Astronomy in China
The Chinese had a long tradition of astronomical observation and prediction. They used a comprehensive system of star names and interpreted celestial events. For example, when a new dynasty took power, it was important for portent astronomers to understand the reason for the change.
In the seventeenth century, Jesuit priest astronomers introduced early-modern European science into China. This included Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and astronomical tables.
In ancient China, astronomy was intertwined with worship of heaven. Early Chinese astronomy was based on observational data but was not a scientific system in the modern sense of the word. It was a shamanistic practice that allowed humans to communicate with the heavens.
The earliest detailed records of astronomical observations began in the Warring States period (fourth century BC). This was an era of shamanistic beliefs in which the universe was divided into the realms of heaven and earth. In order to communicate with the divine, astronomers used tools such as gnomons, which were posts that cast shadows to record solar movements.
A number of astronomers contributed to the development of Chinese astronomy. These include Wu Xian, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Gan and Shi. Wu Xian is thought to be the author of the Star Manual, although this work is actually much older and its authenticity is still under debate.
The Chinese made a long series of observations, recording everything they could about the stars, moon, sun, wind and weather. They also made divinations and studied omens. The government set clepsydras and observatories in the palaces, and every night astronomers recorded the omens, clouds, and meteorological phenomena. These reports were compared with the records of other observatories to avoid errors.
Astronomers made some of the earliest discoveries of events beyond our solar system. For example, in 48 BCE, Chinese sky-watchers noticed a bright glow in a certain part of the sky. Scientists now know this was a nova – an explosive release of hydrogen from the surface of a star.
Although East Asian Archaeoastronomy provides a wealth of information, it is important to remember that these reports were based on observational data only. Therefore, they do not represent a definitive record of the cosmological theories of ancient China. In addition, it is difficult to compare the omens and predictions of Chinese astronomers with those of modern scientists.
The ancient Chinese astronomers made great achievements in observation. They were able to predict eclipses. They also used a lunisolar calendar. They also created a system of star names. They organized the stars into twenty-eight mansions, the Chinese equivalent of Western constellations. They were also able to accurately record the appearance of Halley’s comet and fireballs.
The Chinese astronomers developed a variety of astronomical instruments, including the Abridged Armillary Sphere, which was designed by Guo Shoujing in 1276 C.E. This instrument solved many problems found in the earlier armillary spheres. The primary structure of this device is a double ring perpendicular to the center of the equatorial ring and revolving around a metallic shaft. This ring is known as the right ascension double ring, and it contains dials that can be read by astronomers.
The Purple Mountain Observatory in China constructed a multifunctional celestial globe, which is used for teaching, navigation, and astronomy. It looks like a terrestrial globe, but depicts more than 1,000 stars on its surface. It can be used in both northern and southern hemispheres.
The ancient Chinese maintained accurate records of eclipses, novae, meteors and sunspots for longer than any other civilization. They also developed sophisticated mathematical methods for describing celestial motions and made use of them in almanacs. These are still used in modern astronomy (Needham 1959).
Early Chinese astronomy was not only scientific but also religious. In this shamanistic culture, the relationship between heaven and earth was a sacred one. Only those who had a way of communicating with the gods could know the secrets of the universe. This is why astronomical research was a highly regarded science in ancient China.
Astronomical research in China has made tremendous progress in recent years. The number of astronomers in the country has doubled in the past ten years, and the budget for astronomical research has grown significantly. In addition to the new Xuntian telescope, there are several other ground-based and space-based observatories that are helping scientists discover the universe.