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Chinese star map with the names of the stars written in Chinese characters

Chinese astronomy: A Chinese star chart possibly dating from the 600s AD, during the T’ang Dynasty

The Chinese zodiac

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.

Mesopotamian astronomy
Indian astronomy
History of astronomy
Medieval Chinese science
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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.

What are the signs of the Chinese zodiac?

The Chinese zodiac system followed a twelve year cycle, combined with another cycle of five years to make a longer sixty day cycle. (The choice of twelve and sixty, important numbers in Mesopotamia, might show that there’s some relationship there.)

The twelve signs, one for each year, are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The Chinese New Year (in January or February) marks the change from one year to the next.

Chinese New Year

An eclipse of the moon. You can see the curved shadow of the Earth.

An eclipse of the moon. You can see the curved shadow of the Earth.

People in China thought a baby would have the character of the Chinese zodiac sign for the year it was born. So a baby born in the Year of the Snake would be deep and complex, calm and observant. But a baby born in the Year of the Goat would be stubborn and generous.

Solar and lunar eclipses

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.

Eclipse of the moon
Solar eclipses

Can the stars predict the future?

An infinite distance: stars in the sky

An infinite distance: stars in the sky

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 kept on thinking that the skies could help predict the future.

West Asian science
Roman astronomy

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!

More about science in ancient China
History of astronomy

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese astronomy:

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
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