoise represented and continues to represent both north and the winter; the Blue Dragon represents both east and spring; the Red Bird represents the south and summer; and the White Tiger the west and autumn. Then, there are the associations with the elements as the Chinese regard them: the Tortoise with water, the Dragon with wood, the Bird with fire, and the Tiger with metal.

One can go on like this, for it is all very absorbing, and very complex, sophisticated. But the roots of all these beliefs, these calculations, go back a long, long time. And it is not easy for an outsider to understand them. But lives of millions continue to be governed by them. And everyone is aware of what is the year that has dawned. The animals in the Chinese zodiac are different from those in the western zodiac, and the years are named after them. The 12 animals being dog, pig, rooster, dragon, ox, sheep, horse, rabbit, snake, monkey, rat and tiger, the years are designated after each of them in turn: thus, the Year of the Dog, the Year of the Pig, and so on. Predictions are made according to this, year after year. The cycle keeps moving.


Should anyone here be interested, now, in the year 2011, we are living in the Year of the Rabbit, in fact of the Golden Rabbit. And the Rabbit, fourth in the cycle of 12, is a lucky sign.