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Chinese and Chaldaen Astronomy


Our first detailed knowledge of astronomy was gathered in the far East by travellers, and by the Jesuit priests, and was published in the eighteenth century. The Asiatic Society of Bengal contributed translations of Brahmin literature. The two principal sources of knowledge about Chinese astronomy were supplied, first by Father Souciet, who in 1729 published Observations Astronomical, Geographical, Chronological, and Physical, drawn from ancient Chinese books; and later by Father Moyriac-de-Mailla, who in 1777-1785 published Annals of the Chinese Empire, translated from Tong-Kien-Kang-Mou.

Bailly, in his Astronomie Ancienne (1781), drew, from these and other sources, the conclusion that all we know of the astronomical learning of the Chinese, Indians, Chaldæans, Assyrians, and Egyptians is but the remnant of a far more complete astronomy of which no trace can be found.

Delambre, in his Histoire de l’Astronomie Ancienne (1817), ridicules the opinion of Bailly, and considers that the progress made by all of these nations is insignificant.

It will be well now to give an idea of some of the astronomy of the ancients not yet entirely discredited. China and Babylon may be taken as typical examples.

Chinese Astronomy
It would appear that Fohi, the first emperor, reigned about 2952 B.C., and shortly afterwards Yu-Chi made a sphere to represent the motions of the celestial bodies. It is also mentioned, in the book called Chu-King, supposed to have been written in 2205 B.C., that a similar sphere was made in the time of Yao (2357 B.C.).[1] It is said that the Emperor Chueni (2513 B.C.) saw five planets in conjunction the same day that the sun and moon were in conjunction. This is discussed by Father Martin (MSS. of De Lisle); also by M. Desvignolles (Mem. Acad. Berlin, vol. iii., p. 193), and by M. Kirsch (ditto, vol. v., p. 19), who both found that Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury were all between the eleventh and eighteenth degrees of Pisces, all visible together in the evening on February 28th 2446 B.C., while on the same day the sun and moon were in conjunction at 9 a.m., and that on March 1st the moon was in conjunction with the other four planets. But this needs confirmation.

Yao, referred to above, gave instructions to his astronomers to determine the positions of the solstices and equinoxes, and they reported the names of the stars in the places occupied by the sun at these seasons, and in 2285 B.C. he gave them further orders. If this account be true, it shows a knowledge that the vault of heaven is a complete sphere, and that stars are shining at mid-day, although eclipsed by the sun’s brightness.

It is also asserted, in the book called Chu-King, that in the time of Yao the year was known to have 365¼ days, and that he adopted 365 days and added an intercalary day every four years (as in the Julian Calendar). This may be true or not, but the ancient Chinese certainly seem to have divided the circle into 365 degrees. To learn the length of the year needed only patient observation—a characteristic of the Chinese; but many younger nations got into a terrible mess with their calendar from ignorance of the year’s length.

It is stated that in 2159 B.C. the royal astronomers Hi and Ho failed to predict an eclipse. It probably created great terror, for they were executed in punishment for their neglect. If this account be true, it means that in the twenty-second century B.C. some rule for calculating eclipses was in use. Here, again, patient observation would easily lead to the detection of the eighteen-year cycle known to the Chaldeans as the Saros. It consists of 235 lunations, and in that time the pole of the moon’s orbit revolves just once round the pole of the ecliptic, and for this reason the eclipses in one cycle are repeated with very slight modification in the next cycle, and so on for many centuries.

It may be that the neglect of their duties by Hi and Ho, and their punishment, influenced Chinese astronomy; or that the succeeding records have not been available to later scholars; but the fact remains that—although at long intervals observations were made of eclipses, comets, and falling stars, and of the position of the solstices, and of the obliquity of the ecliptic—records become rare, until 776 B.C., when eclipses began to be recorded once more with some approach to continuity. Shortly afterwards notices of comets were added. Biot gave a list of these, and Mr. John Williams, in 1871, published Observations of Comets from 611 B.C. to 1640 A.D., Extracted from the Chinese Annals.

With regard to those centuries concerning which we have no astronomical Chinese records, it is fair to state that it is recorded that some centuries before the Christian era, in the reign of Tsin-Chi-Hoang, all the classical and scientific books that could be found were ordered to be destroyed. If true, our loss therefrom is as great as from the burning of the Alexandrian library by the Caliph Omar. He burnt all the books because he held that they must be either consistent or inconsistent with the Koran, and in the one case they were superfluous, in the other case objectionable.

Chaldaean Astronomy
Until the last half century historians were accustomed to look back upon the Greeks, who led the world from the fifth to the third century B.C., as the pioneers of art, literature, and science. But the excavations and researches of later years make us more ready to grant that in science as in art the Greeks only developed what they derived from the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. The Greek historians said as much, in fact; and modern commentators used to attribute the assertion to undue modesty. Since, however, the records of the libraries have been unearthed it has been recognised that the Babylonians were in no way inferior in the matter of original scientific investigation to other races of the same era.

The Chaldaeans, being the most ancient Babylonians, held the same station and dignity in the State as did the priests in Egypt, and spent all their time in the study of philosophy and astronomy, and the arts of divination and astrology. They held that the world of which we have a conception is an eternal world without any beginning or ending, in which all things are ordered by rules supported by a divine providence, and that the heavenly bodies do not move by chance, nor by their own will, but by the determinate will and appointment of the gods. They recorded these movements, but mainly in the hope of tracing the will of the gods in mundane affairs. Ptolemy (about 130 A.D.) made use of Babylonian eclipses in the eighth century B.C. for improving his solar and lunar tables.

Fragments of a library at Agade have been preserved at Nineveh, from which we learn that the star-charts were even then divided into constellations, which were known by the names which they bear to this day, and that the signs of the zodiac were used for determining the courses of the sun, moon, and of the five planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

We have records of observations carried on under Asshurbanapal, who sent astronomers to different parts to study celestial phenomena. Here is one:—

To the Director of Observations,—My Lord, his humble servant Nabushum-iddin, Great Astronomer of Nineveh, writes thus: “May Nabu and Marduk be propitious to the Director of these Observations, my Lord. The fifteenth day we observed the Node of the moon, and the moon was eclipsed.”

The Phoenicians are supposed to have used the stars for navigation, but there are no records. The Egyptian priests tried to keep such astronomical knowledge as they possessed to themselves. It is probable that they had arbitrary rules for predicting eclipses. All that was known to the Greeks about Egyptian science is to be found in the writings of Diodorus Siculus. But confirmatory and more authentic facts have been derived from late explorations. Thus we learn from E. B. Knobel[2] about the Jewish calendar dates, on records of land sales in Aramaic papyri at Assuan, translated by Professor A. H. Sayce and A. E. Cowley, (1) that the lunar cycle of nineteen years was used by the Jews in the fifth century B.C. [the present reformed Jewish calendar dating from the fourth century A.D.], a date a “little more than a century after the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of those whose business is recorded had fled into Egypt with Jeremiah” (Sayce); and (2) that the order of intercalation at that time was not dissimilar to that in use at the present day.

Then again, Knobel reminds us of “the most interesting discovery a few years ago by Father Strassmeier of a Babylonian tablet recording a partial lunar eclipse at Babylon in the seventh year of Cambyses, on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Tammuz.” Ptolemy, in the Almagest (Suntaxis), says it occurred in the seventh year of Cambyses, on the night of the seventeenth and eighteenth of the Egyptian month Phamenoth. Pingré and Oppolzer fix the date July 16th, 533 B.C. Thus are the relations of the chronologies of Jews and Egyptians established by these explorations.