Astronomy in Ancient China
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Chinese Astronomy

China astronomy map
Chinese star chart possibly dating from the 600s AD,
during the T'ang Dynasty

Chinese scholars began by thinking of the stars, the sun, and the moon as gods. Like the scientists of Mesopotamia, they thought they could use the movements of the stars to predict the future. Chinese astronomers divided the sky up into zones like Sumerian zodiac signs, but they divided it in different places and assigned different meanings to the stars. Nobody knows for sure whether the Chinese astronomers even knew about the Mesopotamian system.

But by the time of the Han Dynasty, about 130 AD, scholars like Zhang Heng knew that the moon was a sphere, lighted by the sun on one side and dark on the side away from the sun. Zhang Heng also understood what caused solar and lunar eclipses.

Chinese astronomers, like Roman and Sassanian astronomers of the same time period in Europe and West Asia, were very interested in the stars for scientific reasons, but they also continued to believe that the skies could help predict the future.

One of these Chinese astronomers drew this star chart, which is the oldest one in the world. Even though telescopes and binoculars hadn't been invented yet, the chart shows some very faint stars that are very hard to see with just your eyes.

But along with this chart, there were also instructions for predicting the future based on the shape of clouds!

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese astronomy:

China Science

Science in Ancient China, by George Beshore (1998). .

Ancient China: 2,000 Years of Mystery and Adventure to Unlock and Discover (Treasure Chest), by Chao-Hui Jenny Liu (1996). Lots of activities , including a Chinese calligraphy set.

Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China : The 'Zhou Bi Suan Jing', by Christopher Cullen (1996). By a specialist, for adults, about a Chinese astronomy book from the Han Dynasty in the first century AD. But really it covers Chinese astronomy from the Stone Age to about 1600 AD.

More about Chinese mathematics
More about Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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