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HORUS VOL I. Issue 2

The Ching Hsing
by Charles Raspil

An ancient Chinese astrological principle in use during the Former Han Dynasty (205 B.C.-23 A.D.) suggests that Chinese astronomers then believed that the planet Venus could deviate from its expected position in the sky and that it had already done so in earlier centuries of their ancient history. The principle says:

"When Venus appears, it does not cross the sky. When [it] crosses the sky, the country changes its government. "

A commentator on this text, Meng K'ang, explains that Venus can cross the sky either from the eastern to western horizon or from western to eastern horizon. And, Meng K'ang adds, these crossings are rare, occurring only every few centuries, and signal the arrival of a new dynasty.

From the standpoint of present observations this ancient astronomical belief among the Chinese seems absurd. First, because Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth, it is not visible in the sky more than about 47 above the horizon. By the time it has risen to this height in the East, as Morning Star, its light is overpowered by the rising Sun. When it becomes visible at twilight in the West, as Evening Star, it may first appear at this height but is already setting toward the horizon. It is not possible, visually, for Venus to pass overhead (cross the sky) during the night. Further, Venus cannot rise in the West and set in the East.

Yet, despite the astronomical absurdities that the saying implies, an event recorded as late as the 14th Century A. D. still speaks of the phenomenon as if it were a reality. In his "History of the Civilization of China", Joseph Needham discusses a celestial phenomenon that the Chinese call the Ching Hsing, the "Orb" [Star] of Splendor". Needham quotes a memorandum written by a member of the Astronomical Bureau. The year is 1340 A.D.:

". . . On the first day of the 7th month in the 6th year of the reign, there came ... one of the Senior observers ... who asked me to go to the Observatory as quickly as possible. [The Commissioner then reports that] last night there appeared the Ching Hsing phenomenon. That is a very auspicious omen [reports Yang Yul] ... I looked up the files ... of earlier memorials and came to a very different conclusion. I said [to them], 'although the phenomenon has occurred on the last day of the month [i.e. New Moon], its shape was slightly different from what it ought to be. Besides, if the Ching Hsing appears, there ought to he reports coming in of wine-sweet springs, phoenixes, purple herbs, and felicitous clouds in order to corroborate the celestial omen. But on the contrary there are epidemics and catastrophes in Shensi, brigands and robbers, and ... rebels. I'm afraid it won't do. Why should the Tao of Heaven be proclaiming the opposite [to the Tao of Earth]?' But Mr. Li was obstinate... So I said, 'Up to now only the six observers here have seen the phenomenon. In the unlikely possibility of its having been generally seen [because most were sleeping] by people throughout the country, will they have not taken it as an omen of evil? Finally he agreed to wait and see if it appeared again [that night] before we memorialized it. And indeed only nine days later the planet Venus 'crossed the meridian.' " [In a footnote, Needham adds that the Chinese considered Venus' meridian crossing a bad omen.]

Here we seem to have a report of an actual observation. Venus has crossed the night sky, and we also seem to have a name for this phenomenon, the Ching Hsing, though the bureaucratic report doesn't actually identify Venus specifically as the "Orb of Splendor". More material is forthcoming on the Ching Hsing; but first, using Needham's narrative, let us see how conventional astronomy explains the phenomenon.

Needham introduces Ssu Ma Chien, an historian from the Former Han Dynasty, who has defined the Ching Hsing; "When the sky is serene, then the Ching Hsing appears. It's also called the Te-Hsing (Orb of Virtue). It has no constant form, but it appears to countries which follow the Tao."

Then, reminding us that our 14th Century bureaucrat had linked the Ching Hsing with the New Moon, Needham cites F. Kuhnert, a German sinologist (a specialist in Chinese), who identifies the Ching Hsing with a lunar phenomenon, Earthshine, the illumination of the darkened lunar orb at New Moon by reflected Earthlight. Though Kuhnert's explanation satisfies most sinologists, questions remain. Earthshine solves only one problem; the association of the phenomenon with the New Moon. But Venus' night-crossing with its accompanying oddities, wine-sweet springs, phoenixes, etc. - links this Chinese account to those of other ancient peoples which associate similar phenomena with the planet Venus, and not with the Moon. This remains unexplained.

Another sinologist, Edward Schaeffer, in his Facing the Void, a survey of astronomy during the T'ang Dynasty (618-910 A. D.), has researched the Ching Hsing more thoroughly. He finds that it has these characteristics: 1. it is large; 2. its form resembles a half-Moon; 3. it appears during the New Moon; 4.it "assists" the Moon's brightness; 5. it is rare, though many descriptions of it appear in Chinese literature; 6. it is favorable; the Chinese considered it similar to such positive omens and phoenixes, certain dragons, perfectly calm seas, and miraculous clearings of waters as muddy as the Yellow River.

Conceivably, one can interpret characteristics 1 through 5 as support for Kuhnert's idea that the Ching Hsing is caused by Earthshine on the face of the New Moon. Yet Schaeffer himself has doubts. He wonders why the word ching, meaning a bright celestial object, especially a star, would define a barely visible celestial phenomenon like Earthshine on the New Moon. And again, there is the reference to Venus which the sixth characteristic further complicates: The Ching Hsing is an auspicious omen, a good omen; Venus' meridian crossing is not.

To add to our confusion, Schaeffer finds another source that describes for us the process that creates the Ching Hsing: Two yellow stars congeal from a red substance or pneuma and merge with another yellow star formed from a blue pneuma. The merging itself creates the Ching Hsing.

Fortunately, Schaeffer removes some confusion by presenting examples of the Ching Hsing within historical contexts. One occurred in 110 B. C. Ssu Ma Chien writes that a comet appeared in the Chinese constellation "Eastern Well" and 10 to 12 days later appeared in the constellation "Three T'ai". The object then seemed to swell like a melon and afterward slowly faded away. At about the same time, the "Star of Longevity" (identified by sinologists as the bright star, Canopus) appeared "deep and glowing. " Ssu Ma Chien emphasizes that astronomers identified the comet as a Ching Hsing.

Clearly, this has nothing to do with Earthshine. The significance of the subtle change in the appearance of Canopus could result, naturally enough, from some alteration of its light by the tail of the comet. But the most curious aspect of the story is the equation in the ancient Chinese mind of a Ching Hsing, here described as the appearance of a comet in the sky, with the planet Venus and its characteristics. In this context, it is fascinating that, half a world away and more than a millennium later, Grassi, in his "Astronomical Disputation on the Three Comets of the Year 1618", [an astronomical disputation presented publicly in the Collegio Romano of the Society of Jesus by one of the Fathers of that Society, Rome, 1619] notes that "the ignorant mass of the people had considered Venus as a comet. . . " i.e., that when the average individual referred to Venus, he called it a comet rather than a planet.

Schaeffer records that another Ching Hsing occurred before the reign of the second T'ang emperor Li Shih Min, i.e., some time between 618 and 626 A. D. Though Schaeffer does not give us the particulars of this event, he has noted (in another context) that on June 24, 618, Venus was said to have been visible in the sky during the day.

Schaeffer's final example is the most interesting. During the reign of Wang Mang, usurper of the Han dynasty's throne (9-23 A. D.) a Wang Ch'ung reports a Ching Hsing. He adds that "Venus then crossed the sky and its essence resembled a half-Moon."

Though Wang Ch'ung's report is astounding Schaeffer, in effect tries to trivialize it, wondering if Chinese visual acuity was sharper 2000 years ago than it is now. He also avoids the contradiction of Kuhnert's Earthshine thesis by failing to note that this particular Ching Hsing's half-Moon appearance is specifically attributed to Venus, not the Moon.

Material from H. H. Dubs' translation of Pan Ku's History of the Former Han Dynasty may be added here. After inscribing the events of the 6th month (June 8-July 6) of the year 23 A.D. the annalist, Pan Ku, begins his entries for the 7th month (July 7-August 5) by relating how Wang Mang's government uncovered a conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. For us, the salient point is that the conspirators had foiled themselves by waiting too long for the reappearance (following its inferior conjunction) of the martially propitious planet Venus. [See also, Charles Bowen's "Venus: A Battlestar?", this issue.] But as Dubs demonstrates in a footnote, Venus' astronomically retrocalculated position does not agree with the position that Pan Ku's text implies. By astronomical retrocalculation, Venus disappeared from view before inferior conjunction on August 2, 2 3 A. D. that is, 3 days before the end of the 7th month, and then reappeared 19 days later on August 21. Nevertheless, from Pan Ku's text, one must conclude that Venus had disappeared sometime during the 6th month (June 8-July 6) and by the beginning of the 7th month (July 7), when the still tarrying plotters were arrested, had still not reappeared. Where was Venus? Had its inferior conjunction occurred one month earlier?

But that's not all. In the Autumn of 23 A. D. Pan Ku reports that, ". . . Venus moved into the constellation T'ai Wei, and lighted the Earth like the light of the Full Moon." Though retrocalculation (as Dubs reports) shows that Venus in Autumn of 23 A. D. was brighter than usual, it could never attain the brightness of the Full Moon. But for observers without telescopes to see that Venus resembled a half-Moon, then the planet must have been relatively closer to the Earth. And then its brightness could certainly rival the Full Moon.

Since the era of Wang Mang and the origin of Christianity roughly coincide, it is also interesting to note Edouard Chavannes' comment in his translation of Ssu Ma Chien's definition of the Ching Hsing. It is truly this text (Ssu Ma Chien's) that has suggested the name of Ching Chiou, "Resplendent Religion", that was applied to Christianity, the birth of Christ having been announced by the star, Ching. " Did the Chinese so readily accept the missionaries' story of the Star of Bethlehem because it resembled a phenomenon already known in their history and for which they had a name -- Ching? Does the Chinese association of the a name Ching with some unusual appearance of Venus as well as the appearance of comets, imply that the same or similar association can be found in the story of the Three Wise Men from the East? We shall leave a thorough examination of this question for another time though, for now, we may assure the reader that such association abound in the literature regarding the Star of Bethlehem.

To conclude our survey of ancient Chinese traditions regarding Venus and the Ching Hsing phenomenon, let us give a second thought to the other strange things that were expected to accompany a Ching Hsing - wine-sweet springs, purple herbs, phoenixes or dragons in the heavens, and so on. These seem at first glance to be so unrelated to anything natural that we tend to dismiss them as Chinese whimsy. But, again, when compared with the ancient tales of other cultures regarding Venus, we find the same basic ideas - that Venus at one time somehow had caused remarkable, though temporary, changes in the Earth's water, visible changes in vegetation, and extraordinary visual displays in the sky. The agreement found in ancient records regarding these and other strange characteristics of Venus is astounding when one considers the vast span of time, diversity of languages and range of cultures around the globe that have maintained these traditions as historical facts. In future issues we shall continue our exploration of this common set of beliefs that have so dominated humanity's historical conception of Venus and its nature.

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