Invited_talk abstract details

Bringing Heaven Down to Earth in Ancient China
David Pankenier


Study of the cosmological significance of the North Pole in ancient Chinese thought suggests that ritual specialists in Bronze Age China, like their earlier counterparts in ancient Egypt, used the circumpolar stars to find true north, a challenge complicated during the last two millennia BCE by the absence of a comparatively bright star at the pole. Archaeological discoveries from the Xia, Shang, and Zhou periods show that it was crucial to achieve a cardinal orientation of the built environment—walls, palaces, temples, tombs, common burials, and even storage pits give evidence of a preoccupation with N-S axial alignment. It has long been understood that cardinality is an index of the paradigmatic roles of zhong “the center” and sifang “the four quarters,” both core organizing principles of early Chinese cosmological thinking. Here, however, my concern will be less with cosmology than with how, in practical terms, cardinal orientation was achieved in the early period and what this tells us about a fundamental mindset that figured importantly in the formation of early Chinese civilization.

There are, of course, nearly ubiquitous methods for achieving cardinality described in the literature on cultural astronomy, most involving observations of the sun’s shadow using a gnomon. Variations on these methods documented in Warring States period China have been known for some time and will be briefly described below, but this is not intended primarily as a comparison of Chinese methods with those of other ancient cultures. Instead, I wish to focus on recovering a particularly interesting, earlier technique that appears to be a uniquely Chinese solution to the problem of correctly aligning structures in the landscape using the stars. Until now, researchers have overlooked this well-documented method, which takes advantage of the unique orientation of the Great Square of Pegasus (known as ding in pre-Han China). Less surprisingly, this method further underscores the distinctive focus on polar-equatorial orientation typical of Chinese astronomy. This paper demonstrates the existence, already by the late Bronze Age, of a highly unusual indirect technique designed to achieve precise alignment on the north celestial pole.