The origin and meaning of colourful descriptions in Chinese astronomical records

Strom, Richard G. (2008) The origin and meaning of colourful descriptions in Chinese astronomical records. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 11 (2). pp. 87-96.

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Oriental, especially Chinese, observations of transient celestial events are often compared with mundane objects: fruits, birds and containers are typical. The comparison is sometimes thought to indicate brightness of the heavenly object in question (for night-time apparitions). Here, the matter is examined in some detail. There is evidence that the earliest descriptions referred to form and/or colour (in particular, black for sunspots). Containers probably trace back to beidou, the northern (big) dipper, which was a potent symbol in Chinese astrological correspondences. It is noted that many of the comparison objects were round, and that Chinese thinking considered the Sun, Moon, planets and stars as round also. It is shown that the comparison objects used were not constant in time, but changed, with certain ones preferred for centuries. A notable period coincides with much of the Song and Yuan Dynasties (1075–1360), when sunspots were almost exclusively compared with the dark plum and jujube (Chinese date) fruits, while night-time comparisons were often with stars and planets. After 1375, night-time comparisons with bullets abruptly appear, and little else was used for two hundred years. I suggest that this was inspired by contemporary military events. Although the main purpose of the observations recorded in ancient annals was astrological, there is no concrete link between the comparison objects and prognostications. A passage dating back to the Latter Han Dynasty notes that stars have their “distant connections”, and goes on to say, “In the wilderness stars denote articles and objects”, while elsewhere they may relate to government or society. By coupling the transient (and hence shockingly inauspicious) events to mundane objects, the imperial astronomers may have sought to distance the state from their appearance. With the possible exception of comparisons with stars and planets, it seems highly unlikely that the objects were chosen to reflect the brightness of novae, comets, meteors, etc.

Item ID: 9887
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1440-2807
Keywords: Chinese descriptions; ancient records; comets; guest stars; sunspots; meteors
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Reproduced with permission from Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage.

Date Deposited: 29 Mar 2010 01:07
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