Astrology: China

views updated

Astrology: China

In China, coordination of human activity with the sun, moon, and stars, including the cardinal orientation of structures in the landscape, can be traced back to the Neolithic cultures of the fifth millennium b.c.e. In the words of Sima Qian (fl. 100 b.c.e.), "Ever since the people have existed, when have successive rulers not systematically followed the movements of sun, moon, stars, and asterisms?" By the early Bronze Age, around the beginning of the second millennium, attention had already begun to focus on the circumpolar region as the abode of the sky god di, and from this time forward the North Pole increasingly became a locus of practical and spiritual significance. The polar-equatorial emphasis of Chinese astronomy began to take shape, which meant that the ancient Chinese remained largely indifferent to heliacal phenomena and the ecliptic (the sun's apparent path through the skies). A prominent feature of this polar focus was the use of the handle of the constellation Northern Dipper (Ursa Major) as a celestial clock-hand and the identification of certain cardinal constellations with the seasons and their unique characteristicsthe green dragon with spring, the red bird with summer, the white tiger with autumn, the dark turtle with winter. As Sima Qian would later say: "The 28 lunar lodges govern the 12 provinces, and the handle of the Dipper seconds them; the origin [of these conceptions] is ancient." Massings of the five planets, di 's "Minister-Regulators," solar and lunar eclipses, and other astronomical and atmospheric phenomena were seen as portents of imminent, usually ominous events. Astronomical records are not abundant in the earliest written documents, the oracle-bone divinations of the late Shang dynasty (c. 13th to mid-11th b.c.e.); however, a theory of reciprocity prefiguring later Chinese astrological thinking is already in evidence. What transpired in the heavens could and did profoundly influence human affairs, and conversely, human behavior could and did provoke a response from the numinous realm beyond the limits of human perception. Astral divination was reactive and opportunistic and, as elsewhere, never focused on individuals beyond the royal person, but only on affairs of state such as the sacrifices to the royal ancestors, the harvest, warfare, and the like.

By the late Zhou dynasty (1046256 b.c.e.) tianwen, "sky-pattern reading" or astrological prognostication, took as its frame of reference the twenty-eight lunar mansions or equatorial hour-angle segments into which the sky was by then divided. In classical "field allocation" astrology of mid to late Zhou, these twenty-eight segments of uneven angular dimensions were correlated with terrestrial domains according to different schemes. Allocated among the astral fields for purposes of prognostication were either the nine provinces into which China proper was traditionally thought to have been divided, or the twelve warring kingdoms of the late Zhou, whose successive annihilation by Qin led to the establishment of the unified empire in 221 b.c.e. The classical job description of the post of astrologer royal is found in the third century b.c.e. canonical text The Rites of Zhou :

[The Bao zhang shi ] concerns himself with the stars in the heavens, keeping a record of the changes and movements of the stars and planets, sun and moon, in order to discern [corresponding] trends in the terrestrial world, with the object of distinguishing (prognosticating) good and bad fortune. He divides the territories of the nine regions of the empire in accordance with their dependence on particular celestial bodies; all the fiefs and territories are connected with distinct stars, based on which their prosperity or misfortune can be ascertained. He makes prognostications, according to the twelve years [of the Jupiter cycle], of good and evil in the terrestrial world. (trans. Needham, p. 190; modified by the author)

In this scheme, movements of the sun, moon, and planets formed the basis of prognostication, taking also into account their correlations with the five elemental phases (Mercury-Water; Venus-Metal; Mars-Fire; Jupiter-Wood; Saturn-Earth), as well as yin and yang. While sparsely documented in contemporary sources, probably as a result of the hermetic nature of the practice, evidence suggests the influence of astrological considerations was pervasive. As a common aphorism put it not long after the founding of the empire, "astute though the Son of Heaven may be, one must still see where Mars is located." Although Babylonian influence on Chinese astrology has occasionally been claimed, and a few suggestive parallels between specific late planetary prognostications (c. 100 b.c.e.) have been drawn, on the whole the evidence in favor is unpersuasive. Ancient Chinese cosmology and astrology are distinctive in essential respects, and any parallels are so circumstantial that it is more likely that throughout its formative period Chinese astrology developed in isolation from significant external influences. When it comes to China's immediate neighbors, the flow of ideas has been overwhelmingly outward from the center.

Early Imperial Period

In the early imperial period, Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.220 c.e.) cosmologists amalgamated field-allocation astrology with hemerological concepts (lucky and unlucky days for various activities), yin-yang and five phases correlative cosmology, as well as the symbolic trigrams of the Book of Changes, to develop the systematic and highly complex method of divination embodied in the shi or diviner's board so representative of that period. Examples of the latter excavated from Han tombs typically consist of a round heaven plate with the Northern Dipper inscribed at the center as if seen from above, and with the twenty-eight lunar mansions, months of the year, or solar chronograms inscribed in bands around the circumference. The pivot of the heaven plate is conventionally placed in or near the handle of the Dipper in recognition of its symbolic centrality and numinous power, while the square earth plate underneath is graduated around its exposed perimeter in concentric bands showing the twenty-eight lunar mansions, the twelve earthly branches and ten heavenly stems marking the cardinal and intercardinal directions, the twenty-four seasonal nodes, and so on. Some examples substitute for the heaven plate an actual ladle fashioned from magnetic lodestone and designed to rotate within a highly polished circular enclosure representing the circumpolar region.

As originally conceived, the twenty-eight lunar mansions did not technically constitute a zodiac, since, with the exception of comets, novae, and the like, the sun, moon, and planets did not actually appear among their constituent stars: many of the latter in ancient times actually lay closer to the equator than to the ecliptic. Rather, astronomical phenomena occurring within a given astral field were connected with noteworthy events in the corresponding terrestrial region. In terms of classical resonance theory this was because the astral and terrestrial realms were continuous and composed of the same quasi-matter, quasi-pneuma called qi. Theory held that disequilibrium at any point in the system could potentially provoke imbalance throughout by a mysterious process somewhat analogous to magnetism or sympathetic resonance. In case of disruption it was essential to identify the cause and to take corrective action, based on yin-yang and five phases phenomenological correlations, to remedy the situation and restore harmony to the system. Unlike the Ptolemaic scheme, which has aptly been dubbed "astrological ethnology," despite modifications designed to take account of historical changes in political boundaries and the relative balance of power between the empire and its non-Chinese neighbors, from the outset field-allocation astrology was resolutely sinocentric. The non-Chinese world remained essentially unrepresented in the heavens and in astrology except as a reflex of Chinese concerns.

Though individualized horoscopic astrology did not figure in the repertoire, the increasing complexity of astrological theory in Han times was accompanied by a proliferation of prognostication methods and devotions directed toward astral deities. The ancient cult of Tai yi, the supreme ultimate or numinous cosmic force resident at the pole, rose to prominence even in the imperial sacrifices, being imaginatively linked in contemporary iconography with the image of the celestial thearch driving his astral carriage (Ursa Major) around the pole.

The Dipper is the Celestial Thearch di's carriage. It revolves about the center, visiting and regulating each of the four regions. It divides yin from yang, establishes the four seasons, equalizes the Five Elemental Phases, deploys the seasonal junctures and angular measures, and determines the various periodicities: all these are tied to the Dipper. (Sima Qian, Shi ji, "Treatise on the Heavenly Offices")

The protection of Tai yi and lesser astral spirits was invoked both in local cults led by magicians and by imperial officials, in the latter case especially before initiating major military campaigns, when

a banner decorated with images of the sun, moon, Northern Dipper, and rampant dragons was mounted on a shaft made from the wood of the thorn tree, to symbolize the Supreme Ultimate and its three stars. The banner was called 'Numinous Flag.' When one prayed for military success, the Astrologer Royal would hold it aloft and point in the direction of the country to be attacked. (Sima Qian, Shi ji, "Basic Annals 12: The Filial and Martial Emperor")

Prognostication based on the appearance of the stars of the Dipper appeared, as well as that based on the color, brightness, movements, and so forth, of comets, "guest stars" or supernovae, eclipses, occultations of planets by the moon, and a variety of atmospheric phenomena. Ancient precedent dating from the Three Dynasties (Xia, Shang, Zhou) of the Bronze Age in the second millennium led to the establishment by Han times of certain astrological resonance periods, especially dense clusters of the five visible planets at roughly 500-year intervals, as the preeminent sign of Heaven's conferral of the "mandate" to rule on the new dynasty. Other alignments of the five planets, or simply their simultaneous appearance in the sky, were popularly held to be "beneficial for China," in an indirect allusion to the existence of a non-Chinese world. Not surprisingly, given the close theoretical link in Han imperial ideology between portents, anomalies, and the conduct of state affairs, the popularization of prognostication by omens led to a politicization of astrology, and the fabrication of all manner of portents for political ends, especially during succession crises, reached a level unmatched in later imperial history. Because of the connection between astrological omens and state security, in time only imperial officials were allowed to make observations and study the records, and by imperial decree unauthorized dabbling in astrological matters became a capital offense.

Six Dynasties Period and After

Along with the gradual spread of Buddhism in the centuries following the collapse of the Han dynasty, efforts were made by Buddhist writers during the Three Kingdoms and Six Dynasties period (220589 c.e.) to integrate Indian Buddhist cosmological and astrological concepts and to reconcile incommensurate numerological categoriesfor example, matching the Buddhist mahābhūtas (four elements) with the Chinese five phases. Subsequently, attempts were made to establish even more complex correspondences between Chinese and Indian astrological sets such as the twenty-eight lunar mansions with the twelve Indian zodiacal signs derived from Hellenistic astrology, the nine planets of Indian astronomy with the seven astral deities of the Northern Dipper, and so on. During the Six Dynasties era and the early Tang dynasty (618906) in particular, China's most influential translators of Buddhist astrological works and compilers of astrological treatises were Indians such as Qutan Xida (Gautama Siddhārta, fl. 718), author of the Kaiyuan zhanjing (Kaiyuan reign-period treatise on astrology), the greatest compendium of ancient and medieval Chinese astrological fragments. On the whole, however, these efforts at syncretism exerted surprisingly little influence on long-established Chinese astrological theory, especially given the drastic decline of Buddhism following the Tang dynasty proscriptions in the mid-ninth century and the subsequent resurgence of Neo-Confucianism. Assimilation was also hindered by the difficulty of rendering the foreign concepts and terminology into Chinese, which was often accomplished by means of bizarre or idiosyncratic transliterations.

At the popular level Chinese astrology continued to absorb influences (Iranian, Islamic, Sogdian) via the Central Asian trade routes, and although certain Western numerological categories (such as the seven-day week) are represented in the enormously popular and widely circulated lishu or almanacs (documented from the ninth century), and individualized horoscopic astrology appears in later horoscopes (from the fourteenth century), Hellenistic concepts apparently had little discernible impact on the practice of astrology at the imperial court. Until modern times the most common popular forms of divination employed ancient prognostication techniques connected with lucky and unlucky denary and duodenary cyclical characters (paired to generate the sequence of sixty unique designations used to enumerate the days since at least the Shang dynasty), fate-calculation based on the eight characters bazi designating the exact time of birth, and so forth.

During the Song dynasty (9601279) astrology entered a period of routinization and gradual decline, in part as a result of overexploitation by sycophants and careerists as a means of enhancing their status or prospects at court, and in part because of the resurgence of Neo-Confucianism and a return to a more anthropocentric outlook. Along with an increasing emphasis on human affairs and moral self-cultivation, which was philosophically antithetical to superstition, the archaic belief in an interventionist Heaven that communicated by means of signs in the heavens faded into the background, and tianwen or "sky-pattern reading" shifted focus from the ever-precarious genre of prediction to a safer and more manageable interpretive mode. As a consequence, the objective status of natural phenomena declined, and the practice of astrology by imperial officials on the whole reverted to routine observing and recording of observations, focusing on the anomalous.

Henceforth, the interpretation of "sky-patterns" was Confucianizedone might even say domesticatedand only isolated instances of inductive generalization from observation are to be found, rather than interpretation more or less tendentiously based on historical precedent. Given its subservience to the state ideology, Chinese astrology was incapable of growing into an independent body of learning or science of the heavens, but remained throughout imperial history the handmaiden of politics when not dismissed as mere superstition, which humble status is confirmed by the traditionally low rank of the post of court astrologer.

See also Astrology: Overview ; Cosmology .


Henderson, John B. The Development and Decline of Chinese Cosmology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Major, John S. Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Needham, Joseph, et al. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 2: History of Scientific Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 3: Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Pankenier, David W. "Applied Field Allocation Astrology in Zhou China: Duke Wen of Jin and the Battle of Chengpu (632b.c.e.)." Journal of the American Oriental Society (1999): 261279.

. "The Cosmo-Political Background to Heaven's Mandate." Early China 20 (1995): 121176.

. "Popular Astrology and Border Affairs in Early Imperial China: An Archaeological Confirmation." Sino-Platonic Papers 104 (July 2000): 119.

Schafer, Edward H. Pacing the Void: T'ang Approaches to the Stars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Wu, Yiyi. "Auspicious Omens and Their Consequences: Zhen-Ren (10061066) Literati's Perception of Astral Anomalies." Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1990.

David W. Pankenier

About this article

Astrology: China

Updated About content Print Article


Astrology: China