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2.24: Chinese Astronomy

China has the longest and most persistent tradition of astronomical thought and observation of any country in the world. According to legend, Chinese astronomers were predicting eclipses before 2000 B.C.; scholars estimate the time as being closer to 1000 B.C. In any case, Chinese astronomy flourished earlier than Greek astronomy. In the Shang dynasty from 1550 to 1050 B.C., star named were derived, and they were organized into twenty-eight mansions — the Chinese equivalent of Western constellations — by around 1300 B.C. by the ruler Wu Ding. Ancient Chinese observations include records of Halley’s comet and fireballs and comprehensive lists of the mysterious "guest stars" — exploding stars that are the result of the evolution of stars more massive than the Sun. Thanks to an unbroken span of court astronomers dating back 2000 years, these records are extremely useful and are still consulted by modern astronomers. In fact, the value of the records is limited by the number of scholars that are trained to study and translate them.


The?Dunhuang map?from the?Tang Dynasty(North Polar region). This map is thought to date from the reign of?Emperor Zhongzong of Tang?(705?710). Founded in?Dunhuang,Gansu. Constellations of the three schools were distinguished with different colors: white, black and yellow for stars of?Wu Xian,Gan De?and?Shi Shen?respectively. The whole set of star maps contained 1,300 stars. Click here for original source URL

A number of cosmological models were devloped in China. One was similar to the Greek geocentric model with the Earth surrounded by a celestial sphere, but another viewed the heavens as infinite in extent and the celestial bodies floating at various speed and not attached to anything. Chinese astronomers were willing to accept that the Earth might be in motion without that motion being apparent. One court astronomer is quoted as saying "The Earth is constantly in motion, never stopping, but men do not know it; they are like people sitting in a huge boat with the windows closed; the boat moves but those inside feel nothing." Contrast this with Aristotle's view during the same era, which put a stationary Earth at the universe’s center. The Chinese view of a moving Earth was not based on detailed observations, and so it was not fully scientific in the modern sense. Chinese astronomers closely collaborated with their Indian counterparts during the Tang dynasty (610-910 A.D.) and with their Islamic counterparts during the Yuan dynasty (1270-1370 A.D.). Chinese ideas had little influence outside of Asia until after the Renaissance, since China traditionally avoided contact with the western world.