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Astrology and Cosmology in Early China: Conforming Earth to Heaven, by David W Pankenier

Book Review

Astrology and Cosmology in Early China: Conforming Earth to Heaven

by David W Pankenier

Cambridge University Press, (Oct, 2013)
ISBN: 9781107006720
611 pages; hardback. RRP: £85 (US$ 135)
Reviewed by Gill Zukovskis

This impressive and innovative book offers a detailed topical treatment of how the heavens have played a key role in shaping the culture and civilization of China in ancient and historical periods. Whereas Derek Walters has written as a practising astrologer (for example, in The Complete Guide to Chinese Astrology, 1987 and reprinted 2002 and 2005), author David Pankenier is a Professor of Chinese with a passion to fathom "the awe-inspiring presence of the sky" (p. 1). With tenure at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, he has applied his specialist expertise in Sinology and long-term interests in cultural astronomy and archaeoastronomy to offer both broad sweeps and fine brush-strokes in an illuminating series of case studies of specific events and concepts.

His writing combines scholarly authority with a clear style accessible to general readers, though naturally aimed primarily at those with more serious interests in this area. The material is based on thirty years of ongoing research, bringing together and extending some information appearing previously in journal articles (conveniently listed on pp. xxiv to xv), with many additional new insights.

It follows an academic format, with copious footnotes and a wealth of illustrations, including sky charts from Starry Night Pro 6.4.3, ground maps, and photographs and drawings of artefacts, images, and documents. There is a short Chronology (p. xxvi), a helpful Glossary of Chinese characters (pp. 512-528), a full list of References (pp. 529-569) and a subject Index (pp. 570-589). The Introduction (pp. 1-14) features a useful brief outline of archaeoastronomy in relation to the Chinese context, a summary of the relevant historical framework, and a synopsis of the fourteen chapters. There is also an Appendix with a valuable new, annotated translation of the full text of the seminal 'Treatise on the Celestial Offices' (Tian Guan Shu) written around 100 BCE by China's best-known early historian, Sima Qian, and his father Sima Tan, both of whom held the post of Court Astrologer/Astronomer. This supplements the portrayal in Chapter 10 of their work as a new astrological paradigm, synthesizing traditional and emerging outlooks in an effort to meet changing political realities impinging on a previously staunchly Sinocentric worldview.

Roots are traced for traditional correlative cosmology and astrology as far back as the Neolithic and early Bronze Age into their flowering within early states and empires during the 1st millennium BCE, such as the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, followed by the Han Dynasty, roughly contemporary with the Romans. These ancient origins (supported by analysis of textual, epigraphic, archaeological, and astronomical evidence, as well as relevant theoretical models) are significantly earlier than the mainstream consensus on dating for the dominant constituents of traditional Chinese thought.

Although comparative approaches are not the book's chief aim, relevant points of divergence and convergence with other ancient civilizations are mentioned throughout. For example, an intriguing tentative hypothesis about the astral significance of the graph di (the 'Supernal Lord' associated with the north celestial pole) involving polar alignment methods evokes correspondences with Seshat's eight-rayed emblem for the Egyptian 'stretching the cord' ceremony and the Roman surveyors' groma (pp. 109-111).

Pankenier is perhaps best known for his ground-breaking ideas linking multiple planetary groupings (especially five planets in close proximity) with dynastic transitions and the notion of the ruler's 'mandate of heaven'. Chapter 6, 'The Cosmo-Political Mandate', described as the 'linchpin' of the book (p. 12), widens and deepens the scope of his theory. Here he discusses the dense planet clusters visible, for example, in 1953 BCE around the Xia polity to Shang Dynasty watershed and the occurrence in 1059 BCE, heralding the Zhou conquest of their Shang predecessors. Chapter 9 expounds the political and military significance of a celestial massing of this type (though less complete and compact) for the pivotal 632 BCE Battle of Chengpu between two rival powers (the states of Chu and Jin); it also mentions the less spectacular 205 BCE conjunctions identified by contemporary historians as a celestial signal legitimizing the founding of the Han Dynasty.

Continuing this theme, a similar multiple conjunction in AD 1524 is the subject of the final chapter, 'Planetary Portentology East and West' (pp. 404-441), which contrasts astrological interpretations of the event in sixteenth century Europe and Ming Dynasty China. (He notes a main focus on past precedence in the Orient and future forecasting in the West, reflected in emphasis on ancient institutional parallels and priorities in the former and predominantly eschatological responses in the latter. Philosophical debates on the role of the heavens and the quest for 'universal historical laws' were largely absent from the more pragmatic Chinese approach, which also attached less astrological importance to planetary resonance periods. Conservatism and self-centric world views permeated both traditions, with mutual resonance between 'above' and 'below' in the East, as opposed to the unidirectional influences from 'above' to 'below' of the Greeks.)

Among the wide range of other aspects tackled are: the third millennium BCE Taosi site, with its 'numinous terraces' (ling tai) for astronomical observation (Chapter 1); calendrical and cultural functions of the Cerulean Dragon asterism (Chapter 2); the role of the Milky Way or 'Sky River', with particular reference to Deluge myths and the mythical figures Fu Xi (traditional transmitter of the Yi Jing trigrams) and his consort Nü Wa (Chapter 13); alignments to the four directions and the celestial pole, conducted from Neolithic times and embodied in 'cosmic' imperial capitals (Chapters 3, 4, and 11). A case is made in Chapter 5 that "it was calendrical astronomy that lent impetus to the invention of writing in China" (p. 155), with analysis of rhyming within combinations of the twelve 'earthly branches' (di zhi) and ten 'heavenly stems' (tian gan), and astral interpretations of the famous River Diagram (He Tu) and Luo Document (Luo Shu). Another perspective, appearing too late for mention, is offered by Léon Vandermeersch in Les Deux Raisons de la Pensée Chinoise: Divination et Idéographie (2013).

Interestingly, recent detective work by Joanne Conman has also drawn attention to the match between the traditional planet sequence in Pharaonic Egypt and the order in which the five planets exited the spectacular 1953 BCE event: Jupiter first, followed by Saturn, Mars, Mercury then Venus (Ancient Egyptian Sky Lore, 2013, p. 42). Such happenstances reflect the potential for productive cross-disciplinary cooperation, with each author reporting such records as hitherto unknown elsewhere (Pankenier p. 195, Conman ibid.). Similarly, exciting findings by Rumen Kolev, analyzing dating of cuneiform material in The Babylonian Astrolabe: the Calendar of Creation (2013), lend credibility to those pushing back into the remote past the signs of human fascination with the starry skies.

There are valuable nuggets relating to fen ye 'field allocation' astrology in Chapter 9 (including discussion of the roles of Jupiter and the Milky Way in this system) and snippets on feng shui 'siting' or 'geomancy' (e.g. on p. 137). For aficionados of the Yijing (I Ching, Book of Changes), Chapter 2 , 'Watching for Dragons', offers new and enhanced understanding of hexagrams 1 and 2 , and Chapter 12, 'Temporality and the Fabric of Space-Time', discusses hexagrams 13 and 14 in a thoughtful examination of synchronicity and cosmic patterning within this ancient text and elsewhere.

Further creative and plausible suggestions are also proposed for specific issues such as: the origin of the enigmatic taotie motif ubiquitous in Shang bronzes (pp. 64-67); employment of the Pegasus Square (the Ding asterism, later split into the two celestial lodges Align-the-Hall and Eastern Wall) to orient toward true north during the Zhou Dynasty, 1046-256 BCE; the importance of metaphors from cordage and weaving, including those attached to the Dipper and the Weaving Maid as either the eponymous celestial lodge or the star Vega (pp. 364-382); and adoption of the term materia vitalis as a useful equivalent for the multi-valent word qi (also written ch'i), whose scope of meanings including breath, energy, essence, and so forth, is notoriously hard to translate.

In terms of general debates within the field, Pankenier supports the notion that ancient peoples were aware of the effects (though of course not the causes) of precessional shifts (pp. 97-98); he describes de Santillana and von Dechend's famous Hamlet's Mill as "controversial but inspired" (p. 3) and cites Thomas Worthen's fascinating study, The Myth of Replacement (1991), as well as Deborah Lynn Porter's enlightening treatment of astronomical dimensions in an early literary text referring to Chinese myth and history, From Deluge to Discourse (1996). Like David Keightley, he leans away from the 'shamanic' characterization of early skywatching postulated globally by writers such as E. C. Krupp and in Eastern Asia by K. C. Chang and others (e.g. p. 247).

He argues against far-reaching transmission of astral and cosmological lore from Western Asia to the Far East (p. 7); this issue is the subject of his forthcoming 'Babylonian Influence on Chinese Astral Prognostication (xing zhan)? Or How Not to Establish Transmission'. He does cite views acknowledging the possibility of 'centrifugal' spread from China, and of trans-Pacific exchanges in both directions (p. 166 n36). Examples of the latter include "suggestive parallels in Maya planetary astrology" (p. 294 n52) and use in Asia of the knotted cords, most familiar from the Americas, known as quipus, now more commonly khipus (pp. 162-171).

There are frequent discussions of points of agreement and disagreement with other writers, including: Paul Wheatley, Nathan Sivin, Edwin Schafer, Joseph Needham & Wang Ling, John Major, Mark Lewis, David Keightley, Marc Kalinowski, John Didier, Christopher Cullen, and Sarah Allan; Chinese scholars such as Feng Shi, Zhu Kezhen, Li Xueqin, Guo Moru and Chen Mengjia; archaeoastronomers e.g. Antony Aveni, Norman Lockyer, and Clive Ruggles, as well as Merlin Donald (on writing in Chapter 5) and Kenneth Burke (on language and religion in Chapter 7).

The book is well bound and printed on high-quality paper. Its compact size makes it a pleasure to handle for browsing and detailed study. The standard of editing and proof reading is high, as befits a major academic publisher, with commendably few typographical errors and lapses, especially given the high volume of technical and foreign language terms. I would perhaps have preferred separate rather than combined captions for linked figures on separate pages; and standard alphabetical order would have allowed easier access to the technical terms and proper names within the Glossary. However, these are very minor quibbles, set against the overall distinction of the book's production and content.

In short, like the rich brocade adorning the cover, this valuable book contains a treasure trove of interwoven data and ideas threading in recurrent motifs through the wide-ranging chapters, and it looks set to serve as a fruitful reference source for years to come.

Gill Zukovskis
Published online February, 2014