IAU Commission 41 : Meetings : Astronomical Archives Session

Traditional Chinese Astronomical Records

Li CiYuan (China)

1. Early times

Since the year 1899, huge number of oracle bone with engraved characters has unearthed from Anyang, the capital of Dynasty Shang. Those relics around 13th century BC have proved many details on the ancient dynasty which existed only in legend before.

There was a group of five lunar eclipses on the bones. Those records has exact statement "the moon was eclipsed", the sexagesimal day (a continuos 60 cycle for date) and the oracle's name "Bin". According to the recent investigation of archaeology, measurement of 14 carbon, character analysis and astronomical computation, they are identified in 1201BC-1181BC. Another record in group "Bin" was read as "three flames eat the Sun" and explained as a totally eclipsed sun with three pieces of big prominence. However recent investigation of paleography indicated it was only a weather record.

Another group includes three solar eclipses, a lunar eclipse and a solar-lunar eclipse by oracle "Li", a little later than group "Bin". Those records are a little vague since they used an unusual character "Zhi" for eclipse. An oracle bone reports: "a big new star was close to the Fire star (alpha Sco)", which probably is a supernova record.

Some late achieves recorded earlier events. A famous example is "Zhongkang" solar eclipse of Xia Dynasty (around 18-21st century BC). The achieves can be traced to around 500 BC which says "(A solar eclipse) took place at the reign of King Zhongkang in the late fall at constellation Fang and led to terrible chaos in the common people". The Bamboo Chronicle (about 300 BC) recorded a dozen of celestial phenomena including two strange event: "Sky darkened heavily in King Zhao" and "Double dawn in King Yi". They have identified as the eclipses in 976BC and 899BC.

"Chunqiu" is the chronicle of State Lu which last from 722BC to 481BC. It contains 37 solar eclipses with King's year, month, sexagesimal day and clear statement of solar eclipse (3 total eclipses included). Nearly all of them are identified by modern computation. Those solar eclipses together with other astronomical information have constructed a frame for the calendar at that time.

Other records in this time contain lunar eclipse, conjunctions of planets, comet, "new star", meteorite, meteoric shower, aurora and date of winter solstice.

2. Regular and systematic astronomical observation

Since the 3rd century BC, China has systematic and detail history. One of the first things was to edit history of last dynasty once a new dynasty was founded. Twenty five history books were affirmed as official Histories and properly handed down. Most of the Histories have a special chapter which contains various records from the royal observatory. Up to around 1500AD, this was nearly only resource of astronomical records. Those records cover every sorts of astronomical phenomena by the naked eyes. Those records are highly condensed and professional. Usually they contain the year of the emperor, month, sexagesimal day and clear statement of the phenomena while the observation places were neglected since they were from the royal observatory, the capital of the dynasty.

Solar eclipse was considered the most important event because not only its splendid phenomena, but also its special function for Chinese (lunar) calendar. There are 960 solar eclipse records in total before 1500AD. Of them, 38 records report "total" or "stars reappeared"; 57 give the magnitude or "day darkened"; 216 have the constellation where the sun was; 64 timed to hour or quarter; 20 came from provinces. The following brilliant example took place on AD761,8,5 in Chang'an (translated by F.R.Stephenson):

Shangyuan reign period, 2nd year, 7th month, day Guiwei. The Sun was eclipsed; the large stars were all seen. The Astronomer Royal, Qutan Zhuan, reported (to the Emperor): "On day Guiwei the Sun diminished. The loss began at 6 marks in the second half of the hour of Chen. At 1 mark in the second half of the hour of Si it was total. At 1 mark in the first half of the our of Wu it was restored to fullness. (The Sun) was 4 degree in (the lunar lodge) Zhang".

Lunar eclipse had weak astrological meaning in ancient China, so systematic records began from up to the 5th century. There were 545 records before 1500 AD in which 78 reported a total eclipse; 54 timed to the maximum or the contacts, 39 recorded maximum magnitude.

"Fan" was a special term which means a moving body was very close (in one degree) to another star, which was a bad omen to the place or the people who were represented by the star. Lunar Fan is the most popular event, and there are more than 5000 such records in this period. Apparently several hundreds of lunar occultation are more splendid. Nearly same quantity of planetary "fun" or conjunction recorded historical positions of these bodies. Ninety of planetary occultation were obviously the most precise measurement with naked eyes.

Chinese had known sunspots since early times. In the legend times, the god of the sun was a black bird with tree legs on the splendid disc. The old Chinese character for "sun" is also a black point in a circle. The first dated records was in the year 28BC: "Heping reign period, 1st year, 3rd month, day Guiwei, the rising sun was yellow; a black gas was at the centre of the sun, like a coin". One hundred and fifty sunspot events were recorded before 1500AD. The sunspots were described like star, bird, melon, egg, fruit even a man. Sunspots reflect solar activity in historic period, while another useful sort is aurora. Apparently aurora reports are a little ambiguous. There were hundreds of such records.

Supernova or nova were reported as "guest star" which sometimes confused with comets. At least 60 guest star records have been considered supernova or nova event.

Comet is another sort of large quantity record. Because comets have apparent position and figure changes, we get more detail report on those event, sometimes more than ten records for a comet on different days. More than half hundred records of meteoric shower are helpful for study the evolutions of comets. The real majority is the records of meteor. No body has counted them yet.

3. The last dynasties

Since about 1500AD, traditional Chinese astronomical records have changed in various aspects mainly because of more detail documents survival and propagation of western sciences. Astronomical materials in the royal achieves of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911AD) were searched and published recently. They contain original documents concerned. Quantity of astronomical materials in the 400 years are much more than the 2000 years before.

Since Song dynasty (10-13 century), to record and compile local chronicles became common practice. Hundreds of them are now survived completely. Many local chronicles keep astronomical records although they were not so systematic and professional. Sometimes a total solar eclipse were recorded at many different places which formed the central belt of the eclipse. Aurora were recorded in different places on same date. Occasionally an event was reported detail and vivid, most of which are about a fall of a meteorite.

The lunar and planetary positions were no longer recorded fluently perhaps because they were no longer considered as special phenomena. Records of solar and lunar eclipse were more detail and accurate. Regularly contacts and maximum were timed to minute. Comets, meteorite and other events were recorded more detail and exact.

HTML version: Wolfgang R. Dick. Created: 11 July 2000