Astronomy, the Calendar, and the Sagecraft Science in Early Imperial China


A review of Knowing Heaven: Astronomy, the Calendar, and the Sagecraft Science in Early Imperial China, by Daniel Patrick Morgan.

Daniel Patrick Morgan’s dissertation pursues both empirical and theoretical goals. It provides a compelling re-assessment of the astral sciences, tianwen 天文 (“celestial patterns”), and li 曆 (“calendro-astronomy”) in early imperial China (circa 250 BCE – 250 CE) and chronicles some of their developments up to the Sui dynasty (581 – 618 CE). Knowing Heaven moves beyond specific textual case studies and aims to rethink the conceptual vocabulary conventionally employed in the field. By weaving pieces of evidence gleaned from received and excavated documents and state and private calendars, this work illuminates important phases of the evolution of early Chinese notions and practices concerning the observation of the cosmos. In doing so, it endeavors to present its arguments in emic terms (i.e., from the point of view of the subjects under scrutiny) in a fashion that prompts the reader to reflect upon the very aims and methods of Chinese studies. Ultimately, this dissertation makes the case that the astral sciences were a fundamental component of the Chinese cultural world. As the author remarks, “embedded in ‘celestial patterns’ is more than just the idea of constellations and periodicities but the germ and blueprint of civilization.” (p. 47)

From a methodological point of view, Knowing Heaven follows in the footsteps of the scholarly tradition established by specialists such as Joseph Needham, Nathan Sivin, Mark Kalinowski, and Christopher Cullen. Through a constant interdisciplinary dialogue that includes contemporary Chinese and Japanese scholarship, Morgan engages the study of the Chinese astral sciences as an epistemologically independent academic specialty, while striving to emancipate the field from ethnocentric or derivative intellectual attitudes. The author complements his research with a “semiotic-material” method that partially owes a debt to the latest developments of Bruno Latour’s theoretical work in the field of science studies. Since this approach considers material, social, and cultural factors indissolubly interwoven, Knowing Heaven foregrounds the question of empiricism and progress “…not because they define twentieth-century notions of science…but because … they define early imperial notions of li—a point that our twenty-first-century aversion to positivism and Whig history tends to obscure.” (p. x)

Although the author introduces his project as “a history of science” he is not concerned with the anachronistic question “of what ‘science’ is and is not,” (p. 9) but invites us to consider “science” in its original meaning of “knowledge” and in the plural (from the Latin scientia), without excluding disciplines that some traditional approaches would still deem “unscientific” today, such as mantic or ritual, for example. Taking his cue from a famous passage in Mencius IVB.26, the author clarifies that his true interest lies in the ancient “astral sciences” of celestial patterns (tianwen) and calendro-astronomy (li), for “they are knowledge… in the popular imagination, special knowledge… [and because] what makes them special is their perceived realization of a certainty in foreknowledge grounded in observation (induction).” (p. x) Hence, this dissertation “catalog[s] the conceptual vocabulary of observation and testing, submit[s] empirical practices to mathematical and sociological analysis, and, most importantly, explore[s] the formation and function of legend—the histories of science that early imperial actors wrote and recounted in their own day.” (p. x)

Knowing Heaven consists of an introduction, four chapters and a conclusion. It also includes several images reproducing the excavated documents under scrutiny, as well as explicative graphs and tables realized by the author. Chapter 1, “The Astral Sciences in and around the Han,” analyzes tianwen and li in their textual, institutional, cultural, and sociological dimensions. Simultaneously, it surveys the sources on the astral sciences in order to settle some related terminological questions. The author warns readers that tianwen and li can hardly be investigated in terms of “astrology,” “astronomy,” “science,” “magic,” or “religion,” rather are categorized insofar as “the two devote different levels of emphasis to divination and calculation” (p. 58)—or, in other words, to observational and textual sciences. Chapter 1 also illustrates how legends about the Sage Kings of old and early imperial policy reforms both shaped tianwen and li. As a case study, it produces a detailed account of the development of Han lunar theory. Then, through a study of the role of the protagonists of the astral sciences, their motivations, and their epistemological criteria, it articulates the concluding reflections on the possibility of overcoming the tendency to project modern and contemporary intellectual concerns onto ancient China.

Chapter 2, “A Second-Century B.C. Guide to the Planets,” hinges on a close and comprehensive study of the Wuxing Zhan 五星占, a manuscript recovered in 1973 from Tomb 3 in Mawangdui, which represents the earliest extant source of Chinese planetary astronomy. Its fragmentary nature, numerous interpolations, and many contradictions prompt the author to address several issues related to the creation, diffusion, preservation, and fruition of astronomical texts in ancient China. In order to account for the relevant incongruences in the planetary models described in the Wuxing Zhan, Chapter 2 conducts a diachronic analysis of the evolution of the two disciplines of mathematical astronomy, which seeks to “capture the regularity of celestial phenomena;” and omenology, which instead looks for “meaning in aberration.” In the meticulous scrutiny of the Wuxing Zhan’s astronomical computations of the orbits of the major planets (regardless of their accuracy in absolute terms and vis-à-vis later Chinese accounts), the author recognizes the willingness of the specialists to define their position both in the cosmos—in space—and with regards to the Sage Kings of yore—in time. In chronicling the numerous official debates in which astronomical models were discussed and amended, Chapter 2 makes the case that in assessing the development of the astral sciences from the second century BCE to the fifth century CE, it is legitimate to talk about “progress.” According to the author, these debates took place in a cultural context shaped by “shared values of empiricism, critical thinking, and innovation, that, despite their limitations in practice, allowed [the actors] to discover new problems, proffer new solutions, and outdo their ancestors, teachers, and social superiors.” (p. 177) As for the text of the Wuxing Zhan, the author concludes that instead of looking at it as a whole, “we might look at it as the sum of different parts— parts through which distinct types of knowledge filter down to us, including a crucial clue about the beginnings of mathematical planetary astronomy in the Qin.” (p. 182)

Chapter 3, “Calendars and Society,” perhaps represents the most vivid example of Morgan’s interest in both theoretical and material factors. It surveys and analyzes extant calendars (liri 曆日) against the background of the received textual tradition. Although they constitute fragmentary and apparently laconic sources, calendars perfectly suit the themes that inform Knowing Heaven’s inquiry—empiricism, progress, and diversity. Through the author’s analysis, calendars offer a new understanding of the ways in which the state tried to regulated society, increase production, and maintain harmony through the astral sciences, At the same time, the study of calendars provides invaluable insight into the hopes and the concerns of diverse individuals living in different areas of China, who belonged to different communities and disparate social stations. The first section of Chapter 3 constitutes an overview of the extant calendars, their distinctive features, and sub-categories, which the author identifies as “Daily Calendars,” “Sexagenary calendar rounds,” “Shuo-run 朔閏 tables,” and “Handy tables.” The following sections, after addressing terminological issues concerning the epistemological scope of calendric production, delve into the relationship between classical accounts about the origins of the calendars, their practical usage in specific contexts, and the evolution of the Chinese astral sciences. The conclusive sections of Chapter 3 refute conventional presumptions and theories and propose an interpretive model that entails the coexistence of different conceptions of time and space throughout the empire and across different social groups, from the emperor to the commoner. “There is no such thing as ‘the calendar,’” the author notes, “We often speak of it as if ‘the calendar’ were regalia—a staff wielded by the king—or an emanation—a specter enveloping the land—but calendars is all there ever were. In an age before print, no two calendars were the same; there were standards, for sure, but calendars took myriad forms and titles, each a localized production of imperial knowledge and a hybrid of public and private space.” (p. 269)

The conclusive Chapter 4, “Testing, Debate and the Institutional Framework of Astronomy,” brings the reader back into the world of the literati and their erudite discussions on the astral sciences. Building on Christopher Cullen’s work on the Western Han (especially “Motivations for Scientific Change in Ancient China: Emperor Wu and the Grand Inception Astronomical Reforms of 104 B.C.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 24, no. 3 [1991]: 185–203; and “Actors, Networks, and ‘Disturbing Spectacles’ in Institutional Science: 2nd Century

Chinese Debates on Astronomy.” Antiqvorvm Philosophia 1 [2007]: 237–267), the author concentrates on the “Yellow Inception Debate” on calendro-astronomy held by the Cao-Wei 曹魏 court (220–265 CE) around 226 and chronicled in the “Harmonics and Li Treatise” (“Lü li zhi” 律曆) of the Jin shu 晉書,” which was compiled under the early Tang 唐 (618–907 CE). The author justifies the specific focus on this account of the “Yellow Inception debate” by referring to its meticulous narration, the competence of the participants, and, most importantly, the description of the discussion of a previous failed reform, which provides an important example of the criteria and methodologies applied in the assessments of the results of astronomical observation. Chapter 4 opens with a study of the issues of authorship, composition, genre, historical circumstances, and cultural background surrounding the Jin shu in general and the “Harmonics and Li Treatise” in particular. Then, in following the progression of the “Yellow Inception Debate,” it analyzes the epistemic strategies of the participants and their mathematical models, computations, and references to legendary precedents. In doing so, this dissertation argues that the specialists of the “Yellow Inception Debate” attempted to insert their own contribution in a genealogical tradition that harkened back to the Sage Kings, whom they now considered the worthy recipients of “scientific ancestor-worship,” (p. 362) (The author borrows and repurpose this definition from Joseph Agassi; see Science and Its History. Dordrecht: Springer, [2008], 129.)

The Conclusion, in addition to summarizing the previous chapters, articulates a reflection of the epistemological challenges faced by the historians of science in the ancient world, as they are called to reconcile the objectivity of their ontological models with the fragmentary, elusive, and often contradictory nature of the empirical evidence. The author defines his “realistic” approach as substantially in keeping with current trends in the study of the political history of astronomy in China, which strives to include “details of agency, society, setting, institutional apparatus, epistemological contentions, and the interconnection of astral, political, and ritual sciences.” (p. 367) From a methodological point of view, its further contribution consists in propounding and exemplifying a kind of scholarly commitment that is rooted in rigorous textual analysis but intellectually open enough to overcome condescending attitudes, and ethnocentric projections. This approach is one that takes into account both the reality of the objects of historical inquiries and the ways in which they perceived and represented it. In other words, as eloquently expressed by the author in his concluding remarks: “If there is one argument that I hope to have impressed upon the reader in so many pages it is that, as we have with cultures, and as we have with objects, so too must we reserve a place in any sophisticated history of science for unsophisticated histories and philosophies of science professed by our historical subjects.” (p. 377)

Because of the variety of the speculative tools employed, the effective implementation of scientific, philological, cultural analysis, and broadness of the theoretical scope, Daniel Patrick Morgan’s dissertation represents a unique scholarly endeavor that, once published, could contribute to the introduction of new phase in the interdisciplinary study of the past. As a monograph, it might elicit the interest of specialists in different fields and areas. In addition to providing analyses and information that are invaluable to the scholars of the astral sciences in early imperial China, it also engages methodological and epistemological issues that are crucial to historians of science as well as to anyone focusing on cultural and intellectual questions from a methodological point of view.

Filippo Marsili
Department of History
Saint Louis University

Primary Sources
Tianguan shu 天官書 (Shiji 史記)
Lü li zhi 律曆志 (Han shu 漢書)
Wuxing Zhan 五星占
Several excavated daily calendars
Lü li zhi 律曆志 (Jin shu 晉書 )

Dissertation Information
University of Chicago, 2013. 402 pp. Primary Advisor: Donald Harper

Image: Star chart from Dunhuang, probably dating to c.700. Wikimedia Commons.

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