Chinese constellations

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Chinese constellations (Chinese: 星官, xīngguān) are the groupings used in traditional Chinese culture to organize the stars. They are very different from the modern IAU-recognized constellations based on Greco-Roman astronomy: the only major similarities are clusters similar to the Big Dipper and Orion.[1]

The Babylonian and Egyptian astronomy which formed the basis for Greek astronomy was based upon heliacal observations, comparing the position of sunrises and sunsets against the stars which appeared before and afterwards. This naturally led to the development of the zodiac: the twelve or thirteen constellations through which the sun appeared to move over the course of the solar year.[1] Against this, ancient Chinese skywatchers focused their attention on the pole star Polaris and divided the stars according to their position relative to it:[1] the Three Enclosures (, Sān Yuán) immediately around the North Celestial Pole whose stars could be seen year-round and Twenty-Eight Mansions (二十八宿, Èrshíbā Xiù) dividing the zodiacal band according to the movement of the moon over a lunar month.[2] These lunar mansions are very similar (although not identical) to the Indian Nakshatra and debate continues over which system developed first or whether they developed similarly in isolation.[1]

Three Enclosures[edit]

The Three Enclosures are the Purple Forbidden Enclosure (, Zǐ Wēi Yuán), the Supreme Palace Enclosure (, Tài Wēi Yuán) and the Heavenly Market Enclosure (, Tiān Shì Yuán). The Purple Forbidden Enclosure occupies the northernmost area of the night sky. From the viewpoint of the ancient Chinese, the Purple Forbidden Enclosure lies in the middle of the sky and is circled by all the other stars.

The Supreme Palace Enclosure lies east and north to the Purple Forbidden Enclosure, while the Heavenly Market Enclosure lies west and south. The Three Enclosures are separated by "walls", which are asterisms with their shapes resembling their namesakes.

The Twenty-Eight Mansions[edit]

The Twenty-Eight Mansions are grouped into Four Symbols, each associated with a compass direction and containing seven mansions. The names and determinative stars are:[3][4]

Four Symbols
Mansion (宿)
Number Name (pinyin) Translation Determinative star
Azure Dragon
of the East (Seiryu)

1 角 (Jiăo) Horn α Vir
2 亢 (Kàng) Neck κ Vir
3 氐 (Dĭ) Root α Lib
4 房 (Fáng) Room π Sco
5 心 (Xīn) Heart σ Sco
6 尾 (Wěi) Tail μ Sco
7 箕 (Jī) Winnowing Basket γ Sgr
Black Tortoise
of the North (Genbu)

8 斗 (Dǒu) (Southern) Dipper φ Sgr
9 牛 (Niú) Ox β Cap
10 女 (Nǚ) Girl ε Aqr
11 虛 (Xū) Emptiness β Aqr
12 危 (Wēi) Rooftop α Aqr
13 室 (Shì) Encampment α Peg
14 壁 (Bì) Wall γ Peg
White Tiger
of the West (Byakko)

15 奎 (Kuí) Legs η And
16 婁 (Lóu) Bond β Ari
17 胃 (Wèi) Stomach 35 Ari
18 昴 (Mǎo) Hairy Head 17 Tau
19 畢 (Bì) Net ε Tau
20 觜 (Zī) Turtle Beak λ Ori
21 參 (Shēn) Three Stars ζ Ori
Vermilion Bird
of the South (Suzaku)

22 井 (Jǐng) Well μ Gem
23 鬼 (Guǐ) Ghost θ Cnc
24 柳 (Liǔ) Willow δ Hya
25 星 (Xīng) Star α Hya
26 張 (Zhāng) Extended Net υ¹ Hya
27 翼 (Yì) Wings α Crt
28 軫 (Zhěn) Chariot γ Crv

The Southern Asterisms (近南極星區)[edit]

The sky around the south celestial pole was unknown to ancient Chinese. Therefore, it was not included in the Three Enclosures and Twenty-Eight Mansions system. However, by the end of the Ming Dynasty, Xu Guangqi introduced another 23 asterisms based on the knowledge of Hellenistic star charts.[5] These asterisms were since incorporated into the traditional Chinese star maps.

The asterisms are :

English name Chinese name Number of stars Hellenistic Constellation
Cross 十字架 4 Crux
Horse's Tail 馬尾 3 Centaurus
Horse's Abdomen 馬腹 3 Centaurus
Bee 蜜蜂 4 Musca
Triangle 三角形 3 Triangulum Australe
Exotic Bird 異雀 9 Apus / Octans
Peacock 孔雀 11 Pavo
Persia 波斯 11 Indus / Telescopium
Snake's Tail 蛇尾 4 Octans / Hydrus
Snake's Abdomen 蛇腹 4 Hydrus
Snake's Head 蛇首 2 Hydrus / Reticulum
Bird's Beak 鳥喙 7 Tucana
Crane 12 Grus / Tucana
Firebird 火鳥 10 Phoenix / Sculptor
Crooked Running Water 水委Shui Wei 3 Eridanus / Phoenix
White Patched Nearby 附白 2 Hydrus
White Patches Attached 夾白 2 Reticulum / Dorado
Goldfish 金魚 5 Dorado
Sea Rock 海石 5 Carina
Flying Fish 飛魚 6 Volans
Southern Boat 南船 5 Carina
Little Dipper 小斗 9 Chamaeleon

Placement of IAU constellations[edit]

The list below gives the placement of IAU constellations within the Chinese system:

Chinese Star Designation[edit]

Ancient Chinese astronomers designated names to the visible stars systematically, roughly more than one thousand years before Johann Bayer did it in a similar way. Basically, every star is assigned to an asterism. Then a number is given to the individual stars in this asterism. Therefore, a star is designated as "Asterism name" + "Number". The numbering of the stars in an asterism, however, is not based on the apparent magnitude of this star, but rather its position in the asterism. (The Bayer system does use this Chinese method sometimes, most notably with the stars in the Big Dipper, which are all about the same magnitude.)

For example, Altair is named 河鼓二 in Chinese. 河鼓 is the name of the asterism (literally the Drum at the River). 二 is the number designation (two). Therefore it literally means "the Second Star of the Drum at the River". (Bayer might have called Altair "Beta Tympani Flumine" if he had been cataloguing Chinese constellations.)

Some stars also have traditional names, often related to mythology or astrology. For example, Altair is more commonly known as 牛郎星 or 牵牛星 (the Star of the Cowherd) in Chinese, after the mythological story of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl.

These designations are still used in modern Chinese astronomy. All stars for which the traditional names are used in English are routinely translated by their traditional Chinese designations, rather than translations of their catalogue names.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Needham, J. "Astronomy in Ancient and Medieval China". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Vol. 276, No. 1257, The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World (May 2, 1974), pp. 67–82. Accessed 9 Oct 2012.
  2. ^ 二十八宿的形成与演变
  3. ^ "The Chinese Sky". International Dunhuang Project. Retrieved 2011-06-25. 
  4. ^ Sun, Xiaochun (1997). Helaine Selin, ed. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Kluwer Academic Publishers. p. 517. ISBN 0-7923-4066-3. Retrieved 2011-06-25. 
  5. ^ Sun, Xiaochun (1997). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. p. 910. 

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