Chinese Astronomy Recorded Comets and More

August 17, 2010 at 11:25 pm 2 comments

by Milky Way Maid

I was astonished when I attended a museum showing of Chinese astronomical artifacts, which toured a couple years ago to the Midwest.

One exhibit displayed a chart of the many different types of comets – 27 in all, according to an ancient chart. Their close observations noted not only the size and shape of the tail, but any discernible differences in the core of the comet. You can view this chart online at http://hua.umf.maine.edu/China/astronomy/tianpage/0009H_comets6563w.html

Comets were called ‘broom stars’ (tui xing), named after their tails, which they duly noted always pointed away from the sun. They had no idea what the cause of that orientation was, but they made copious notes of that and other details. The Chinese are believed to have made the first observation of the legendary Halley’s comet in 240 BC. On its return in 530 BC, they noted that “In September, it was one degree to the northwest of Xiatai ( a star in Ursa Major).”

According to the folks at China.org, the Chinese noted in addition to comets, the lunar and solar eclipses (the ones visible in their region), novas, and more. They invented astronomical clocks, and a type of armillary showing the relative positions of the planets. [The Greeks and the Arabs also had armillaries.] Yet astrology as we know it today or even in medieval times was not part of Chinese astronomy.

The Chinese focused more on the constellations, creating one of the earliest star maps ever found. They gave their own distinctive names to our familiar constellations; for example, the Big Dipper was called The Plow. The North Star was Bei Ji. Another constellation was called the Winnowing Basket.

You can read a general overview of Chinese astronomy at http://www.china.org.cn/e-gudai/6.htm

Both the Chinese and the Greeks were fascinated by comets; the Greeks called them “bearded stars,” or aster pogonias. The ones with longer tails were called aster kometas, from which we get the name comet. The Greeks knew that comets were not planets, but were unable to determine their true nature.

However both the Greeks and Chinese read omens into the appearance of a comet. The Greeks tended to link drought and high winds with the appearance of comets, an idea that persisted into the Middle Ages when comets became heralds of disaster. The medieval people believed that comets were a “fiery corruption of the air” that brought earthquakes, disease, famine, etc.

The Chinese read into the appearance of comets something of karmic retribution. They believed that if an emperor was unjust, or had governed badly, that the heavens would make their displeasure known, with the appearance of a “guest star” (another name for a nova) or with other unpredicted changes in the sky.

This widespread folk belief may have been manipulated by parties hungry for power. On at least one occasion, the onset of an multiple-planet conjunction was used by one army to infer that the heavens were displeased with the current regime, and successfully overthrew it.

So keep an eye on the sky if you want to hold on to your throne!

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Entry filed under: Astronomy Notes on the Web. Tags: , , , , , , .

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