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ChinaEarly Imperial Period, Six Dynasties Period And After, Bibliography

In China, coordination of human activity with the sun, moon, and stars, including the cardinal orientation of structures in the landscape, can be traced back to the Neolithic cultures of the fifth millennium B.C.E. In the words of Sima Qian (fl. 100 B.C.E.), "Ever since the people have existed, when have successive rulers not systematically followed the movements of sun, moon, stars, and asterisms?" By the early Bronze Age, around the beginning of the second millennium, attention had already begun to focus on the circumpolar region as the abode of the sky god di, and from this time forward the North Pole increasingly became a locus of practical and spiritual significance. The polar-equatorial emphasis of Chinese astronomy began to take shape, which meant that the ancient Chinese remained largely indifferent to heliacal phenomena and the ecliptic (the sun's apparent path through the skies). A prominent feature of this polar focus was the use of the handle of the constellation Northern Dipper (Ursa Major) as a celestial clock-hand and the identification of certain cardinal constellations with the seasons and their unique characteristics—the green dragon with spring, the red bird with summer, the white tiger with autumn, the dark turtle with winter. As Sima Qian would later say: "The 28 lunar lodges govern the 12 provinces, and the handle of the Dipper seconds them; the origin [of these conceptions] is ancient." Massings of the five planets, di's "Minister-Regulators," solar and lunar eclipses, and other astronomical and atmospheric phenomena were seen as portents of imminent, usually ominous events. Astronomical records are not abundant in the earliest written documents, the oracle-bone divinations of the late Shang dynasty (c. 13th to mid-11th B.C.E.); however, a theory of reciprocity prefiguring later Chinese astrological thinking is already in evidence. What transpired in the heavens could and did profoundly influence human affairs, and conversely, human behavior could and did provoke a response from the numinous realm beyond the limits of human perception. Astral divination was reactive and opportunistic and, as elsewhere, never focused on individuals beyond the royal person, but only on affairs of state such as the sacrifices to the royal ancestors, the harvest, warfare, and the like.

By the late Zhou dynasty (1046–256 B.C.E.) tianwen, "sky-pattern reading" or astrological prognostication, took as its frame of reference the twenty-eight lunar mansions or equatorial hour-angle segments into which the sky was by then divided. In classical "field allocation" astrology of mid to late Zhou, these twenty-eight segments of uneven angular dimensions were correlated with terrestrial domains according to different schemes. Allocated among the astral fields for purposes of prognostication were either the nine provinces into which China proper was traditionally thought to have been divided, or the twelve warring kingdoms of the late Zhou, whose successive annihilation by Qin led to the establishment of the unified empire in 221 B.C.E. The classical job description of the post of astrologer royal is found in the third century B.C.E. canonical text The Rites of Zhou:

[The Bao zhang shi ] concerns himself with the stars in the heavens, keeping a record of the changes and movements of the stars and planets, sun and moon, in order to discern [corresponding] trends in the terrestrial world, with the object of distinguishing (prognosticating) good and bad fortune. He divides the territories of the nine regions of the empire in accordance with their dependence on particular celestial bodies; all the fiefs and territories are connected with distinct stars, based on which their prosperity or misfortune can be ascertained. He makes prognostications, according to the twelve years [of the Jupiter cycle], of good and evil in the terrestrial world. (trans. Needham, p. 190; modified by the author)

In this scheme, movements of the sun, moon, and planets formed the basis of prognostication, taking also into account their correlations with the five elemental phases (Mercury-Water; Venus-Metal; Mars-Fire; Jupiter-Wood; Saturn-Earth), as well as yin and yang. While sparsely documented in contemporary sources, probably as a result of the hermetic nature of the practice, evidence suggests the influence of astrological considerations was pervasive. As a common aphorism put it not long after the founding of the empire, "astute though the Son of Heaven may be, one must still see where Mars is located." Although Babylonian influence on Chinese astrology has occasionally been claimed, and a few suggestive parallels between specific late planetary prognostications (c. 100 B.C.E.) have been drawn, on the whole the evidence in favor is unpersuasive. Ancient Chinese cosmology and astrology are distinctive in essential respects, and any parallels are so circumstantial that it is more likely that throughout its formative period Chinese astrology developed in isolation from significant external influences. When it comes to China's immediate neighbors, the flow of ideas has been overwhelmingly outward from the center.

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