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Ancient Chinese astronomy was primarily a government activity. It was the astronomer's role to keep track of the solar, lunar, and planetary motions as well as divine what astronomical phenomena may mean for the ruling emperor. Solar eclipses, infrequent and dramatic, were important enough to be recorded in chronicles and on "oracle" bones. Below are a few translated eclipse records found in the documents of ancient China from various dynasties. In general, the translations give the Roman calendar dating of the event, the Chinese dating, and the observation. Following in parentheses is the record in which the observation is noted. More translated records can be found in the references given below. Unless otherwise noted, the translations below can be found in the book Historical Eclipses and Earth's Rotation by F. Richard Stephenson.

"Oracle" bones are pieces of animal bones and tortoise shells inscribed with astronomical observations, that were probably used for divinations. Oracle bones hail from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 - 1050 BC) and make many references to solar eclipses. The eclipse records are often incomplete, however, and the dating of the bones is not reliable.

On day kuei-yu it was inquired: "The Sun was eclipsed in the evening; is it good?"
On day kuei-yu it was inquired: "The Sun was eclipsed in the evening; is it bad?"
(Yi-ts'un, 374)

Eclipse observations from the Chou dynasty and Warring States period (c. 1050-221 BC), and onward, have been reliably dated, and it appears that some astronomers recognized eclipses as naturally occurring phenomena3. From the Chou dynasty, 36 solar eclipse observations are recorded in the Ch'un-ch'iu beginning around 720 BC. The Piao and the Shih-chi documents refer to nine solar eclipses from the Warring States period.

Jul 17, 709 BC: "Duke Huan, 3rd year, 7th month, day jen-ch'en, the first day.
The Sun was eclipsed and it was total." (Ch'un-ch'iu)
Oct 24 444 BC: "Duke Li (of the Ch'in dynasty), 34th year. The Sun was eclipsed.
It became dark in the daytime and stars were seen." (Shih-chi, chp. 15)

Records of solar eclipses from the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) are found primarily in two official histories: the Han-shu and the Hou-han-shu. There are no records of eclipses from the Ch-in dynasty which came just prior to the Han dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC).

Jan 18, 120 AD: "Yuan-ch'I reign-period, 6th year, 12th month, day wu-wu, the first day of the month. The Sun was eclipsed. It was almost complete; on Earth it was like evening. It was 11 deg in Hsu-nu. The Female Ruler was upset by it; two years and three months later, Teng, the Empress Dowager, died." (Hou-han-shu, chp. 28)

From the San-kuo to the Sui dynasty (220 - 617 AD), the major source of solar eclipse observations come from the astrological treatises and the Sung-shu.
Aug 10, 454 AD: "Hsiao-chien reign period, 1st year, 7th month, day ping-shen, the first day of the month. The Sun was eclipsed; it was total; all the constellations (i.e. lunar lodges) were brightly lit." (Sung-shu, chp.34)

In records from the T'ang dynasty (617-960 AD; dates include the Wu-tai period), eight solar eclipses are cited as being either total or very large. These were recorded in 756, 761, 879, and 888 AD (total solar eclipses) and 702, 729, 754, and 822 AD (partial eclipses).

The principle source of solar eclipse observations from the Sung, Kin, and Yuan dynasties (960-1368 AD) are the astrological treatises. Total eclipses are listed for the years 977, 1221, and 1275 AD. Annular, partial and unspecified eclipses are noted for 1022, 1054, 1135, 1214, 1292 and 1367 AD.
Jan 21 1292 AD: "Chih-yuan reign-period, 29th year, 1st month, day chia-wu. The Sun was eclipsed. A darkness invaded the Sun, which was not totally covered. It was like a golden ring. There were vapors like golden earrings on the left and right and a vapor like a halo completely surrounding it." (Yuan-shih, chp. 48)

During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD), total solar eclipse observations are found in the histories of Ming provinces after 1500 AD. Prior to 1500 AD, eclipse records can be found in the Imperial Annals. These observations, however, are not of total solar eclipses.
Aug 20, 1514 AD: "At the hour of wu suddenly the Sun was eclipsed; it was total. Stars were seen and it was dark. Objects could not be discerned at arm's length. The domestic animals were alarmed and people were terrified. After one (double-)hour it became light." (local history of Tung-hsiang county, Chiang-his province)

Accurate eclipse timings can be used to determine the rate of the Earth's rotation. According to Steele and Stephenson, solar eclipse timings can be found from the periods between 600 and 800 AD, 1000 and 1300 AD, and a brief period during the Ming dynasty. These solar eclipse timings are accurate to about 0.4 hours.

Space Link Press Release - Learn how researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California have used Chinese oracle bones to decipher the Earth's rotational spin, using records of solar eclipses from ancient China.

Notes:

1. "Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones," Xu Zhentao, K.K.C. Yau, and F.R. Stephenson, Archaeoastronomy, no.14, 1989.
2. "Astronomical Evidence for the Accuracy of Clocks in Pre-Jesuit China," J.M. Steele and F.R. Stephenson, Journal for the History of Astronomy, vol. 29, part 1, 1998.
3. Historical Eclipses and Earth's Rotation, F. Richard Stephenson, Cambridge University Press, 1997

Contributed by:
Dr. Beth Brown
Astronomer
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

   
       
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