Episode 37: The Mandate of Heaven

January 1, 2024

We start to explore the relationship between the heavens and the Earth in Ancient China, along with the role of astronomers. One of the most important concepts in Chinese political thought to emerge from this was the Mandate of Heaven. Finally, we look at the oldest record of Chinese astronomy, the story of the astronomers Xi and Ho.


Good evening, and welcome to the Song of Urania, a podcast about the history of astronomy from antiquity to the present with new episodes every full moon. My name is Joe Antognini.

Well last month we wrapped up our tour of the astronomy of ancient India and this month, as promised, we will cross the Himalayas and begin our journey of the astronomy of ancient China. And, as with the other civilizations we have looked at, I think it is best to start by looking at the structure of the land before the people arrived. I’ve generally been following this pattern with the other civilizations we’ve looked at, but I think China is somewhat unusual in this regard. In the case of many of the other ancient civilizations the geography really screams out the borders of the civilization and how it will influence the people who reside there. In Egypt, for instance, we have a narrow strip of fertile land along the Nile surrounded by desert. Naturally, Egyptian civilization dominated this strip of land. From time to time it extended out to the northeast into the Levant, but really its core was this one river valley. In the case of India, the subcontinent was hemmed in by the Himalayas and was really only somewhat accessible through the northwest. In both cases you could look at the geography and reasonably guess which cities would fall within the modern day boundaries of Egypt or India, and which would be outside.

In the case of China it’s a little harder to infer from the geography of the region that the modern day borders would form a unified political entity. And, to be sure, particularly as you go to the west of the country, there are a substantial number of ethnic minorities. Over 90% of China is ethnically Han, but the Chinese government recognizes 55 minority ethnicities, among them the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols, Manchu, and Kazakhs.

Geographically, China has always been a little bit of a fuzzy concept, without really clear natural boundaries in the way that, say, India had. There are, of course, the Himalayas which provide a hard border to the southwest, but other than that the sphere of influence of Chinese civilization sort of petered out the further you got away from the heart of the country without there being any other real natural boundaries. The terrain is in general relatively hilly, particularly in the west of the country. In the southeast of the country the climate is more tropical and the terrain is dominated by dense jungle. All this meant that China was never really inaccessible from the south, but it was a difficult trek to make, and so contact tended to be limited. In particular, the difficulty of travel to the south and west meant that small convoys could make the occasional journey, which made trade and the exchange of ideas possible. But it was much harder for large migrations or invading armies to come from that direction.

The north, however, was a different story. Again, the terrain is generally hilly, but there is a point of contact with the great steppes to the north. The Asian steppe, or really the Eurasian steppe, is a truly vast region of flat grassland that extends all the way from Hungary in the west, through Ukraine above the Black sea, north above the Caspian sea, then east across southern Siberia and Kazakhstan, and extending through Mongolia. This region has been populated since the paleolithic and is probably where the Indo-European language family originated out of, including, as we learned a few episodes back, the Aryans who ultimately settled in India. And, thanks to the vast, flat, grassy expanse, the region was well suited to a nomadic, pastoralist lifestyle. For China, the main consequence of its connection to the eastern steppe in its north was that over the centuries it suffered from episodic waves of invasions of nomadic warriors from this direction. The most significant of these were, of course, the invasions of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan who managed to take control of the country and set up the Yuan dynasty at the end of the 13th century, but these kinds of invasions were a constant feature of Chinese history. Now, as with India, these invasions did not have a huge impact on Chinese culture more broadly since the invaders were nomadic pastoralists and were very few in number relative to the agricultural society they invaded. So when these invasions did occur, they tended to wipe out the top of the ruling class and establish themselves in power in their place. And over time, through intermarriage with local nobility and the gradual process of acculturation, they became assimilated into Chinese culture. But for those at the top it was a big threat and was what motivated the construction of the famous Great Wall since China has no natural border to its north.

So, to the southwest there are the Himalayas, to the southeast is dense jungle, to the east, of course, is the Pacific ocean, the west was hilly and protected by several deserts, most notably the Gobi desert. And the north was unprotected from the Asian steppe. Within China itself, the main feature that spurred the development of agricultural civilization is three river systems, all of which ran largely west to east. The most important, particularly in early Chinese history, was along the Yellow River, which is the northernmost of the three. The mouth of the Yellow River runs through the Dongying, which is a relatively modest city by Chinese standards, with only 2 million people in it. But the much more import city of Beijing is within this river system, about 200 miles NNW of Dongying. To the south is the Yangtze river whose mouth runs through the city of Shanghai. And lastly the southernmost river system in the Xi river whose mouth is at Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Broadly speaking, political power coalesced first in the north and then diffused to the south throughout Chinese history.

Now, I plan on saving a more methodical walk through the history of Chinese astronomy until the next episode. In this first episode I wanted to focus more on the earliest astronomy which is intermingled with myth and talk about some of the general characteristics of this ancient Chinese astronomy. But before we can get to this it would be helpful to have at least a coarse framework to talk about Chinese history, because it is truly vast. As with other civilizations that span millennia, historians need a way of breaking these large stretches of time into smaller, more manageable periods. So, very broadly, Chinese history is divided into four eras: the prehistoric era, which stretches from the first arrival of humans during the paleolithic until around 2000 BC. This is then followed by Ancient China, which develops around 2000 BC as agriculture has become the dominant mode of food production and large scale political organization emerges in the form of kingdoms. 221 BC then marks the transition from Ancient China to Imperial China when the Qin state conquered the five other rival states in China and unified China under a single political entity. This state of affairs lasted until 1912 AD when the Qing dynasty was overthrown and a republic was established in its place. This, then marks the transition to the final era in Chinese history, the modern era.

So, there are these four broad eras, the prehistoric, ancient, Imperial, and Modern eras. Our focus, at least for the time being, will be on Ancient and Imperial China. But this is still a lot of time. Each of these eras spans around two millennia. So the next level of subdivision is to look at dynastic lines, which tended to last for a few centuries or so. Broadly speaking, Chinese history is characterized by a kind of cycle where a series of strong emperors consolidate and centralize power over a wide area, but as the centuries go by the imperial bureaucracy became more and more sclerotic, nobles in the hinterlands begin to assert their interests more forcefully, and the empire fragments and eventually a new claimant to the imperial throne replaces the old dynasty. A wonderfully poetic description of this cycle comes from the famous opening line of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the 14th century AD: “the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” The Ancient period traditionally has three dynasties, though the first of these, the Xia dynasty, may have been legendary since the first references to it appear much later in Chinese history. The first dynasty that has a definite historical record is the Shang dynasty which emerges around 1600 BC. The Shang dynasty lasted about five and a half centuries until it was supplanted by the Zhou dynasty in 1045 BC which lasts about seven and a half centuries.

Now, today, it’s easy to just scan over a list of the names and dates of the various dynasties of ancient and Imperial China and just think, ho-hum, empires rise, empires fall, sic transit gloria mundi and so on. But in particular this first dynastic transition, at least the first one that we have records for, had an enormous impact on the way that the ancient Chinese conceptualized the state and its relationship to the broader cosmos. Never before in Chinese history had a hereditary ruler been deposed and replaced with an entirely new dynastic line. How could such a thing be justified? Now, right from the outset the general answer to this question had a definite correct answer, at least for any scholar who valued his head remaining attached to his body. Since the new guys were now in charge, you had to come up with some justification for why it was okay for them to have done what they did. But you had to be careful about your reasoning for this justification. After all, if it was legitimate for you as a plucky upstart to overthrow the old guard, what was to stop the next plucky upstart from overthrowing you? It couldn’t be too easy. It’s in this transition from the Shang to the Zhou dynasty that the concept of the Mandate of Heaven enters Chinese political thought. The idea was that the emperor’s right to rule was not granted solely by virtue of his birth. Ultimately his right to rule was granted by Heaven, and he ruled so as to keep the Earth in harmony with Heaven. So long as he ruled justly and maintained this harmony he remained the legitimate ruler. But if he ruled poorly and there was strife and injustice in the land, Heaven might revoke its mandate and invest it in a new claimant to the throne. How would you know that this new claimant indeed had the Mandate of Heaven? Well, if he was successful of course. If he managed to overthrow the old emperor and install himself on the throne, evidently he must have had the Mandate of Heaven. If his rebellion failed, then clearly he did not. Now this is an awfully convenient way for a new emperor to post facto claim that his rebellion was indeed justified, but when one dynasty replaced another the mythology would often go somewhat further to make Heaven’s approval of the new claimant more explicit. In the case of this first transition from the Shang to the Zhou dynasty, in the twilight of the Shang dynasty one of the vassal states was the kingdom of Zhou, which, at the time, was ruled by a man named King Wen. King Wen had noticed the decline in quality of the Shang emperors and spied an opportunity to break free from the yoke of the Shang emperor and possibly conquer the empire for himself. As he was plotting this rebellion he noticed two signs in the heavens in 1059 BC. The first was a rare conjunction of the five planets in the constellation of Cancer. A few months later, a comet appeared in the sky, now known to be Halley’s Comet. King Wen interpreted these signs as an indication that he had secured the favor of Heaven in his scheme to overthrow the emperor and install himself in its place. Now, although King Wen’s rebellions were generally successful, he himself died in battle before he was able to achieve complete victory, so it was his son, King Wu, who became the first emperor of the new Zhou dynasty. But this concept of the Mandate of Heaven that emerged in this dynastic transition was to play a central role in Chinese history as a check against the power of the emperor. And as we can see from the founding mythology of the Zhou dynasty, this idea had a very literal link to the heavens themselves, being revealed as an astronomical sign in the sky.

Well, before I can talk more about the way that the ancient Chinese thought about astronomy during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, I have to say a little more about what ancient Chinese society looked like. Of course, in the very earliest periods when humans first arrived in the area, societies were likely fairly egalitarian as most hunter-gatherer societies are. But as people settled in the river valleys and turned toward a sedentary agricultural lifestyle their society became much more unequal. Relatively early on, certainly by the time of the transition from Paleolithic to Ancient China around 2000 BC, power had consolidated into a relatively small landowning nobility who controlled a vast mass of peasants who worked the land. This is usually characterized as a feudal society, though officially, Chinese communist histories go even further and assert that life in this period was really a “slavery society” and that true feudalism only started during the Imperial era since peasants during this time could be bought and sold. Either way, as in other feudal or slavery societies a different set of laws applied to the nobility and the peasants. Peasants, for instance, would be subject to corporeal punishment for various crimes whereas the nobility were not, unless the crime were sufficiently serious like some form of treason or rebellion.

So, life in Ancient China was highly stratified. And like other such societies, say, Ancient Egypt as another example, it’s important to remember that what we know about their astronomy, and most of what we know about their culture more broadly, was really only the astronomy and culture of a very small elite. Basically nothing survives about the ways that the vast mass of peasants conceived of the heavens. Even practices like ancestor worship, which later on were broadly performed by the people as a whole, seem to have initially been confined only to the nobility in the earliest times. As with other societies that engaged in ancestor worship, again Ancient Egypt is a good parallel, it was probably believed early on that relatively few people had an afterlife at all. Only the great rulers survived into the afterlife and could be worshiped after they had passed on.

Well, sitting on top of the landowning nobility in ancient Chinese society was the emperor. Now, during these early dynasties, much like the kings of early medieval Europe, the emperor was a far cry in splendor and power from the later emperors of Imperial China. Their courts were relatively small and their power limited. Their domain was still fairly provincial — there were still independent states throughout China, particularly in the south, and even within their domain of nominal rule the vassal states on the outskirts were really only loosely controlled by the emperor. Among the nobility these early emperors were considered to be more of a first among equals than an absolute ruler before whom all had to submit.

So if these early emperors were not exerting their will upon the country with an iron fist, what were they doing? It is here that we can see some of the roles that astronomy played within the Chinese state. In these early days, one of the critical roles that the emperor played was almost as a chief priest of sorts. The emperor was responsible for performing various rituals to ensure that the land remained in harmony with the heavens. This idea of a kind of cosmic harmony between heaven and Earth is really central to early Chinese astronomy and we’ll see it crop up again and again. Some of the most important rituals had to do with the change of the seasons. The emperor would employ a chief astronomer who would provide reports to the emperor on the state of the heavens. As time progressed and the responsibility of the astronomers grew the astronomer royal was given the authority to employ a team of a few dozen astronomers to help him make observations and predictions. One of the most important predictions that the astronomer royal would provide the emperor was the date that each new season would start. Spring, in particular, was especially important because it signalled the time to start planting. So the astronomer royal was charged with finding the first day of spring, but beyond that, he also had to find the day that was most astrologically propitious for beginning the planting season since this could be some time later. Then, on this chosen day, the emperor would travel to the east, since the east was associated with spring, and he would ritually plow three furrows into the ground. Then his most important court officials would follow him in this and plow three furrows of their own.

This ritual is a nice exemplar of how the ancient Chinese saw their relationship to heaven. When things were right in the world, there was a harmony between heaven and Earth and the link between the two was in the person of the emperor. The emperor, via his astronomers, tracked the heavens and then behaved in accord with its changes in order to keep all things in a cosmic unison. When the emperor failed to do act in harmony with the heavens there would be chaos on Earth: bloodshed, floods, plague. And this chaos would not be limited to the Earth — it would extend to the heavens as well and there would be unusual, ominous events in the sky — eclipses, new stars, even the planets themselves could go off their ordinary paths. One of the earliest Chinese astronomers, Shi Shen, put it this way:

When a wise prince occupies the throne, the moon follows the right way. When the prince is not wise and the ministers exercise power, the moon loses its way. When the high officials let their interests prevail over public interest, the moon goes astray towards north or south. When the moon is rash, it is because the prince is slow in punishing; when the moon is slow, it is because the prince is rash in punishing.

So we see that there was a kind of golden middle way that had to be walked. If things on Earth veered too far in one direction, the Heavens would have to move in the opposite direction to maintain balance.

Now, to be clear, particularly in the early days, the emperor was not viewed as the singular link between heaven and Earth. But he was viewed in a very real sense as the center of the Earth, and paralleled the heavens. Perhaps due to China’s isolation from other civilizations of similar scale and sophistication, China has historically viewed itself as sitting at the center of the world. This kind of a self-conception is by no means unique among historical societies, but was probably more pronounced than usual in China. If the emperor looked north, west, east, or south there were no other cultures they considered their equal. There was simply ocean to the east, mountains and jungle to the south, desert to the west, and barbarians to the north. In fact China’s name for itself in Mandarin, Zhongguo, literally translates to something like the “Middle Kingdom,” or “Central State.” The picture of the world was one in which the emperor sat in the middle and civilization emanated out from him, growing weaker with distance. So around the emperor was his court, who performed his will in the palace. Then there were his officials who carried out his decrees throughout the land. Then there were his subjects who were under his direct rule and enjoyed the fruits of the civilization that he provided. Further still were tributary kingdoms which governed themselves quasi-independently, but sent the emperor tribute. And furthest from the emperor were the barbarians who did not enjoy his benevolent rule. The idea that the emperor was at the center of civilization was taken so seriously that formally Chinese diplomacy did not permit the concept of independent states. There were simply kingdoms which ruled on behalf of the emperor and paid him tribute in return, or there were barbarians. As such there was no place for foreign diplomats in this system, individuals who formally represented one state to another. There were simply tributary envoys. These envoys would ritually kowtow to the emperor, make the deepest bow in Chinese etiquette in which one would kneel on the ground and bend down until one’s head touched the ground to symbolically recognize the superiority of the emperor. The envoy would then present their tribute to the emperor and in return would receive gifts from the emperor. Finally, the emperor would formally grant the ruler of the tributary kingdom the authority to rule the land in the emperor’s name. But the emperor would not deign to receive the representative of an independent state as an equal. Even during the 17th and 18th centuries AD when there was more extensive contact between China and European powers, the Chinese state maintained this fiction that the European powers were simply tributary states of the Middle Kingdom which had voluntarily submitted to the authority of the emperor. This all encompassing view of the powers of the emperor is even seen in the word used to describe the lands he governed: tianxia, which literally translates to “all under heaven.” Originally this word referred to the entire Earth, but as the view developed that the entirety of the Earth was under the authority of the emperor, the word came to mean the lands under his direct rule.

Now, this view had a cosmic parallel. The emanation out from the emperor to the four corners of earth with all things revolving around him, north, south, east, and west, was then mirrored in the heavens with the stars all rotating about the north star. The polar region, and the north star in particular, were then closely associated with the emperor. The polar region was called the “Purple palace,” or the “Purple forbidden enclosure.” The stars around the north celestial pole were identified with the emperor himself and his immediate family: so along with the star to represent the emperor there was a star to represent the empress and the crown prince. Outside this immediate grouping there were the four advisors to the emperor. Further still there was the royal secretary, the chief judge, the handmaidens of the empress. The palace itself was represented physically with some stars being the various walls of the palace, and another representing the canopy that shaded the emperor. Interestingly, Chinese history is so long that the precession of the equinoxes has a very noticeable effect. Over the millennia the north celestial pole has migrated from near Thuban, in the constellation Draco around 3000 BC to Kochab in Ursa Minor around 1000 BC, and only recently has come near Polaris. If we look at the path the north celestial pole has taken we find a string of stars that are associated with the emperor or some kind of identification with the pole. So there is a star called the “celestial pivot,” another the “celestial pillar,” and another still the “celestial emperor.” So probably some of these names were given in a time when the star was close to the north celestial pole.

And as an aside here, it’s worth noting the maybe obvious fact that this special attention paid to the north celestial pole is a characteristic feature of societies at northern latitudes. These cultures all feature the Big Dipper and the pole star prominently in their celestial mythology. Although equatorial societies can generally see the Big Dipper, it is just not as impressive low on the horizon compared to at higher latitudes when it is always to be seen circling the pole. So it, along with the pole star tend not to feature so prominently in the mythology of equatorial cultures. Instead equatorial cultures tend to focus more on the zodiac and the Milky Way.

Well, the earliest evidence we have of an interest in the heavens in ancient China comes from archaeological evidence from the prehistoric era. There are a number of images on pottery from probably the middle of the third millennium BC that depict the sun and the moon, and at least one image seems to represent a constellation.

There’s unfortunately not too much we can infer from these oldest depictions besides the fact that from an early age the Chinese were evidently interested in astronomy, but the oldest written record of astronomy tells us quite a bit more. This comes to us in a text called the Canon of Yao which was included in a work called the Book of Documents which was supposedly edited by Confucius himself. Now, I’ll have more to say about Confucius later, but his inclusion of this work in the Book of Documents guaranteed its survival for later generations. Traditionally, Confucius was believed to have collected in a number of ancient texts into the “Sishu Wujing,” which translates to the Four Books and Five Classics. This collection acted as a kind of canon of foundational texts to Chinese culture in much the same way that the collection of texts in the Old Testament and New Testament came to be a set of foundational texts for Western culture. Like the books of the Bible, the documents contained in the Four Books and Five Classics are quite varied. There is the Classic of Poetry, which as the name implies, is a collection of poems. The Spring and Autumn Annals is a historical text. The Analects is a collection of sayings of Confucius along with discussions of these sayings. The I Ching is a book on divination. There’s the Book of Rites, which is an instruction manual of sorts on courtly etiquette and ritual. And the Book of Documents contains speeches, proclamations, and other documents from ancient Chinese kings. Now, before getting into the Canon of Yao itself, it’s worth saying a little bit more about the historiography here, and just how these oldest documents have survived to us. Now, writing itself is very old in China and appears to have developed independently from any other civilization. The oldest written artifacts date to the late 13th century BC during the Shang dynasty. These are on what are called oracle bones. The idea was that you would take the bone from an animal, usually a shoulder blade which had a large, flat surface. Various characters would be etched into the bone and then you would apply a hot bronze pin to the bone. The hot pin would cause a network of cracks to form across the bone, and the structure of these cracks with respect to the characters could be interpreted to divine the future. Even at this early date, many of the characters that appear on these oracle bones are recognizable to their modern Chinese equivalents.

Now, despite the fact that writing began quite early on, as with other ancient civilizations, the oldest documents that survive to us generally do not do so in their original form, but were compiled, quoted, and almost certainly edited by later authors, who may have been themselves collected and edited by still later authors in turn. So we have to keep in mind that the oldest documents probably also bear the imprint of the opinions of later stages of the civilization. Even if they did not explicitly change anything in the text, their decision to preserve the text at all was a reflection of the values of these later cultures and its opinion of the earlier culture. So as with the science of ancient Greece, in ancient China we are to some degree looking through a glass, darkly. One particularly important event was the burning of books and burning of scholars in 213 BC. Now to provide a bit of background here, towards the end of the Ancient Period of China, the Zhou dynasty became extremely weak. The emperor was in essence reduced to a figurehead who performed the rituals that were required of him, but had no real temporal power. Now, nominally, the rulers of the various kingdoms throughout China had declared their allegiance to the emperor and went through the motions of acting as tributary kingdoms to the emperor. But towards the end, these rulers didn’t even bother to keep up appearances and ultimately declared themselves to be independent states, even if they had been de facto independent for quite some time. The last century and a half of the Zhou dynasty is called the Warring States period and as the name implies it was a bit of a chaotic time in internal Chinese geopolitics. But, as with Renaissance Italy or Classical Greece, a time of turbulent politics can coincide with a vibrant intellectual flowering, and this is just what happened in Ancient China. Without a strong central authority to enforce rigid intellectual conformity, the late Zhou dynasty saw a period in Chinese cultural history that has been called the Hundred Schools of Thought. During these years philosophers would travel from kingdom to kingdom and provide their services to local rulers and officials for a few years before moving on to the next. During their stay they would counsel the ruler on matters of state: war, diplomacy, law, and so forth. These scholars would hail from some philosophical school or other, but they were only loosely bound to it, so during this period there was a flourishing of approaches to the great philosophical questions of the day. And, broadly speaking, the most important questions that they were interested in had to do with the nature and mechanism of government. Now, as the name Hundred Schools of Thought implies, during this period there wasn’t a single answer to these questions, but over time the various approaches coalesced into a handful of major schools.

By far the most important of these schools was Confucianism. Confucius himself somewhat predated the Warring States Period, dying probably in 479 BC, a few years after the usual date that’s cited as the start of the Warring States Period of 475 BC. But his legacy was extremely long and during the subsequent centuries his intellectual disciples expanded on his philosophy. Now a description of the tenants of Confucianism could easily merit an entire podcast series of its own, but some of the hallmarks of Confucian thought was an emphasis on harmony, particularly social harmony and a harmony with nature. Every person must situate him- or herself appropriately in the natural order of things. This meant that a high value was placed on social order and hierarchies. The place of the individual with respect to broader society was important, of course, but most important was one’s relationship to one’s own family. Situating oneself within the proper order of things meant faithfully carrying out the duties incumbent upon one’s station in life. Parents must provide for and guide their children. Children have a duty to show respect to their parents. The official has a duty to carry out the will of the emperor, and the emperor has a duty to rule wisely to the benefit of his people. Another hallmark of Confucianism is an emphasis on ritual and tradition.

Another major school to emerge from the Hundred Schools of Thought has been called Legalism. The philosopher Li Kui is generally credited as being the founder of this school, but the most influential Legalist philosopher was Han Fei, who worked at the end of the Warring States Period. Now you’ll recall that earlier I was saying that in early Chinese history, the role that the emperor was supposed to play was somewhat fuzzy. The emperor had a variety of rituals that he performed, but in periods when the emperor was stronger he would exert his will on his tributary kingdoms more, and in periods when he was weaker he became almost a kind of figurehead. So being an emperor in this early period of Chinese history could mean a lot of different things. But what was the role of the ideal emperor? Han Fei and other Legalist scholars came out very forcefully with the idea that first and foremost the role of the emperor is to make law, and, importantly, to effectively enforce this law throughout the land. Now, to us moderners, this may seem like a rather obvious thing. Of course the principal role of the state is to make and enforce laws — what else could it be? But this perspective is an artifact of the institutions we have grown up around that themselves were shaped by centuries of political thought. In the ancient world it was much less clear. Governments looked very different from a modern state, and what their role and purpose was was still being worked out. To Han Fei, the ideal emperor would propound law, and by this he meant that there would be a single system of law throughout the land with no exceptions. The same laws should apply to the commoners as to the court officials. What applied in one village would apply to the village next door and to a village on the other side of the empire. Moreover, because the law came from the emperor, nobles could not make up their own laws. Thus under a single legal system there would be harmony throughout the land. But one of his important innovations is that Han Fei recognized that simply propounding the law was not sufficient. The ideal emperor had to be sufficiently competent to ensure that it was properly enforced. This he called “Shu”. To achieve this Han Fei emphasized the importance of xing-ming, which we might roughly translate to accountability. An official’s deeds should match his words. If he says he is to do something, he should do just that. If he says he will do something and does not do it, he merits punishment. If he says he will do something and does even more, he merits punishment for overstepping his bounds. If he says he will do something and does precisely that, he should be rewarded. An example Han Fei gives is of the emperor falling asleep and the keeper of the hat laying a robe on the sleeping emperor. In Han Fei’s judgment the keeper of the hat should be executed for this act because he has overstepped the bounds of his office. Moreover, the keeper of the robe, whose responsibility it was to lay the robe on the emperor should also be put to death because he was negligent in his duties. In Legalist thought this system of rewards and punishments is termed the “two handles,” and are the principle means by which the law is enforced. Because the authority to reward and punish is so powerful, the emperor must jealously guard this power for himself so that he can maintain his rule. If you are thinking that all this sounds somewhat Machiavellian, you would not be the first to see this parallel between Western and Eastern political philosophy. Of the various philosophical schools that came out of the Hundred Schools of Thought, Legalism advocated the most strenuously for a powerful and highly centralized state.

Now, there are two other schools of thought that are briefly worth mentioning: Taoism and Mohism. Taoism was somewhat orthogonal to the other main schools of thought. Like Confucianism, there was a very strong emphasis on living in harmony with the natural order of things, but Taoist philosophers were on the whole far less interested in questions of hierarchy and state. One depiction of the ideal society was one in which the villagers in a village knew that there was another village off yonder because they could hear the cocks crowing in the morning, but otherwise had no interaction with them. Because Taoism was more inward looking it had less of an impact on Chinese politics than Confucianism and Legalism. The last major school to emerge that I’ll mention was Mohism. The Mohists can maybe be roughly analogized to the Pythagoreans in ancient Greece, in that they organized themselves into a coherent school with a fairly radical philosophy. Central to Mohism was the idea of “jian ai” which translates to something like “impartial care.” Individuals should act with love for all other people even if they are not of the same family or even nationality. Mohism stood rather starkly in opposition to Confucianism which proposed a kind of hierarchy of cares, where one cared most about one’s immediate family, then one’s clan, then one’s village and so on. The Mohists also stood in opposition to what they saw as the extravagance of Confucianism with its fussy rituals and decadent luxury. The Confucians wasted time listening to music and enjoying art when there were practical matters of state to attend to. To the Mohists, the wise man should live an austere life, eating only what he needed to and should use his time working for the good of the people. Rather like the Pythagoreans they, too, were also interested in mathematics.

Now, in this cursory overview of some of the ideas that were sprouting up during the late period of the Zhou dynasty, one thing that stands out is that the questions that the philosophers of the day were considering were intensely practical. They were interested in questions of virtue, morality, duty, and politics. There is not much discussion that emerges on more abstruse topics like, say, metaphysics, or epistemology, or cosmology. There’s not really an equivalent of the Ionian School in Greece, where generations of philosophers argued with themselves over whether the fundamental nature of matter was fire or air or water, or some combination of them or something else entirely. We don’t really see Chinese philosophers of this period deal with what we might call the supernatural. Now, this is not to say that there was no belief whatsoever in the supernatural. The common people had worshiped various nature gods since ancient times, and there was even a highest deity called Shangdi to whom the emperor himself made sacrifices. But relative to other cultures across the globe, the Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, Hebrews, Babylonians, there is surprisingly little discussion of these kinds of subjects by the Chinese sages. Probably the only culture with a similar kind of focus on a more practical kind of philosophy is the Romans, but even here the Roman philosophical tradition was quite meagre compared to the Chinese. As one specialist of Chinese philosophy, Herbert Finagrette, put it, Chinese philosophy described “the secular as sacred.”

Okay, so this has been a somewhat long prologue to the main event, the burning of books and burning of scholars that I started with. Now, after the centuries of political fragmentation during the Period of the Warring States, a series of kings from the Qin state managed to conquer the six other major states and unify all of China once again, or at least the regions around the eastern Yellow and Yangtze river valleys. When the dust had settled from these conquests, the king of the Qin state, Yang Zheng, had become emperor and adopted the regal name Qin Shi Huang. Now, Yang Zheng’s rise to the top was not all peaches and cream. He survived two assassination attempts and himself had to knock off several rivals to the throne. So when he finally achieved the highest office in Chinese society, he was not the sort of man to kick his feet back and become complacent. Now, the emperor had a counselor named Li Si. Li Si was not a native of the Qin state, which was not especially unusual as a scholar and advisor in this period, but nevertheless the end of the Warring States Period was a turbulent time for such a role, and Li Si was shrewd enough to survive it. In 237 BC a faction in the court encouraged King Yang Zheng to expel his foreign advisors on the logic that as foreigners they could not be trusted and were possibly spies for his enemies. Li Si reportedly made an eloquent defence of the role of foreigners in the court, and just to be safe he made sure that his argument was not only intellectual and noted the benefits of having “the sultry girls of Zhao” in the emperor’s presence. Well, Li Si’s advice had been critical in Yang Zheng’s conquests of his rival states. Li Si understood that Qin Shi Huang’s plans would be futile if the other states united against him, so it was imperative that he do whatever it took to prevent that unification from happening. One of the ways he ensured this was to foster a brain drain of sorts from the other states into the state of Qin by offering generous sinecures to their scholars to move into his employ. And to sweeten the deal, scholars who did not defect he assassinated. So Li Si and the Emperor Qin Shi Huang were men who were clearly convinced of the power of ideas. So after Qin Shi Huang had ascended to the imperial throne, on the advice of Li Si, he ordered a massive purge of any ideas which were not congruent with his philosophy of governance. All of the books from the other schools were to be burned. The historian Sima Qian described the event in the Records of the Grand Historian as follows:

Chancellor Li Si said: “I, your servant, propose that all historians’ records other than those of Qin’s be burned. With the exception of the academics whose duty includes possessing books, if anyone under heaven has copies of the [Classic of Poetry], [Classic of History], or the writings of the hundred schools of philosophy, they shall deliver them (the books) to the governor or the commandant for burning. Anyone who dares to discuss the Classic of Poetry or the Classic of History shall be publicly executed. Anyone who uses history to criticize the present shall have his family executed. Any official who sees the violations but fails to report them is equally guilty. Anyone who has failed to burn the books after thirty days of this announcement shall be subjected to tattooing and be sent to build the Great Wall. The books that have exemption are those on medicine, divination, agriculture, and forestry. Those who have interest in laws shall instead study from officials.”

In addition to this purge of books, Sima Qian’s history tells that to drive the point home, two years later 460 scholars whose thought was not politically correct were buried alive.

So, what books survived this purge, and what was burned? Perusing over the Hundred Schools of Thought that I described earlier, it’s clear that one of these, in particular, really jived with the cutthroat politics that Qin Shi Huang knew so well. So, Legalism came out as the big winner from the burning of books. Confucianism survived as well since it was not entirely offensive to the thought of Emperor Qin Shi Huang with its emphasis on the importance of hierarchy and duty, but it survived in a diminished form. It wasn’t until the following Han dynasty that there was a reaction against the Legalism of the Qin dynasty, and a rehabilitation of Confucianism in Chinese intellectual culture. Taoism sort of went under the radar since its rejection of worldly politics did not really make it much of a threat. But the big loser from all this was Mohism, which with its touchy-feely ideas about universal love was not concordant with Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s will-to-power.

Now, the evidence for this event comes from the historian Sima Qian, who was writing more than a century later and had his own motives, so it is not generally believed to be an entirely trustworthy account. But whether or not this specific event happened as he claimed it to, the broader point I think still stands, that ancient Chinese records were heavily censored by later regimes, so things only survived if they were deemed acceptable. If they weren’t they would either have been forgotten or contorted until they were.

So, with that gigantic caveat out of the way, we can finally dive in to the earliest written record of Chinese astronomy in the Canon of Yao. In traditional Chinese history, Yao was a king, who was probably mythical, who ruled even prior to the initial Xia dynasty, which itself was probably mythical. The most relevant part of the document goes like this:

[Yao] commanded [the astronomers] Xi and Ho, in reverent accordance with (their observation of) the wide heavens, to calculate and delineate (the movements and appearances of) the sun, the moon, the stars, and the zodiacal spaces, and so to deliver respectfully the seasons to be observed by the people. He separately commanded the second brother Xi to reside at Yu-yi, in what was called the Bright Valley, and (there) respectfully to receive as a guest the rising sun, and to adjust and arrange the labours of the spring. ‘The day,’ (said he), ‘is of the medium length, and the star is in Niao — you may thus exactly determine mid-spring. The people are dispersed (in the fields), and birds and beasts breed and copulate.’ He further commanded the third brother Xi to reside at Nan-jiao, (in what was called the Brilliant Capital). To adjust and arrange the transformations of the summer, and respectfully-to observe the exact limit (of the shadow). ‘The day,’ (said he), ‘is at its longest, and the star is in Huo — you may thus exactly determine mid-summer. The people are more dispersed; and birds and beasts have their feathers and hair thin, and change their coats.’ He separately commanded the second brother He to reside at the west, in what was called the Dark Valley, and (there) respectfully to convoy the setting sun, and to adjust and arrange the completing labours of the autumn. ‘The night’ (said he), ‘is of the medium length, and the star is in Xu — you may thus exactly determine mid-autumn. The people feel at ease, and birds and beasts have their coats in good condition.’ He further commanded the third brother He to reside in the northern region, in what was called the Sombre Capital, and (there) to adjust and examine the changes of the winter. ‘The day,’ (said he), ‘is at its shortest, and the star is in Mao — you may thus exactly determine mid-winter. The people, keep in their houses, and the coats of birds and beasts are downy and thick.’ The [emperor] said, ‘Ah! you, Xi and Ho, a round year consists of three hundred, sixty, and six days. [You are], by means of the intercalary month, [to] fix the four seasons, and complete (the period of) the year. (Thereafter), the various officers being regulated, in accordance with this, all the works (of the year) will be fully performed.’

So we see in this short story that the main program of Chinese astronomy for centuries to come has been laid out in the very earliest times. We see, for instance, that astronomy, like the rest of civilization, emanated out from the emperor. It is the emperor who commands his astronomers to observe the heavens. The astronomers, moreover, are expected to travel widely to make their observations, to all corners of the land. They are to observe the Sun, Moon, planets, zodiacal signs, and seasons. We see, too, that the purpose of these observations is so that the appropriate rituals can be conducted at the solstices and equinoxes and to fix the calendar. There have been some theories that the original motivation for these kinds of rituals around the solstices may have stemmed from a fear that without their intervention the seasons might continue indefinitely. The summer would simply get hotter and hotter or the winter would get colder and colder. So man’s active participation was needed to regulate the changing of the seasons. Later on, certainly by the time of recorded history it seems that these rituals were conceived in a less literal way, as a way of maintaining a harmony between the heavens and the earth.

Paying close attention to some of the details in this story we can also try to estimate approximately when the story was originally written. The text tells us four stars that are associated with the solstices and equinoxes. Niao Hsing, literally the Bird Star, and the brightest star in Hyades, is associated with spring. Ta Ho, or Antares, but literally Great Fire, is associated with summer. Hsu is Beta Aquarius and is associated with autumn, and Mao is the Pleiades and is associated with winter. Now, the usual assumption when a culture has associated a set of stars with the seasons is that these stars would have been heliacally rising at the solstices or equinoxes, but unfortunately this does not give a consistent set of dates in this story. The Pleiades had their heliacal rising coincide with the winter solstice around 1500 BC, but Beta Aquarius had its heliacal rising coincide with the autumnal equinox around 350 BC, more than 11 centuries later. An alternative possibility is that the association between these stars and the solstices and equinoxes was not a heliacal rising, but was where the Sun, in fact, was. This would have happened around 2000 BC. In other words, around 2000 BC, during the winter solstice, the Sun would have been near the Pleiades star cluster, and during the summer solstice it would have been near Antares. If this is the meaning the story has it would be quite remarkable, because if the Sun is near these stars, obviously you can’t see them. So it would have taken a quite sophisticated set of observations and mental model of the heavens to infer that the Sun was near the Pleiades on the winter solstice when you couldn’t actually see the Pleiades at that time.

At the end of the story, there is also a reference to the length of the year. The emperor proclaims that the year is 366 days long. Now, this may seem like a rather poor value to use, being off by 3/4 of a day, but it is probable that there was a convention to count any fraction of a day as a whole day, in effect, rounding the length of the year up to a whole number. The last detail from the story worth dwelling on is the mention of an intercalary month. Now, while the story doesn’t give any detail about how this was calculated, the fact that there was an intercalary month implied that very early on the Chinese used a lunar month and recognized that its length was not commensurate with the length of the year and this required periodic adjustment. So in this brief, somewhat unassuming story we see quite a lot of sophistication in early Chinese astronomy.

Well, the two main astronomers in this story, Hsi and Ho, also appear in a later, more popular story. This version of events may have been a corruption of the burning of books and burning of scholars. In this telling Hsi and Ho were again astronomers of the emperor. However, they were rather fond of the bottle and neglectful of their duties. One year, on the first day of autumn there was a solar eclipse when the Sun was near the star of Arcturus. Having had no warning of this, the commoners panicked and wreaked havoc across the kingdom. The emperor, furious at Hsi and Ho for failing to predict the eclipse, had the pair executed.

Now, it’s possible that this story had some basis in reality, but even if it did, the original event was probably more of a political conflict in which the court astronomer ended up taking the losing side and was executed. The story about their crime being a failure to predict an eclipse would have been a later embellishment. That said, if we do take the story seriously as a record of an actual solar eclipse, we can back out some possible dates that it might have occurred on. According to the story the eclipse happened in early autumn near the star of Arcturus. Such an eclipse happened on October 22, 2137 BC, although there is another candidate on October 16, 1876 BC. Now, in these later tellings of the story the crime of Hsi and Ho was in their failure to predict this eclipse, since predicting eclipses was one of the primary functions of the court astronomers. But it is more plausible that the original conception of this tale was that the failure of Hsi and Ho was to prevent the eclipse, not merely to predict it. Incidentally, the names of the astronomers in this oldest story, Hsi and Ho, may also have originally been a single name, “Hsi-Ho” and derived from a mythical figure who was either the mother of the Sun, or the chariot driver of the Sun. This hapless duo were later catasterized in Chinese astronomy and represented in the sky by a celestial object called the Double Cluster in Perseus.

Well, I think I will leave it here for this month. This episode was a somewhat impressionistic overview of some of the ideas that were floating around in ancient China and how they related to the heavens. Next month we’ll start to move through the history of Chinese astronomy more systematically and exit the realm of myth and into more trustworthy records. I hope you’ll join me then. Until the next full moon, good night and clear skies.

Additional References

  • Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3