Date: December 28, 2010

Title: The Eastern Sky


Podcaster: Natalie Hildebrandt & Grace Thornton

Description: The history and development of astronomy in Eastern cultures including the manner the Chinese astronomers divided up the sky, timekeeping and the oldest star map.

Bio: Natalie is a computer science major at Carnegie Mellon University. She grew up in the beautiful state of Colorado, and has always enjoyed traveling into the Rocky Mountains on a late night to look at the stars. She dreams of doing humanitarian or non-profit work, but will always appreciate the beauty of God’s heavens.

Grace studies fine arts, creative writing, and film through Carnegie Mellon’s BXA program. She grew up in Atlanta, GA with a mother who teaches astronomy to fourth graders and has always been fascinated by the stars. She likes writing children’s stories and loves watching good films.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the Carnegie Mellon University Physics Department and dedicated to students everywhere who are opening their eyes to the heavens. We hope you enjoy hearing our Introductory Astronomy students, Grace and Natalie, in their first podcast.

Additional sponsorship for this episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” has also been provided by Wayne Robertson, who encourages you to join him in supporting this great podcast.


GRACE: Hello! And welcome to 365 Days of Astronomy. My name is Grace and I’m here with my friend Natalie to talk about astronomy in the Chinese culture.

NATALIE: We thought it would be interesting to delve into the history of astronomy in places like China. Western astronomy has a rich history full of famous figures and scientific marvels, but Chinese astronomy developed independent of Greek thought and Catholic Church constraints. This led Chinese astronomy down a much different historical path and it’s just as intriguing as the history of Western astronomy.

GRACE: That’s very true; Chinese astronomy is extremely interesting, and we will only be able to discuss a small portion of the plethora of tales it contains today.

NATALIE: That sounds like a good reason to get started! Let’s begin with long ago.

GRACE: The ancient Chinese astronomers divided the sky’s ecliptic into four regions, assigning each region with the name of a mysterious animal. The Azure Dragon is to the East, the Black Tortoise to the North, White Tiger to the west, and the Vermilion Bird to the South.

NATALIE: Each of these regions was divided according to where the Moon crossed during its period orbiting the Earth. These latitudes were called mansions, and each of the four regions contained seven mansions.

GRACE: These mansions held not only astronomical, but also cultural importance. In the early 1980s, a tomb was found in the Henan Province in central China. There were some clamshells and bones in the tomb, which formed the images of the Azure Dragon, the White Tiger and the Big Dipper. It is believed that the tomb belongs to the Neolithic Age, about 6,000 years ago.

NATALIE: Not only that, but oracle bones containing star names relating to the 28 lunar mansions have been discovered. These bones date back to the Wuding Period, which was 3,200 years ago.

GRACE: Also, in 1977, a lacquer box was found in the tomb of Yi in the Hubei Province in central China. The box dates back to 433 BC and is adorned with the names of the 28 lunar mansions.

NATALIE: So many archaeological finds from vastly different time periods proves that the concept of divisions of the sky was not only rooted in Chinese science, but also in Chinese culture.

GRACE: Yet in spite of the obvious role that mansions of the sky played in Chinese culture, the meaning of most of the names of the mansions have become obscure in modern times. Even worse, the name of each lunar mansion consists of only one Chinese word, and the meaning of individual words often changed throughout history.

NATALIE: Yes. However, there is another crucial concept to the history of Chinese astronomy beyond dividing the sky. Timekeeping was the original purpose of studying astronomy in China, and this study eventually led to the creation of the lunisolar calendar. Lunisolar calendars indicate both the phase of the moon and the solar year, just as the Chinese calendar does today.

GRACE: However, unlike today, the antiquated Chinese calendar was considered a symbol of a dynasty, and was thus changed with each new dynasty.

NATALIE: This led to a lack of accuracy of the Chinese calendar in the long run, though a systematic calendar did arise in more modern times.

GRACE: There were many variations on the calendar, but the Chinese did predictably use astronomy to determine the seasons within the calendar system of the time.

NATALIE: That’s right! They used the handle of the Big Dipper, or the Plough, to determine the season. In the winter the “handle” points north, at early evening. In the spring the “handle” points east at early evening, and so on.

GRACE: This concept eventually led to a 12-month calendar, as the sky was divided into twelve sections in order to indicate where the handle of the Plough was pointing at that time of year. Each section was given a name, and all twelve are known as the terrestrial branches of the sky.

NATALIE: After establishing a timekeeping system of some sort, the Chinese began to track celestial objects. Astronomers took careful note of what were termed “guest stars,” which suddenly appeared among the fixed stars in the sky.

GRACE: The supernova that created the Crab Nebula, observed in 1054, is an example of a guest star observed by Chinese astronomers, although it was not recorded by their European contemporaries.

NATALIE: Ancient astronomical records of phenomena like supernovae and comets are sometimes used in modern astronomical studies, including the records of Chinese astronomers from these eras.

GRACE: The Chinese also drew many maps of stars in the past centuries. Older artifacts, such as pottery, have been discovered with designs that look much like star charts. However, there are also many standalone maps that have been discovered. The most famous one is the Dunhuang map found in Dunhuang, Gansu, uncovered in 1907.

NATALIE: The map was drawn on paper and represents the complete sky with more than 1,350 stars. Although ancient Babylonians and Greeks also observed the sky and catalogued stars, no such complete record of the stars may exist or survive. So it is the oldest star map of the skies to date.

GRACE: Many treasures such as this star map exist in the long and vibrant history of Chinese astronomy. It is unfortunate that the history of Chinese astronomy is not taught or discussed as often in Western cultures.

NATALIE: I agree. However, I enjoyed discussing it with you today, and I hope our listeners enjoyed hearing a portion of the exquisite history of Chinese astronomy as well.

Thanks for listening, and remember that much of our future is found in the past.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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