ON THE ASTRONOMY OF THE ANCIENT CHINESE
By the Rev, John Chalmers, A.M.
[Extracted from Legge's Chinese Classics,
vol. 3, pt. 1 (1860), appendix, pp.90-103.
Note: The Chinese characters have been omitted from this edition.]
1. The Chinese believed the earth to be a plane surface;—"straight, square, and large,"1 measuring each way about 5,600 le (=1,500 miles), and bounded on the four sides by "the four seas."2 The North sea and the West sea were of course purely imaginary. The earth was motionless, while the sun and the moon and the starry heavens were continually revolving with great rapidity. This is the fixed belief of the Chinese even at the present day. The sun was estimated to be about 15,000 le (=4000 miles) from the earth, and it was supposed that the city of Loh was in "the centre of heaven and earth,"—the middle of the Middle Kingdom.3 In other places the shadow of a perpendicular gnomon was not due north and south at noonday, or else it was too short [p.91] or too long; but here it was not found to deviate in either direction, and its length on midsummer-day was to the length of the gnomon as 16 to 80. The distance assigned to the sun is in fact the earth's radius, and was a natural inference from the plane figure of the earth, taken in connection with the different elevation of the sun in different latitudes. From the same premisses it was also inferred that the shadow would be all awry at noon in places far east or far west of Loh;—those on the east being too near the morning sun, and those on the west too near the evening sun. The following legend may be quoted as illustrative of the supposed nearness of the sun to the earth. "There is a country in the far west, in the place of the setting sun, where every evening the sun goes down with a noise like thunder, and the king of the country leads out a thousand men on the city wall to blow horns and beat gongs and drums, as the only means of keeping little children from being frightened to death by the unearthly roaring of the monster." The writers of the early Han dynasty hesitate not to affirm that the experiment to prove the deviation of the shadow at noon was made with all the necessary apparatus,—clepsydras, gnomons, &c., and found successful. But the clepsydra is not mentioned in any authentic writing of earlier date than the Han; and we may safely conclude that this, as well as some other instruments mentioned by interpreters of the classics, and in the Chow-le, was unknown to the ancient Chinese. The clepsydra is described by Aristotle (b.c. 884-322).
The Chinese have made attempts at various times to calculate the distance of the sidereal heavens. In the History of Tsin the result of a calculation is given with amusing minuteness. It is said: —"By the method of right-angled triangles the distance between heaven and earth was found to be 81,394 le, 30 paces, 6 feet, 3 inches, and 6 tenths!" Another calculator gives 216,781½ le. The diameter of the sun is given by one writer as 1000 le; and he is said to be 7000 le below the heavens (the firmament).
2. "The first calendars of the Greeks were founded on rude observations of the rising and setting of certain stars, as Orion, the Pleiades, Arcturus &c."4 The same may be said of the calendars of the Chinese. Even after Meton and Callippus the Chinese calendar must have been founded on very "rude" observations indeed. During the two centuries and a half embraced by Confucius' History of the later Chow dynasty, the commencement of the year fell back a whole month. This is demonstrable from the dates of the 36 eclipses, of which a list will be found subjoined, and from a variety of references to months, and days of the cycle of 60, which occur throughout the History. It is probable that an error of another month was committed before the fall of the dynasty in the 3d century B.C. The rapid derangement of the months, and consequently of the seasons during this period, however, most probably arose from the adoption of some erroneous system of intercalation, invented to supersede the troublesome observations of the stars from month to month. And the consequence was, that the knowledge of the stars came to be cultivated only for purposes of astrology,—a science in which accuracy is no object. Hence even at the present day, the signs of the zodiac, or the 28 mansions of the moon, are most frequently represented not as they appear now, but as they appeared to Yaou and Shun.5 The earliest account, which has any claim to authenticity, of the stars employed to mark the cardinal signs of the zodiac, is in the Canon of Yaou. According to [p.92] the interpretation of that document, the equinoxes were in Taurus (Pleiades) and Scorpio, and the solstices in Leo and Aquarius in the time of Yaou. No doubt there was a tradition to this effect at the time when the Shoo-king was compiled, for the author knowing nothing of the precession of the equinoxes, could not have adjusted them to the time of which he was writing. His "examination of antiquity"6 was so far accurate, although the details of his narrative may and even must be mythical. Even Yaou himself may be so. In accordance with Chinese ideas of a sage, Yaou in a few pompous sentences makes it appear that he is perfectly acquainted beforehand with the results of the observations which he orders his astronomers to make:—"You will find the star is in neaov," &c. But did they find the stars as Yaou said they would find them? We are supposed to believe that they did, of course; but since we are not told, we claim the liberty to doubt. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Yaou, before the observations were made, was dependent on tradition for his knowledge, and that his astronomers were capable of making accurate observations, they would in that case have had to report some failure in the verification of his statements. But apart from this, we are prepared to affirm that three of the men sent to the four borders of China could not have seen the stars, which occupied for the time being the equinoctial and solstitial points, culminating on the evenings named. E. G., the first point of Libra could not be seen culminating at nightfall, when the sun is in the first point of Cancer, for it must culminate at 6h. p.m., whereas the sun would not set in any part of China in midsummer much before 7h. p.m., and the stars would not be visible for half an hour after sunset. This last fact would stand equally in the way, at the equinoxes, of the observers seeing their stars culminating, unless, indeed, the time of observation was several centuries later than the date usually assigned to Yaou (B.C. 2356-2255), so that the stars to be observed had ceased to be exactly in the solstitial colure. The astronomer who went to the north in winter is the only one who would have no difficulty of this kind. He might see his star long before it culminated. But unless he had a good clock, he could not tell that it culminated at 6h. p.m. In the course of the long winter evening he would lose his reckoning sadly. The clepsydra also, supposing that he had one, might be ice-bound. The observation could have been made more conveniently in every way at the central station than at the northern border.
The value of the astronomical part of the Canon of Yaou, as a confirmation of the received chronology, has been much overrated. According to the obvious interpretation of the text, Yaou had reason to expect the stars he mentioned to be in the equinoctial and solstitial colures. But what his reason was we are left to conjecture. It might be personal observation; or it might be tradition from his great-grandfather, or from Noah himself.
Scorpio, the Ho of Yaou, was considered, even to the end of the Chow dynasty, an important guide to the knowledge of the seasons, as is evident from the frequent references to it in the writings of that time. An ode in the Book of Poetry, attributed to Chow-kung, begins with the words, "In the seventh month Ho passes on,"—that is to say, passes to the westward of the meridian at nightfall. From which it would follow that in the sixth month it was in the meridian at the same hour. This would have been the case if the seventh month had coincided with ours, or with the end of July and part of August, but not if the year had commenced with our December, as [p.93] the Chinese say the year of the Chow dynasty always did. Here therefore is an argument against the prevailing opinion, which there are other strong reasons for setting aside, that king Woo, when he became emperor, ordered that the year should begin before the winter solstice, while the first month was still absurdly styled the first of spring. The fact is, the months of the year fell into this great disorder afterwards, through neglect, and not on account of an imperial decree. It is probable, however, that even in Chow-kung's time the first month of the year was the last of the winter season, the error of one month passing down from the previous dynasty. As early as B.C. 775, we find the year beginning with our December; and 60 years after, it begins with January again.
The former date, B.C. 775, is very important, as being the earliest which astronomical calculation really confirms. The tenth month of that year commenced on 29th of August (new style)—the 28th day of the cycle of 60—with an eclipse of the sun, which is mentioned in the Book of Poetry. The first month of next year, unless an intercalary month intervened, would begin about the end of November.
The passage in the Tso Chuen, in which Confucius is made to say that in the 12th month of the year, Scorpio was still visible in the west, is not intelligible, for the sun must have passed through Scorpio in October, and the 12th month was certainly not our September.
A very ancient and characteristic method of determining the seasons and months of the year, to which the Chinese are fond of alluding, was by the revolution of Ursa Major. One of its names, of which it has several, is "the Northern Bushel." Under this name it is often confounded with the North Pole, and also with one of the 28 mansions in Sagittarius, which has the same name. Its tail is called the "handle." There is a clear statement of this method of determining the seasons in the writings of Hoh-kwantsze:—"When the tail of the Bear points to the east (at nightfall), it is spring to all the world. When the tail of the Bear points to the south, it is summer to all the world. When the tail of the Bear points to the west, it is autumn to all the world. When the tail of the Bear points to the north, it is winter to all the world." It is well to keep in mind that the body of the Great Bear was in ancient times considerably nearer to the north pole than it is now, and the tail appeared to move round the pole somewhat like the hand of a clock or watch. The Historical Records say, that the seven stars of the Northern Bushel are spoken of (in the Shoo, Pt. II. Bk. I. p. 5) when it is said, "The pivot and the gem-transverse adjust the seven directors." According to later interpreters, the sun, moon, and five planets are the seven directors, and the pivot, &c., refer to an astronomical instrument. But the ancients knew nothing of the five planets. No reference to them as five can be found in the classics. On the contrary, they seem to have supposed, as the Greeks did before Pythagoras, that Lucifer and Hesperus were two stars. Hence in the Book of Poetry we find lines to this effect:—
"In the east there is Lucifer
In the west there is Hesper."
And the references to the five planets in the Chow Ritual, and in the three annotated editions of the Chun Ts'ew, are evidence of their later origin. The same may be said of the use of the planet Jupiter for astrological purposes, which belongs to the time of the Contending States, or to the early Han. At that time the period of [p.94] Jupiter was supposed to be exactly 12 years, so that he gave a year to each sign of the Zodiac, therefore he is always called the year star. Considering this exact law of motion in the planet, one Chinese author remarks:—"It must be a spiritual thing without doubt."
annexed figure will illustrate the use of Ursa Major as a kind of natural clock,
whose hand makes one revolution in a year. The earth's surface (square of
course) is converted into a dial, and the horizon is divided into 12 parts,
making due north the centre of the first division. In theory the time of
observation is 6h. p.m. precisely. But it was necessary to wait till the stars
were visible. If the tail then pointed due east, it indicated the vernal
equinox; but if it pointed due west, as represented in the figure, it was the
In this instance, the hand of the clock points a little in advance of the sun in the ecliptic, and to the bright stars in Scorpio, for the tail of the Bear always points to Scorpio. So then we have still Scorpio as the sign of mid-autumn.
This symmetrical position of the Great Bear, or "Northern Bushel," with reference to the seasons, is essential to the Chinese creed; and hence to this day, maugre the precession of the equinoxes, it retains its position in the estimation of almost all Chinese, learned and ignorant. The seasons still arrange themselves round the dial in exactly the same way, Winter going to the north, Spring to the east, Summer to the south, and Autumn to the west.
3. The most common and the earliest division of the ecliptic is that of the 28 mansions. These are of very unequal extent, and consequently very inconvenient for any purpose but that of astrology. The apportioning of 7 of these mansions to each of the cardinal points is also nothing more than an astrological device; but the Chinese student comes in contact with it so frequently, that some explanation of its origin seems very desirable. We must remember that the hour of midnight at the winter solstice is with the Chinese a grand epoch; a sort of repetition of the T'ae-keih or commencement of all things. Let the circle in the annexed figure represent the position of the ecliptic at midnight in mid-winter, in relation to the Chinese earth, represented by a square space in the centre. At the season and hour in question, in the time of Yaou, Leo would be in the meridian, and south of the zenith in the middle of China; Taurus would be in the west, and Scorpio in the east; and it is correctly inferred that Aquarius, though invisible, would be north of the nadir.
Accordingly, the seven winter mansions of which Aquarius is
the centre are assigned to the north, and the seven summer mansions of which Leo
is the centre are assigned to the south. Thus far the arrangement agrees with
that already described according to the motion of the Great Bear. But the vernal
mansions go to the west, and the autumnal ones to the east, reversing the
previous direction of these two seasons, and in opposition to the prevailing
notion of the Chinese that spring belongs to the east, &c. This discrepancy does
not seem however to trouble their minds at all, and we may safely leave it
The angular value of the 28 mansions varies from 1° to 30°, and modern books differ materially from the older ones as to the dimensions of each. Even the four great divisions differ more than 30° one from another. The following are their respective lengths as given in the introduction to Yung-ching's Shoo-king. The circle was divided into 365¼ degrees:—
|The 7||Northern Constellations||embrace||98¼ deg.|
|Total =||365¼ deg.|
This division of the ecliptic is, with some slight variations, common to the
Arabians, the Hindoos, and the Chinese;—a fact which seems to point to the
common origin of these races, or to their
inter-communication at a period of which history gives us as yet no information.
Besides this inconvenient system of unequal constellations or mansions, the Chinese have, in common with western nations and the Hindoos, the division of the Zodiac into twelve equal parts or signs. This improvement was probably also introduced in the end of the Chow, or the beginning of the Han dynasty. The Sinologue will see a reference to two of these signs in the Tso Chuen, where they are mentioned for an astrological purpose, in connexion with the planet Jupiter. The following is a list of the Chinese signs, with the constellations to which they correspond. The commencement with Aries is optional, as the Chinese usually write them round a circle.
The commencement of the first month of spring between the 20th of January and the 19th of February is said to fall always within the 11th of these signs. This ought therefore to coincide with our Aquarius; and the fact that it includes part of Pisces might be taken as indicative of an earlier date than that of our Zodiacal nomenclature; but it seems rather to be an accommodation to the ancient traditions. We do not find that the ancient Chinese made much practical use of the 12 signs; and even to the present day the 28 mansions of the moon have retained their place in preference to the more scientific division.
4. Slowly and reluctantly did the Chinese astronomer awake to the recognition of
the fact that the position of the equinoxes in the ecliptic was shifting from
age to age. With the traditions of 2000
years embodied in the classical literature of his country, and engraven on the
tablets of his memory, and with the alteration of a whole sign in the position
of the equinoctial points staring him in the
face, his mind remained sealed against the entrance of the new idea; and went on
in its old ruts by sheer via-inertiæ. Hipparchus (b.c. 160-125) discovered the
precession of the equinoxes by
comparing his own observations with those of Aristyllus and Timocharis, or
others who preceded him by not more than two or three centuries; whereas the
first man in China who took notice of
the precession lived in the 4th century of the Christian era (Comm. on Canon of Yaou, p. 21). He was separated from Yaou by a period of 2000 years!
5. The invention of the cycle of 60 is ascribed to Hwang-te (b.c. 2,030), and in particular its application to years is affirmed to have commenced in his reign; but this is a mere fiction. It was not applied to years even in the time of Confucius. The Cycle consists of two sets of characters; one set of 10, and one set of 12,—which are combined in couples, odd to odd and even to even, making in all sixty combinations.
The "twelve terrestrial branches," as they are called, were first invented, in all probability, to distinguish the twelve spaces into which the horizon is divided, as described above. Their names and order are as follows:—
|1 tsze,||2 ch'ow,||3 yin,||4 maou,||5 shin,||6 sze,|
|7 woo,||8 we,||9 shin,||10 yew,||11 seuh,||12 hac.|
The common mode of expression, [Chinese] &c., "to set up
tsze," "to set up ch'ow,"
&c, refers to the tail of the Great Bear pointing to tsze, ch'ow, and the other
ten divisions of the dial. Tsze, the
first character always indicates due north, and the middle of winter.
It was an easy step, from the original application of the 'twelve branches' to the months, to a duodecimal division of the day; but according to native authorities this was not adopted till the time of Han. It does seem strange that the Chinese should have existed so long without any artificial division of the day; and yet in recording eclipses, where the time of the day is a most important item, it is never mentioned.
The application of the cycle to days is undoubtedly a very ancient practice. But it would seem from a passage in the Shoo, Pt. II. Bk. IV., par. 8, that the days were originally arranged in tens only, by means of the 10 "celestial stems." These are:—
|1 ket,||2 yih,||3 ping,||4 ting,||5 mow,|
|6 ke,||7 kang,||8 s'n,||9 jin,||10 kwei.|
Yu is made to say, "I remained with my wife only the days
sin, jin, hu-ei, kea."
These are the last three and the first of the above set of characters, and the
natural inference from their use here is
that they were invented to divide the month into three equal parts (three
decades); and that in course of time they were combined with the twelve branches
to make the famous Chinese cycle of
sixty. The first mention of the [p.97]
cyclical name of a day is found in the Shoo, Pt. IV. Bk. IV. p. 1. It is said to
have been in the 12th month of the first year of the emperor T'ae-kea. The
current chronology makes this year to be
B.C. 1,752. But the chronology is utterly valueless; and we have no sufficient
data by which to verify the day. Moreover, this is the only instance of the use
of the cycle which occurs before B.C.
1,121 of the same chronology. In the Books of Chow it is frequently employed.
The state of confusion in which Chinese chronology is found to be, down to the time of the Eastern Chow, and the fact that not a single instance of the application of the cycle to years can be found till after the classical period, are sufficient to satisfy us that this invaluable method of dating years was never used in ancient times. The first attempt to arrange the years in Cycles of sixty is found in Sze-ma Ts'een's Historical Records, in a table constructed for the purpose of intercalation, and extending over a period of 76 years, the first year being B.C. 103. But instead of using the Chinese cyclical characters, he employs words of two and three syllables, which, considered from a Chinese point of view, must be pronounced barbarous. We give the names applied to the first thirteen years. Perhaps some one acquainted with the ancient language of the Hindoos may hereafter be able to identify them. The second word in each name has some connexion with the motion of the planet Jupiter; and Sze-ma says that Sheht'e, part of the first name, means Jupiter. His commentator adds that Jupiter belongs to the east, and is the essence of wood, the spirit of the Green god, Ling-wei-jang. This last word is one of six meaningless trisyllables, applied to the the god of the north pole and to the five elemental gods, during the Han dynasty, for which also we must seek a foreign origin. They are given below:—
Names of Years in Sze-ma Ts'een's History probably of foreign origin.
Names of gods probably of foreign origin,
|The god of the north pole||
Yaou pih paou.
|The Green god (wood)||Ling wijang.|
|The Red god (fire)||Ch'ih p'eaou noo.|
|The Yellow god (earth)||Shay ch'oo nea.|
|The White god (metal)||Pih chaou heu.|
|The Black god (water)||Beth heang.|
Various attempts have been made to analyse the second word Sheht'ekih, (in
Cantonese Shipt'ai kak. Is Shipt'ai intended to represent the Hindoo name of
Jupiter,—Vri-shaspati; and kak the
Hindoo chakra, or cycle?) applied to the first year of Sze-ma Ts'een's Table:
and to determine which of the 12 branches it ought to be identified with. Sze-ma
himself; besides saying that sheht'e is
Jupiter, explains the term to mean the place of that planet in the ecliptic; and
again, with strange inconsistency, he says elsewhere it is the star or
constellation to which the tail of Ursa Major
points. In a work called the 'Classic of Stars,' sheht'e is said to denote a
"spiritual instrument of western nations." Now this confusion of words without
knowledge is easily accounted for on the
supposition that the cycle of 60 years was introduced from the Hindoos, to whom
the Chinese were indebted in the time of Sze-ma Ts'een for other things even
more important. In justice to Sze-ma, however, or rather to the compilers of the Work that goes by his name, for
it is the work of more than one hand, it ought to be stated that they saw that
the motion of Jupiter was in the
opposite direction to that in which the "12 branches" are reckoned, and would
give them in the reverse order. They therefore had recourse again to the Great
Bear; and explained that the
character belonging to that month of any year when Jupiter rose before the sun
in the east was the cyclical character for that year. They then tell us that, in
the year B.C. 103, Jupiter rose in the
morning during the first month, which is yiriy the third of the 12 branches.
This ought therefore to be the cyclical character for 103. But future
chronologists made it mow, the second. Probably
they did this because the History says that Jupiter was in ch'ow. But if this
was their reason, they over-looked the fact that on the following year the
planet is said to be in tsze; and again after
another year has elapsed, he is in luie, going backwards over the characters.
They evidently lighted upon the wrong expression. The original runs thus:—"In
the sheht'ekih year, the yin of the year,
moving to the left, is in yin, and the star of the year (Jupiter) moving, in
the opposite direction, to the right, is in Mow. The word yin here is too vague
to be translated. It means any thing which is
the reverse of the star, or the counter part of the star. Chinese scholars are
fond of using this form of expression:—"The year is in keah-tsze;" but probably
very few ever reflect on the meaning of
the phrase, or know that it has its origin in the above passage from the
Historical Records, much less could they say for certain whether it is the yin
of the year, or the star of the year, that they
intend to say is "in keah-tsze."
The characters before in use for the cycle of 60 days were soon substituted for the longer names: but not without some diversity of opinion as to where the cycle should commence. In the chronological Tables given in the Historical Records the cyclical characters have been supplied by a later hand, from B.C. 840 downwards; but in every case the authority of the scholars of Tsin (a.d. 265-419) is quoted. Sen Kwang seems to be most closely followed; but he was preceded in the same department of labour by Hwangfoo Meih, and perhaps also by the inventor of the so-called Bamboo Books. So then the cycle of 60 years cannot have commenced earlier than the Han, [p.99] and owes its present form to the scholars of Tsin; although the Chinese for the most part still glory in the delusion that it was invented by Hwangte, (60 x 75=) 4500 years ago.
6. The Chinese month has always been lunar; and as twelve lunations come short of a solar year by nearly 11 days, it is necessary from time to time to insert an extra month to preserve a general correspondence with the solar year. The statement of Yaou (Shoo, Pt. I. par. 8), that the year consists of 366 days, was made with a view to facilitate the process of intercalation which he ordered his astronomers to conduct. But to reckon the solar year at 366 days would occasion an error of a whole month in 40 years; so that in the course of his long reign of 100 years Yaou might have seen great cause to shorten the solar period. It would seem, however, that neither he nor his successors made any attempt to obtain more accurate numbers, and that in fact their intercalation was regulated by the natural recurrence of the seasons, and rude observations from year to year. During the Chow dynasty, intercalary months were placed at irregular intervals, but most frequently at the end of the year.
The Chinese seem even then to have had no idea of the proper interval between two intercalations, which is now known to be 32 or 33 months on an average. The amount of error which they actually committed in the commencement of the year has been already referred to; and we now give a few examples gathered from the "Ch'un Ts'ew" of Confucius. According to the theory of later writers, the year ought always to have commenced between November 22 and December 22; but on the contrary we find that the year ....
|BC||719||commenced ................. on||January 16:|
|703||" "||January 20:|
|688||" "||January 4:|
|685||" "||January 1:|
|658||" "||January 3:|
|626||" "||January 8:|
|605||" "||November 18:|
|583||" "||November 16:|
|556||" "||November 17:|
|540||" "||November 19:|
|529||" "||November 18:|
|526||" "||November 15.|
For an instance of the intercalary month placed at the end of the year on three
successive occasions, the reader is referred to Sze-ma Ts'een's Chronological
Tables,—Ts'in dynasty, years 207,
204, & 201, B.C. Each of these would be separated from the other by 36 lunations
instead of 32; and a proportionate amount of error would be caused in the
situation of the months.
In the second century before the Christian era, the Chinese made extraordinary efforts to open communication with the West. They explored due west as far as the borders of Persia. Beyond the nomadic tribes of Huns and Scythians, their immediate neighbours, the Chinese travellers found nations comparatively civilised, dwelling in cities and towns. Their horses were far superior to any known in China, and were eagerly coveted by the emperor. They had wine made from grapes, which the rich preserved for many years. Among other objects of interest unknown in Eastern Asia are mentioned single humped camels (C. Arabicus) and ostrich-eggs. At the same time they became acquainted [p.100] with the northern parts of India,—Shindo (Scinde?), Dahea, &c. Sze-ma Ts'een, who gives a full history of these discoveries, does not indeed tell us that they became acquainted with the cycle of Callippus, either through the Bactrians or the Hindoos; but there is scarcely a shadow of doubt that this was the case. In no other way can we account for the sudden appearance, in Ts'een's History, of a method so far in advance of anything known before in China, and one which had been already employed in the West for more than two centuries. The cycle of Callippus is simply this:—4 X 19=76 years=27759 days=940 lunations. It must have been well known to Alexander, the pupil of Aristotle, and the conqueror of Sogdiana, Bactria, and the Punjab, B.C. 328-325. The reformation of the Chinese calendar by Sze-ma Ts'een and others, with the help of these numbers, dates from the winter solstice of the year 104 B.C. In order to make this epoch appear as perfect as possible, they overlooked minor differences, though amounting to a whole day in the case of the solstice, and declared that new moon, and winter, and midnight, all coincided, at the commencement of the first of the cycle. From this remarkable epoch all dates before and after were to be calculated by the new method. In constructing a calendar for short periods, or even for a century or two, the method was invaluable; but with unlimited faith in its perfection, the Chinese scholars of that day proceeded to solve by means of it all difficult problems of ancient chronology; and here of course it led them astray. We can easily see the amount of error which they committed in reckoning back 16 centuries to the first year of T'ae-kea, or ten centuries to the 13th year of Woo-wang. In round numbers, the error of the Metonic cycle, as modified by Callippus, amounts to one day in the time of new moon for every 300 years, and three days in the time of winter solstice for every 400 years. So then the scholars of Han, in calculating the day of new moon at the commencement of the Chow dynasty, made an error of three days. As Confucius has nowhere told us, and possibly could not tell, how many years the Chow dynasty had lasted up to his own time, the problem the chronologers had to solve was to find a year near the supposed date of Woo-wang, which should commence with the day sin-maou. Such a year being found would, according to the Shoo-king, Pt V. Bk. III. par 1, be the 13th of king Woo. Calculated according to the Metonic cycle from the epoch of Han, the year in question is B.C. 1121. But if we attempt to verify this date by modern methods, we find that the supposed first new moon of 1121 would fall three days later than sin-maou, and moreover that the whole lunation would be before the winter solstice, and belong according to the Chinese theory to the preceding year. So then, if we are not prepared to reject all the dates in the Shoo-king as spurious, we have no alternative but to condemn the received chronology. But the chronology of the whole period embraced by the Shoo rests on nothing better than mere conjecture, and imperfect astronomical calculations, made after the reformation of the calendar in the 2nd century B.C. We can have no hesitation therefore, in rejecting it.
It may be well to state here one or two additional arguments in favour of the view that the Chinese borrowed their astronomy from the West before the Christian era. It is stated by Sir J. F. Davis, in his work on The Chinese, Vol. II. p. 290, that the Hindoo cycle of sixty years "is a cycle of Jupiter, while that of the Chinese is a solar cycle." The learned author does not explain what he understands by "'a solar cycle" of 60 years, nor does he give any authority for the statement. We have found, on the [p.101] contrary, that the Chinese cycle, like the Hindoo one, is connected with the period of Jupiter. In the same page of the above work it is said, "Besides the lunar zodiac of twenty-eight mansions, the Hindoos (unlike the Chinese) have the solar, including twelve signs." But we have seen that the Chinese have also the twelve signs.
Another proof that the Chinese borrowed from the Hindoos is the use they made of conjunctions of the five planets. The rise of the Han dynasty, it is asserted, was marked by one of those conjunctions. And as the Hindoo era, cali-yug, commenced (B.C. 3102) with a conjunction of all the planets, so the Historian of Han places a conjunction of all the planets in the reign of Chuen-heuh (b.c. 2613-2436, mod. chr.), just at the time when that emperor is said to have corrected the calendar, and fixed the commencement of the year in February. The late Baron Bunsen, in his Work on Egypt (Bk. IV. Pt. IV.), has attempted to verify this conjunction of the planets; but this, as well as the credence he gives to the tablet of Yu, only shows his ignorance of the subject; and that he ought to have manifested more of a fellow feeling with the 'ignorant' and 'superstitious' and 'intolerant' missionaries, who mistook the inundation of Yaou for the flood of Noah. These ancient conjunctions of the planets are utterly unworthy of credit. There was a rough approximation to such a conjunction at the commencement of the Han dynasty, in May, 204 B.C. But the only real conjunction of the five on record is that of Sep. 15, 1186 a.d., in the Sung dynasty. The Chinese in this matter seem to have been servile imitators of the Hindoos; and the Hindoos in their turn borrowed from the Greeks. When the expression "ts'eih ching", "the seven directors," is taken in the sense of sun, moon, and five planets, and applied to days, the idea is obviously and confessedly western.
7. Referring to the Shoo, Pt. III. Bk. IV. parag. 4, we find this sentence:—"On the first day of the last month of autumn the sun and moon did not meet harmoniously in Fang." Upon which there was beating of drums, and a general commotion such as the Chinese usually make on the occasion of an eclipse of the sun. It is evident, from the quotation of the passage in the Tso-chuen, that an eclipse of the sun is meant, and also that the record existed in some form or other in the time of Tso K'ew-ming. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the genuineness of this part of the Shoo is open to great suspicion, and in particular, that the phrase, "The heavenly bodies were not harmonious in the chamber," looks more like a modern form of speech, than a primitive way of denoting an eclipse of the sun. It occurs nowhere else; and although no other eclipse is mentioned in the Shoo, in the other classical writings eclipses of the sun are of common occurrence, and are uniformly denoted by "the sun was eaten." This seems more likely to be the older phrase. And again, with regard to the character fang, it is evidently not taken in the Tso-ch'uen for the constellation that now goes by that name, but as equivalent to Shay, any division or mansion of the Zodiac. This interpretation seems also to be favoured by several later writers. The ancient name of the constellation was Ho or Ta-hoy i.e, Scorpio, and it is only called fang in the Book of Rites.
But granting that an eclipse within that part of Scorpio which now goes by the name of Fang is intended, no such event could have been witnessed during the reign of Chung-k'ang, if we adopt the current chronology. The eclipse of the astronomers of T'ang, although it happens to agree with that of Gaubil, in being on the fifth year of Chung-k'ang, was reckoned according to some other chronology than that which [p.102] is current now, and was in fact the eclipse of 2127, which has recently come into favour, after Gaubil's has been set aside as invisible (See Comm, in loc.). The astronomers of T'ang distinctly state that it was in the year hwei-tsze, the 30th of the cycle of years; and on the day kang-seuh, the 47th of the cycle of days. I have found them right even in the day; which implies a high degree of accuracy in their figures, considering that they were calculating an eclipse at the distance of nearly 3000 years. Is it possible that those Chinese astronomers were superior to Gaubil? or was their success in this instance accidental? It was perhaps too late in the day for the scholars of T'ang to fix the uncertain chronology by astronomical calculation, though those of Han practised this method freely with far inferior knowledge.
Those, however, who like the year 2127 as the date of the eclipse may adopt it now without fear of its being hereafter proved invisible. But it is well to keep in mind that eclipses satisfying the conditions are by no means rare. Eclipses of the sun, visible in the northern hemisphere in the sign Scorpio, might be looked for in any of the following years:—
1 See the Yih-king.
2 Shoo, Pt. II. Bk. 1. 13.; Pt. III. Bk. I. Pt. II. 14-23.
3 Shoo, Pt. V. Bk. XIII. 14.
4 See Smith's Dictionary of Antiquities, article Calendar.
5 Shoo, Pt. I. Bk. I.
6 First sentence of Canon of Yaou.