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  • David W. Pankenier (a1)

This article examines the question whether aspects of Babylonian astral divination were transmitted to East Asia in the ancient period. An often-cited study by the Assyriologist Carl Bezold claimed to discern significant Mesopotamian influence on early Chinese astronomy and astrology. This study has been cited as authoritative ever since, including by Joseph Needham, although it has never been subjected to careful scrutiny. The present article examines the evidence cited in support of the claim of transmission.


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1. Bezold, Carl, “Sze-ma Ts'ien und die babylonische Astrologie,” Ostasiatische Zeitschrift 8 (1919), 4249; Qian, Sima 司馬遷, Shi ji 史記 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1959), 27.12891353.

2. Chavannes, Édouard, Les Mémoires Historiques de Se-Ma-Ts'ien (Paris: Leroux, 1895–1904), 6:339412.

3. Jastrow, Morris, Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens (Giessen: Ricker, 1905), 745ff.

4. The term divination may be appropriate in reference to Babylonian astrology, but I prefer to avoid it in connection with astral omenology in early China. There the celestial bodies were not thought of as divine prior to the arrival of Buddhism. For a full annotated translation of the “Treatise on the Celestial Offices,” see Pankenier, David W., Astrology and Cosmology in Early China: Conforming Earth to Heaven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 444511.

5. The elided text is Chavannes' interpolation based on Zhang Shoujie's 張守節 Shi ji zhengyi 史記正義 commentary (c. 736 c.e.).

6. Both Chavannes and Needham badly mistranslate here. It is the Moon that is obscuring the planets, as is clear from the preceding serial protases in the text, “if the Moon occults planet X . . . planet Y . . . planet Z”; Joseph Needham, with the research assistance of Li, Wang, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1959), 353.

7. Once again, Chavannes mistranslates. Needham's, “if the Moon is eclipsed near Ta-Chio,” is no better; Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 3:353.

8. Chavannes and Needham mistranslate the important technical term shou “to guard.”

9. Ho, Peng-yoke, trans. The Astronomical Chapters of the Chin shu (Paris: Mouton, 1966), 36.

10. Compare the Chinese star maps from Dunhuang 敦煌 (c. seventh century c.e.) in the collections of the British Library, based on the maps of Chen Zhuo 陳卓 (fl. third century c.e.); British Library catalog number Or.8210/S.3326. In the chart of the circumpolar region, for example, the only “unitary figure” recognizable to non-Chinese will be Ursa Major. Sun, Xiaochun and Kistemaker, Jacob, The Chinese Sky during the Han: Constellating Stars and Society (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 28.

11. There is no comparison with the success of the Jesuit astronomers in the Qing dynasty. Jesuit mathematics and calendrical science, which were demonstrably superior, coexisted with traditional Chinese astral prognostication, and their ecliptic-focused astronomy did not entirely supplant the traditional Chinese polar-equatorial focus. The Jesuits had great admiration for Chinese instrumentation, even if they found Chinese positional astronomy “backward.” Ironically, polar-equatorial orientation in astronomy is now the norm, whereas the Jesuits' ecliptic focus persists only in astrology.

12. Rochberg, Francesca, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Brown, David, “Astral Divination in the Context of Mesopotamian Divination, Medicine, Religion, Magic, Society, and Scholarship,” East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine 25 (2006), 69126.

13. Pankenier, David W., Astrology and Cosmology in Early China: Conforming Earth to Heaven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 436.

14. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 2:354.

15. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, 3:273.

16. Ronan, Colin A. and Needham, Joseph, The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 1:196.

17. Miller, Roy A., “Pleiades Perceived: From Mul.Mul to Subaru,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 108.1 (1988), 4; Schafer, Edward H., Pacing the Void: T'ang Approaches to the Stars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 10.

18. Neugebauer, Otto, A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy (Berlin, Heidelberg, and New York: Springer, 1975), 1073; Liu, Qiyu 劉起釪, “Yaodian Xi He zhang yanjiu” 堯典羲和章研究, Zhongguo shehui kexue yuan lishi yanjiusuo xuekan 中國社會科學院歷史研究所學刊 2 (2004), 64ff.

19. Pingree, David and Morrisey, Patrick, “On the Identification of the Yogatārās of the Indian Nakşatras,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 20 (1989), 246.

20. Stephenson, F. R., “Chinese and Korean Star Maps and Catalogs,” in The History of Cartography, ed. Harley, J. B. and Woodward, D., Book 2, Cartography in the traditional East and Southeast Asian societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 528.

21. John M. Steele, “A Comparison of Astronomical Terminology and Concepts in China and Mesopotamia,” (“Origins of Early Writing Systems” Conference, October, 2007, Beijing).; accessed on November 8, 2013.

22. Pankenier, Astrology and Cosmology in Early China, 17.

23. Zhejiang, sheng kaogu yanjiusuo, Yaoshan 瑤山 (Beijing: Wenwu, 2003). For the remarkable, roughly contemporaneous, Yangshao 仰韶 “cosmological” burial at Puyang 濮陽, see Pankenier, Astrology and Cosmology in Early China, 337.

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Early China
  • ISSN: 0362-5028
  • EISSN: 2325-2324
  • URL: /core/journals/early-china
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