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.
The Babylonian and Egyptian astronomy which formed the basis for the Greek's 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. Against this, ancient Chinese skywatchers focused their attention on the pole star Polaris and divided the stars according to their position relative to it: the Three Enclosures (三垣, 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. 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.
The Three Enclosures are the Purple Forbidden Enclosure (紫微垣, Zǐ Wēi Yuán), the Supreme Palace Enclosure (太微垣, Tài Wēi Yuán) and the Heavenly Market Enclosure (天市垣, 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
|Number||Name (pinyin)||Translation||Determinative star|
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|
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|
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|
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)
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 western star charts. These asterisms were since incorporated into the traditional Chinese star maps.
The asterisms are :
|English name||Chinese name||Number of stars||Western Constellation|
|Exotic Bird||異雀||9||Apus / Octans|
|Persia||波斯||11||Indus / Telescopium|
|Snake's Tail||蛇尾||4||Octans / Hydrus|
|Snake's Head||蛇首||2||Hydrus / Reticulum|
|Crane||鶴||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|
Placement of Western constellations
The list below gives the placement of Western constellations within the Chinese system:
Chinese Star Designation
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.
- Chinese calendar
- Four Symbols (Chinese constellation)
- lunar mansion
- Five elements (Chinese)
- Traditional Chinese star names
- Chinese star maps
- 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.
- "The Chinese Sky". International Dunhuang Project. Retrieved 2011-06-25.
- 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 (HB). Retrieved 2011-06-25.
- Sun, Xiaochun (1997). Helaine Selin, ed. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Kluwer Academic Publishers. p. 910. ISBN 0-7923-4066-3 (HB).
- Hong Kong Space Museum: Interactive Star Maps (download)
- Hong Kong Space Museum: English-Chinese Glossary of Chinese Star Regions, Asterisms and Star Name
- Hong Kong Space Museum: Chinese Starlore
- 天丈 Astronomy
- SHOOTING STARS: China's Astronomical Legacy
- Ian Ridpath's Star Tales: The Chinese sky – a lost tradition