Chinese 500: Genre and Method

The Heavens (This Page is Under Construction)

The intimate knowledge of the heavens and of natural forces in early China, lost to later scholars (and to us) shows some of the same characteristics as the formation of myths about constellations of the Greeks. Natural phenomena were given names and attributes as gods. The master of the winds was called Feilian 飛廉, that of the rain, Bingyi 屏翳, that of clouds, Fenglong 豐隆. The charioteer of the sun was Xihe 羲和, that of the moon Wangshu 羲和. These were all figures that were important to the processes of agriculture, which needed some control--or at least understanding--of the regular and irregular features of nature in order to plan on planting, harvest, etc.

Master of the Wind Fei1lian2 飛廉
Master of the Rain Bing4yi4 屏翳
Master of the Clouds Feng1long2 豐隆
Charioteer of the Sun Xi1he2 羲和
Charioteer of the Moon Wang4shu1 羲和

Likewise, the stars played an important part. My attempt here is not to give you a precise view of the astrological and astronomical world of China, but to highlight some of literary and historical uses of the heavens in Chinese writing. It is clear that early people had an intensely profound understanding of their cosmos. This is represented in early song, especially in the Shijing, and also in early prose texts. For instance, in the Book of Songs, we find several poems that require knowledge of the heavens to be understood:

In the seventh month flows Antares [down past the meridian],
九月授衣 In the ninth month we are given [our winter] clothes.
一之月觱發 The first of our months is blowing wind,
二之月栗烈 The second of the months is trembling biting cold
無衣無褐 No clothes, no hair garments,
何以卒歲 How can they finish out the year?
三之月于耜 The third of the months, we plied our dibble sticks,
四之月舉趾 The fourth of the months, we raised our feet [to start digging]
同我婦子 Together with wife and children
饁彼南畝 We carried food to those southern fields.
田畯至喜 The field surveyor arrived, and was pleased.
《詩經‧豳風‧七月》 "The Seventh Month," Odes of Bin, Book of Songs


漸漸之石 Sharp-cut, rising stones,
維其高矣 O, how high they are
山川悠遠 .Mountain and stream on and on into the distance
維其勞矣 O, how wearying it is.
武人東征 The warring man campaigns eastward,
不皇朝矣 He cannot be flustered to pay morning court.
曷其沒矣 Sharp-cut, rising stones,
漸漸之石 O, how peaked they are.
山川悠遠 Mountain and stream on and on into the distance
維其卒矣 When will it be no more?
武人東征 The warring man campaigns eastward,
不皇出矣 He cannot be flustered to come out
有豕白蹄 Swine there are, white-hooved,
烝涉波矣 O, they wade in the ripples.
月離于畢 The moon runs afoul of the Hyades
俾滂沱矣 And it will pour more rain.
武人東征 The warring man campaigns eastward,
不皇他矣 He cannot be flustered over any other thing.
《詩經‧小雅‧漸漸之石》 "Round and Round," Minor Ya, Book of Songs

The basic patterns that underlie such usage is relatively simple to understand. The heavens are split up in a rather orderly fashion. We will discuss them in order. First are the "Seven governors" or the "Seven radiances," which are the five major planets, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury, and the sun and the moon. These are most visible and brightest points in the skies.

"Seven Governors" 七政 or "Seven Radiances" 七曜


jin1xing1 金星
Jupiter mu4xing1 木星
Mercury shui3xing1 水星
Mars huo3xing1 火星
Saturn tu2xing1 土星

The five planets are also known by the name wu3wei4 五緯. Venus, the brightest of the planets, occurs most frequently in literary texts and is known by several names: tai4bai2, ming2xing1, and, depending on its position in the sky, qi3ming2 (east) or chang2geng1 (west).

Names for Planets
Shadow Star for Jupiter