The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxiii.

[Concerning the Astrologers in the City of Cambaluc.]

[There are in the city of Cambaluc, what with Christians, Saracens, and Cathayans, some five thousand astrologers and soothsayers, whom the Great Kaan provides with annual maintenance and clothing, just as he provides the poor of whom we have spoken, and they are in the constant exercise of their art in this city.

They have a kind of astrolabe on which are inscribed the planetary signs, the hours and critical points of the whole year. And every year these Christian, Saracen, and Cathayan astrologers, each sect apart, investigate by means of this astrolabe the course and character of the whole year, according to the indications of each of its Moons, in order to discover by the natural course and disposition of the planets, and the other circumstances of the heavens, what shall be the nature of the weather, and what peculiarities shall be produced by each Moon of the year; as, for example, under which Moon there shall be thunderstorms and tempests, under which there shall be disease, murrain, wars, disorders, and treasons, and so on, according to the indications of each; but always adding that it lies with God to do less or more according to His pleasure. And they write down the results of their examination in certain little pamphlets for the year, which are called Tacuin, and these are sold for a groat to all who desire to know what is coming. Those of the astrologers, of course whose predictions are found to be most exact, are held to be the greatest adepts in their art, and get the greater fame.1

And if any one having some great matter in hand, or proposing to make a long journey for traffic or other business, desires to know what will be the upshot, he goes to one of these astrologers and says: “Turn up your books and see what is the present aspect of the heavens, for I am going away on such and such a business.” Then the astrologer will reply that the applicant must also tell the year, month, and hour of his birth; and when he has got that information he will see how the horoscope of his nativity combines with the indications of the time when the question is put, and then he predicts the result, good or bad, according to the aspect of the heavens.

You must know, too, that the Tartars reckon their years by twelves; the sign of the first year being the Lion, of the second the Ox, of the third the Dragon, of the fourth the Dog, and so forth up to the twelfth;2 so that when one is asked the year of his birth he answers that it was in the year of the Lion (let us say), on such a day or night, at such an hour, and such a moment. And the father of a child always takes care to write these particulars down in a book. When the twelve yearly symbols have been gone through, then they come back to the first, and go through with them again in the same succession.]

NOTE 1. — It is odd that Marsden should have sought a Chinese explanation of the Arabic word Takwím even with Tavernier before him: “They sell in Persia an annual almanac called Tacuim, which is properly an ephemeris containing the longitude and latitude of the planets, their conjunctions and oppositions, and other such matter. The Tacuim is full of predictions regarding war, pestilence, and famine; it indicates the favourable time for putting on new clothes, for getting bled or purged, for making a journey, and so forth. They put entire faith in it, and whoever can afford one governs himself in all things by its rules.” (Bk. V. ch. xiv.)

The use of the term by Marco may possibly be an illustration of what I have elsewhere propounded, viz. that he was not acquainted with Chinese, but that his intercourse and conversation lay chiefly with the foreigners at the Kaan’s Court, and probably was carried on in the Persian language. But not long after the date of our Book we find the word used in Italian by Jacopo Alighieri (Dante’s son):—

“A voler giudicare

Si conviene adequare

Inprimo il Taccuino,

Per vedere il cammino

Come i Pianeti vanno

Per tutto quanto l’anno.”

Rime Antiche Toscane, III. 10.

Marco does not allude to the fact that almanacs were published by the Government, as they were then and still are. Pauthier (515 seqq.) gives some very curious details on this subject from the Annals of the Yuen. In the accounts of the year 1328, it appears that no less than 3,123,185 copies were printed in three different sizes at different prices, besides a separate almanac for the Hwei–Hwei or Mahomedans. Had Polo not omitted to touch on the issue of almanacs by Government he could scarcely have failed to enter on the subject of printing, on which he has kept a silence so singular and unaccountable.

The Chinese Government still “considers the publication of a Calendar of the first importance and utility. It must do everything in its power, not only to point out to its numerous subjects the distribution of the seasons, . . . but on account of the general superstition it must mark in the almanac the lucky and unlucky days, the best days for being married, for undertaking a journey, for making their dresses, for buying or building, for presenting petitions to the Emperor, and for many other cases of ordinary life. By this means the Government keeps the people within the limits of humble obedience; it is for this reason that the Emperors of China established the Academy of Astronomy.” (Timk. I. 358.) The acceptance of the Imperial Almanac by a foreign Prince is considered an acknowledgment of vassalage to the Emperor.

It is a penal offence to issue a pirated or counterfeit edition of the Government Almanac. No one ventures to be without one, lest he become liable to the greatest misfortunes by undertaking the important measures on black-balled days.

The price varies now, according to Williams, from 1–1/2d. to 5d. a copy. The price in 1328 was 1 tsien or cash for the cheapest edition, and 1 liang or tael of silver for the édition de luxe; but as these prices were in paper-money it is extremely difficult to say, in the varying depreciation of that currency, what the price really amounted to.

Illustration: Mongol Compendium Instrument seen in the Observatory Garden

Illustration: Mongol Armillary Sphere in the Observatory Garden

[“The Calendars for the use of the people, published by Imperial command, are of two kinds. The first, Wan-nien-shu, the Calendar of Ten Thousand Years, is an abridgment of the Calendar, comprising 397 years, viz. from 1624 to 2020. The second and more complete Calendar is the Annual Calendar, which, under the preceding dynasties, was named Li-je, Order of Days, and is now called Shih-hsien-shu, Book of Constant Conformity (with the Heavens). This name was given by the Emperor Shun-chih, in the first year of his reign (1644), on being presented by Father John Schall (Tang Jo-wang) with a new Calendar, calculated on the principles of European science. This Annual Calendar gives the following indications: (1°) The cyclical signs of the current year, of the months, and of all the days; (2°) the long and short months, as well as the intercalary month, as the case maybe; (3°) the designation of each day by the 5 elements, the 28 constellations, and the 12 happy presages; (4°) the day and hour of the new moon, of the full moon, and of the two dichotomies, Shang-hsien and Hsia-hsien; (5°) the day and hour for the positions of the sun in the 24 zodiacal signs, calculated for the various capitals of China as well as for Manchuria, Mongolia, and the tributary Kingdoms; (6°) the hour of sunrise and sunset and the length of day and night for the principal days of the month in the several capitals; (7°) various superstitious indications purporting to point out what days and hours are auspicious or not for such or such affairs in different places. Those superstitious indications are stated to have been introduced into the Calendar under the Yüan dynasty.” (P. Hoang, Chinese Calendar, pp. 2–3.)— H. C.]

We may note that in Polo’s time one of the principal officers of the Mathematical Board was Gaisue, a native of Folin or the Byzantine Empire, who was also in charge of the medical department of the Court. Regarding the Observatory, see note at p. 378, supra.

And I am indebted yet again to the generous zeal of Mr. Wylie of Shanghai, for the principal notes and extracts which will, I trust, satisfy others as well as myself that the instruments in the garden of the Observatory belong to the period of Marco Polo’s residence in China.1

The objections to the alleged age of these instruments were entirely based on an inspection of photographs. The opinion was given very strongly that no instrument of the kind, so perfect in theory and in execution, could have been even imagined in those days, and that nothing of such scientific quality could have been made except by the Jesuits. In fact it was asserted or implied that these instruments must have been made about the year 1700, and were therefore not earlier in age than those which stand on the terraced roof of the Observatory, and are well known to most of us from the representation in Duhalde and in many popular works.

The only authority that I could lay hand on was Lecomte, and what he says was not conclusive. I extract the most pertinent passages:

“It was on the terrace of the tower that the Chinese astronomers had set their instruments, and though few in number they occupied the whole area. But Father Verbiest, the Director of the Observatory, considering them useless for astronomical observation, persuaded the Emperor to let them be removed, to make way for several instruments of his own construction. The instruments set aside by the European astronomers are still in a hall adjoining the tower, buried in dust and oblivion; and we saw them only through a grated window. They appeared to us to be very large and well cast, in form approaching our astronomical circles; that is all that we could make out. There was, however, thrown into a back yard by itself, a celestial globe of bronze, of about 3 feet in diameter. Of this we were able to take a nearer view. Its form was somewhat oval; the divisions by no means exact, and the whole work coarse enough.

“Besides this in a lower hall they had established a gnomon. . . . This observatory, not worthy of much consideration for its ancient instruments, much less for its situation, its form, or its construction, is now enriched by several bronze instruments which Father Verbiest has placed there. These are large, well cast, adorned in every case with figures of dragons,” etc. He then proceeds to describe them:

“(1). Armillary Zodiacal Sphere of 6 feet diameter. This sphere reposes on the heads of four dragons, the bodies of which after various convolutions come to rest upon the extremities of two brazen beams forming a cross, and thus bear the entire weight of the instrument. These dragons . . . are represented according to the notion the Chinese form of them, enveloped in clouds, covered above the horns with long hair, with a tufted beard on the lower jaw, flaming eyes, long sharp teeth, the gaping throat ever vomiting a torrent of fire. Four lion-cubs of the same material bear the ends of the cross beams, and the heads of these are raised or depressed by means of attached screws, according to what is required. The circles are divided on both exterior and interior surface into 360 degrees; each degree into 60 minutes by transverse lines, and the minutes into sections of 10 seconds each by the sight-edge2 applied to them.”

Of Verbiest’s other instruments we need give only the names: (2) Equinoxial Sphere, 6 feet diameter. (3) Azimuthal Horizon, same diam. (4) Great Quadrant, of 6 feet radius. (5) Sextant of about 8 feet radius. (6) Celestial Globe of 6 feet diameter.

As Lecomte gives no details of the old instruments which he saw through a grating, and as the description of this zodiacal sphere (No. 1) corresponds in some of its main features with that represented in the photograph, I could not but recognize the possibility that this instrument of Verbiest’s had for some reason or other been removed from the Terrace, and that the photograph might therefore possibly not be a representation of one of the ancient instruments displaced by him.3

The question having been raised it was very desirable to settle it, and I applied to Mr. Wylie for information, as I had received the photographs from him, and knew that he had been Mr. Thomson’s companion and helper in the matter.

“Let me assure you,” he writes (21st August, 1874), “the Jesuits had nothing to do with the manufacture of the so-called Mongol instruments; and whoever made them, they were certainly on the Peking Observatory before Loyola was born. They are not made for the astronomical system introduced by the Jesuits, but are altogether conformable to the system introduced by Kúblái’s astronomer Ko Show-king. . . . I will mention one thing which is quite decisive as to the Jesuits. The circle is divided into 365–1/4 degrees, each degree into 100 minutes, and each minute into 100 seconds. The Jesuits always used the sexagesimal division. Lecomte speaks of the imperfection of the division on the Jesuit-made instruments; but those on the Mongol instruments are immeasurably coarser.

“I understand it is not the ornamentation your friend objects to?4 If it is, I would observe that there is no evidence of progress in the decorative and ornamental arts during the Ming Dynasty; and even in the Jesuit instruments that part of the work is purely Chinese, excepting in one instrument, which I am persuaded must have been made in Europe.

“I have a Chinese work called Luh–King-t’oo-Kaou, ‘Illustrations and Investigations of the Six Classics.’ This was written in A.D. 1131–1162, and revised and printed in 1165–1174. It contains a representation of an armillary sphere, which appears to me to be much the same as the sphere in question. There is a solid horizon fixed to a graduated outer circle. Inside the latter is a meridian circle, at right angles to which is a graduated colure; then the equator, apparently a double ring, and the ecliptic; also two diametric bars. The cut is rudely executed, but it certainly shows that some one imagined something more perfect. The instrument stands on a cross frame, with 4 dragon supporters and a prop in the centre.5

“It should be remembered that under the Mongol Dynasty the Chinese had much intercourse with Central Asia; and among others Yelewchootsae, as confidential minister and astronomer, followed Chinghiz in his Western campaign, held intercourse with the astronomers of Samarkand, and on his return laid some astronomical inventions before the Emperor.

“I append a notice of the Observatory taken from a popular description of Peking, by which it will be seen that the construction of these instruments is attributed to Ko Show-king, one of the most renowned astronomers of China. He was the chief astronomer under Kúblái Kaan” [to whom he was presented in 1262; he was born in 1231. — H. C.]

“It must be remembered that there was a special vitality among the Chinese under the Yuen with regard to the arts and sciences, and the Emperor had the choice of artizans and men of science from all countries. From the age of the Yuen till the arrival of the Jesuits, we hear nothing of any new instruments having been made; and it is well known that astronomy was never in a lower condition than under the Ming.”6

Mr. Wylie then draws attention to the account given by Trigault of the instruments that Matteo Ricci saw at Nanking, when he went (in the year 1599) to pay a visit to some of the literati of that city. He transcribes the account from the French Hist. de l’Expédition Chrestienne en la Chine, 1618. But as I have the Latin, which is the original and is more lucid, by me, I will translate from that.7

“Not only at Peking, but in this capital also (Nanking) there is a College of Chinese Mathematicians, and this one certainly is more distinguished by the vastness of its buildings than by the skill of its professors. They have little talent and less learning, and do nothing beyond the preparation of the almanacs on the rules of calculation made by the ancients; and when it chances that events do not agree with their calculation they assert that what they had calculated was the regular course of things, but that the aberrant conduct of the stars was a prognostic from heaven of something going to happen on the earth. This something they make out according to their fancy, and so spread a veil over their own blunders. These gentlemen did not much trust Father Matteo, fearing, no doubt, lest he should put them to shame; but when at last they were freed from this apprehension they came and amicably visited the Father in hope of learning something from him. And when he went to return their visit he saw something that really was new and beyond his expectation.

“There is a high hill at one side of the city, but still within the walls. On the top of the hill there is an ample terrace, capitally adapted for astronomical observation, and surrounded by magnificent buildings which form the residence of the Professors. . . . On this terrace are to be seen astronomical instruments of cast-metal, well worthy of inspection whether for size or for beauty; and we certainly have never seen or read of anything in Europe like them. For nearly 250 years they have stood thus exposed to the rain, the snow, and all other atmospheric inclemencies, and yet they have lost absolutely nothing of their original lustre. And lest I should be accused of raising expectations which I do not justify, I will do my best in a digression, probably not unwelcome, to bring them before the eyes of my readers.

“The larger of these instruments were four in number. First we inspected a great globe [A], graduated with meridians and parallels; we estimated that three men would hardly be able to embrace its girth. . . . A second instrument was a great sphere [B], not less in diameter than that measure of the outstretched arms which is commonly called a geometric pace. It had a horizon and poles; instead of circles it was provided with certain double hoops (armillae), the void space between the pair serving the purpose of the circles of our spheres. All these were divided into 365 degrees and some odd minutes. There was no globe to represent the earth in the centre, but there was a certain tube, bored like a gun-barrel, which could readily be turned about and fixed to any azimuth or any altitude so as to observe any particular star through the tube, just as we do with our vane-sights;8 — not at all a despicable device! The third machine was a gnomon [C], the height of which was twice the diameter of the former instrument, erected on a very large and long slab of marble, on the northern side of the terrace. The stone slab had a channel cut round the margin, to be filled with water in order to determine whether the slab was level or not, and the style was set vertical as in hour-dials.9 We may suppose this gnomon to have been erected that by its aid the shadow at the solstices and equinoxes might be precisely noted, for in that view both the slab and the style were graduated. The fourth and last instrument, and the largest of all, was one consisting as it were of three or four huge astrolabes in juxtaposition [D]; each of them having a diameter of such a geometrical pace as I have specified. The fiducial line, or Alhidada, as it is called, was not lacking, nor yet the Dioptra.10 Of these astrolabes, one having a tilted position in the direction of the south, represented the equator; a second, which stood crosswise on the first, in a north and south plane, the Father took for a meridian; but it could be turned round on its axis; a third stood in the meridian plane with its axis perpendicular, and seemed to stand for a vertical circle; but this also could be turned round so as to show any vertical whatever. Moreover all these were graduated, and the degrees marked by prominent studs of iron, so that in the night the graduation could be read by the touch without a light. All this compound astrolabe instrument was erected on a level marble platform with channels round it for levelling. On each of these instruments explanations of everything were given in Chinese characters; and there were also engraved the 24 zodiacal constellations which answer to our 12 signs, 2 to each.11 There was, however, one error common to all the instruments, viz. that, in all, the elevation of the Pole was assumed to be 36°. Now there can be no question about the fact that the city of Nanking lies in lat. 32–1/4°; whence it would seem probable that these instruments were made for another locality, and had been erected at Nanking, without reference to its position, by some one ill versed in mathematical science.12

Illustration: Observatory Terrace

Illustration: Observatory Instruments of the Jesuits.

“Some years afterwards Father Matteo saw similar instruments at Peking, or rather the same instruments, so exactly alike were they, insomuch that they had unquestionably been made by the same artist. And indeed it is known that they were cast at the period when the Tartars were dominant in China; and we may without rashness conjecture that they were the work of some foreigner acquainted with our studies. But it is time to have done with these instruments.”—(Lib. IV. cap. 5.)

In this interesting description it will be seen that the Armillary Sphere [B] agrees entirely with that represented in illustration facing p. 450. And the second of his photographs in my possession, but not, I believe, yet published, answers perfectly to the curious description of the 4th instrument [D]. Indeed, I should scarcely have been able to translate that description intelligibly but for the aid of the photograph before me. It shows the three astrolabes or graduated circles with travelling indexes arranged exactly as described, and pivoted on a complex frame of bronze; (1) circle in the plane of the equator for measuring right ascensions; (2) circle with its axis vertical to the plane of the last, for measuring declinations: (3) circle with vertical axis, for zenith distances? The Gnomon [A] was seen by Mr. Wylie in one of the lower rooms of the Observatory (see below). Of the Globe we do not now hear; and that mentioned by Lecomte among the ancient instruments was inferior to what Ricci describes at Peking.

I now transcribe Mr. Wylie’s translation of an extract from a Popular Description of Peking:

“The observatory is on an elevated stage on the city wall, in the south-east corner of the (Tartar) city, and was built in the year (A.D. 1279). In the centre was the Tze-wei13 Palace, inside of which were a pair of scrolls, and a cross inscription, by the imperial hand. Formerly it contained the Hwan-t’ien-e [B] ‘Armillary Sphere’; the Keen-e [D?] ‘Transit Instrument’ (?); the Tung-kew [A] ‘Brass Globe’; and the Leang-t’ien-ch’ih, ‘Sector,’ which were constructed by Ko Show-king under the Yuen Dynasty.

“In (1673) the old instruments having stood the wear of long past years, had become almost useless, and six new instruments were made by imperial authority. These were the T’ien-t’ee ‘Celestial Globe’ (6); Chih-taoue ‘Equinoctial Sphere’ (2); Hwang-taoue ‘Zodiacal Sphere’ (1); Te-p’ing kinge ‘Azimuthal Horizon’ (3); Te-p’ing weie ‘Altitude Instrument’ (4); Ke-yene ‘Sextant’ (5). These were placed in the Observatory, and to the present day are respectfully used. The old instruments were at the same time removed, and deposited at the foot of the stage. In (1715) the Te-ping King-wei-e ‘Azimuth and Altitude Instrument’ was made;14 and in 1744 the Ke-hang-foo-chin-e (literally ‘Sphere and Tube instrument for sweeping the heavens’). All these were placed on the Observatory stage.

“There is a wind-index-pole called the ‘Fair-wind-pennon,’ on which is an iron disk marked out in 28 points, corresponding in number to the 28 constellations.”15

+ Mr. Wylie justly observes that the evidence is all in accord, and it leaves, I think, no reasonable room for doubt that the instruments now in the Observatory garden at Peking are those which were cast aside by Father Verbiest16 in 1673 (or 1668); which Father Ricci saw at Peking at the beginning of the century, and of which he has described the duplicates at Nanking; and which had come down from the time of the Mongols, or, more precisely, of Kúblái Khan.

Ricci speaks of their age as nearly 250 years in 1599; Verbiest as nearly 300 years in 1668. But these estimates evidently point to the termination of the Mongol Dynasty (1368), to which the Chinese would naturally refer their oral chronology. We have seen that Kúblái’s reign was the era of flourishing astronomy, and that the instruments are referred to his astronomer Ko Shéu-king; nor does there seem any ground for questioning this. In fact, it being once established that the instruments existed when the Jesuits entered China, all the objections fall to the ground.

We may observe that the number of the ancient instruments mentioned in the popular Chinese account agrees with the number of important instruments described by Ricci, and the titles of three at least out of the four seem to indicate the same instruments. The catalogue of the new instruments of 1673 (or 1668) given in the native work also agrees exactly with that given by Lecomte.17 And in reference to my question as to the possibility that one of Verbiest’s instruments might have been removed from the terrace to the garden, it is now hardly worth while to repeat Mr. Wylie’s assurance that there is no ground whatever for such a supposition. The instruments represented by Lecomte are all still on the terrace, only their positions have been somewhat altered to make room for the two added in last century.

Probably, says Mr. Wylie, more might have been added from Chinese works, especially the biography of Ko Shéu-king. But my kind correspondent was unable to travel beyond the books on his own shelves. Nor was it needful.

It will have been seen that, beautiful as the art and casting of these instruments is, it would be a mistake to suppose that they are entitled to equally high rank in scientific accuracy. Mr. Wylie mentioned the question that had been started to Freiherr von Gumpach, who was for some years Professor of Astronomy in the Peking College. Whilst entirely rejecting the doubts that had been raised as to the age of the Mongol instruments, he said that he had seen those of Tycho Brahe, and the former are quite unworthy to be compared with Tycho’s in scientific accuracy.

The doubts expressed have been useful in drawing attention to these remarkable reliques of the era of Kúblái’s reign, and of Marco Polo’s residence in Cathay, though I fear they are answerable for having added some pages to a work that required no enlargement!

[Mr. Wylie sent a most valuable paper on The Mongol Astronomical Instruments at Peking to the Congress of Orientalists held at St. Petersburg, which was reprinted at Shanghai in 1897 in Chinese Researches. Some of the astronomical instruments have been removed to Potsdam by the Germans since the siege of the foreign Legations at Peking in 1900. — H. C.]

On these auguries, and on diviners and fortune-tellers, see Semedo, p. 118 seqq.; Kidd, p. 313 (also for preceding references, Mid. Kingdom, II. 152; Gaubil, 136).

NOTE 2. — + The real cycle of the Mongols, which was also that of the Chinese, runs: 1. Rat; 2. Ox; 3. Tiger; 4. Hare; 5. Dragon; 6. Serpent; 7. Horse; 8. Sheep; 9. Ape; 10. Cock; 11. Dog; 12. Swine. But as such a cycle [12 earthly branches, Ti-chih] is too short to avoid confusion, it is combined with a co-efficient cycle of ten epithets [celestial Stems, T’ien-kan] in such wise as to produce a 60-year cycle of compound names before the same shall recur. These co-efficient epithets are found in four different forms: (1) From the Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, attaching to each a masculine and feminine attribute so as to make ten epithets. (2) From the Colours: Blue, Red, Yellow, White, Black, similarly treated. (3) By terms without meaning in Mongol, directly adopted or imitated from the Chinese, Ga, Yi, Bing, Ting, etc. (4) By the five Cardinal Points: East, South, Middle, West, North. Thus 1864 was the first year of a 60-year cycle:—

1864 = (Masc.) Wood–Rat Year = (Masc.) Blue–Rat Year.
1865 = (Fem.) Wood–Ox Year = (Fem.) Blue–Ox Year.
1866 = (Masc.) Fire–Tiger Year = (Masc.) Red–Tiger Year.
1867 = (Fem.) Fire–Hare Year = (Fem.) Red–Hare Year.
1923 = (Fem.) Water–Swine Year = (Fem.) Black–Swine Year.

And then a new cycle commences just as before.

This Calendar was carried by the Mongols into all their dominions, and it would appear to have long survived them in Persia. Thus a document issued in favour of Sir John Chardin by the Shaikh-ul-Islám of Ispahan, bears the strange date for a Mahomedan luminary of “The year of the Swine.” The Hindus also had a 60-year cycle, but with them each year had an independent name.

The Mongols borrowed their system from the Chinese, who attribute its invention to the Emperor Hwang-ti, and its initiation to the 61st year of his reign, corresponding to B.C. 2637. [“It was Ta-nao, Minister to the Emperor Hwang-ti, who, by command of his Sovereign, devised the sexagenary cycle. Hwang-ti began to reign 2697 B.C., and the 61st year of his reign was taken for the first cyclical sign.” P. Hoang, Chinese Calendar; p. 11. — H. C.] The characters representing what we have called the ten coefficient epithets are called by the Chinese the “Heavenly Stems”; those equivalent to the twelve animal symbols are the “Earthly Branches,” and they are applied in their combinations not to years only, but to cycles of months, days, and hours, such hours being equal to two of ours. Thus every year, month, day, and hour will have two appropriate characters, and the four pairs belonging to the time of any man’s birth constitute what the Chinese call the “Eight Characters” of his age, to which constant reference is made in some of their systems of fortune-telling, and in the selection of propitious days for the transaction of business. To this system the text alludes. A curious account of the principles of prognostication on such a basis will be found in Doolittle’s Social Life of the Chinese (p. 579 seqq.; on the Calendar, see Schmidt’s Preface to S. Setzen; Pallas, Sammlungen, II. 228 seqq.; Prinsep’s Essays, Useful Tables, 146.)

[“Kubilai Khan established in Peking two astronomical boards and two observatories. One of them was a Chinese Observatory (sze t’ien t’ai), the other a Mohammedan Observatory (hui hui sze t’ien t’ai), each with its particular astronomical and chronological systems, its particular astrology and instruments. The first astronomical and calendar system was compiled for the Mongols by Ye-liu Ch’u-ts’ai, who was in Chingis Khan’s service, not only as a high counsellor, but also as an astronomer and astrologer. After having been convinced of the obsoleteness and incorrectness of the astronomical calculations in the Ta ming li (the name of the calendar system of the Kin Dynasty), he thought out at the time he was at Samarcand a new system, valid not only for China, but also for the countries conquered by the Mongols in Western Asia, and named it in memory of Chingis Khan’s expedition Si ching keng wu yüan li, i.e., ‘Astronomical Calendar beginning with the year Keng wu, compiled during the war in the west.’ Keng-wu was the year 1210 of our era. Ye-liu Ch’u-ts’ai chose this year, and the moment of the winter solstice, for the beginning of his period; because, according to his calculations, it coincided with the beginning of a new astronomical or planetary period. He took also into consideration, that since the year 1211 Chingis Khan’s glory had spread over the whole world. Ye-liu Ch’u-ts’ai’s calendar was not adopted in China, but the system of it is explained in the Yuen-shi, in the section on Astronomy and the Calendar.

“In the year 1267, the Mohammedans presented to Kubilai their astronomical calendar (wan nien li, i.e.), the calendar of ten thousand years. By taking this denomination in its literal sense, we may conclude that the Mahommedans brought to China the ancient Persian system, founded on the period of 10,000 years. The compilers of the Yuen-shi seem not to have had access to documents relating to this system, for they give no details about it. Finally by order of Kubilai the astronomers Hui–Heng and Ko Show–King composed a new calculation under the name of Shou-shi-li which came into use from the year 1280. It is thoroughly explained in the Yuen-shi. Notwithstanding the fame this system generally enjoyed, its blemishes came soon to light. In the sixth month of 1302 an eclipse of the sun happened, and the calculation of the astronomer proved to be erroneous (it seems the calculation had anticipated the real time). The astronomers of the Ming Dynasty explained the errors in the Shou-shi-li by the circumstance, that in that calculation the period for one degree of precession of the equinox was taken too long (eighty-one years). But they were themselves hardly able to overcome these difficulties.” (Palladius, pp. 51–53.)— H. C.]

1 Besides the works quoted in the text I have only been able to consult Gaubil’s notices, as abstracted in Lalande; and the Introductory Remarks to Mr. J. Williams’s Observations of Comets . . . extracted from the Chinese Annals, London, 1871.

2 Pinnula. The French pinnule is properly a sight-vane at the end of a traversing bar. The transverse lines imply that minutes were read by the system of our diagonal scales; and these I understand to have been subdivided still further by aid of a divided edge attached to the sight-vane; qu. a Vernier?

3 Verbiest himself speaks of the displaced instruments thus . . . “ut nova instrumenta astronomica facienda mihi imponeret, quae scilicet more Europaeo affabre facta, et in specula Astroptica Pekinensi collocata, aeternam Imperii Tartarici memoriam apud posteritatem servarent, prioribus instrumentis Sinicis rudioris Minervae, quae jam a trecentis proxime annis speculam occupabant, inde amotis. Imperator statim annuit illorum postulatis. et totius rei curam, publico diplomate mihi imposuit. Ego itaque intra quadriennis spatium sex diversi generis instrumenta confeci.” This is from an account of the Observatory written by Verbiest himself, and printed at Peking in 1668 (Liber Organicus Astronomiae Europaeae apud Sinas Restitutae, etc.). My friend Mr. D. Hanbury made the extract from a copy of this rare book in the London Institution Library. An enlarged edition was published in Europe. (Dillingen, 1687.)

4 On the contrary, he considered the photographs interesting, as showing to how late a period the art of fine casting had endured.

5 This ancient instrument is probably the same that is engraved in Pauthier’s Chine Ancienne under the title of “The Sphere of the Emperor Shun” (B.C. 2255!).

6 After the death of Kúblái astronomy fell into neglect, and when Hongwu, the first Ming sovereign, took the throne (1368) the subject was almost forgotten. Nor was there any revival till the time of Ching. The latter was a prince who in 1573 associated himself with the astronomer Hing-yun-lu to reform the state of astronomy. (Gaubil.)

What Ricci has recorded (in Trigautius) of the dense ignorance of the Chinese literati in astronomical matters is entirely consistent with the preceding statements.

7 I had entirely forgotten to look at Trigault till Mr. Wylie sent me the extract. The copy I use (De Christianá Expeditione apud Sinas . . . Auct. Nicolao Trigautio) is of Lugdun. 1616. The first edition was published at August. Vindelicorum (Augsburg) in 1615: the French, at Lyons, in 1616.

8 “Pinnulis.”

9Et stilus eo modo quo in horologiis ad perpendiculum collocatus.”

10 The Alidada is the traversing index bar which carries the dioptra, pinnules, or sight-vanes. The word is found in some older English Dictionaries, and in France and Italy is still applied to the traversing index of a plane table or of a sextant. Littré derives it from (Ar.) ’adád, enumeration; but it is really from a quite different word, al-idádat [Arabic] “a door-post,” which is found in this sense in an Arabic treatise on the Astrolabe. (See Dozy and Engelmann, p. 140.)

11 This is an error of Ricci’s, as Mr. Wylie observes, or of his reporter.

The Chinese divide their year into 24 portions of 15 days each. Of these 24 divisions twelve called Kung mark the twelve places in which the sun and moon come into conjunction, and are thus in some degree analogous to our 12 signs of the Zodiac. The names of these Kung are entirely different from those of our sign, though since the 17th century the Western Zodiac, with paraphrased names, has been introduced in some of their books. But besides that, they divide the heavens into 28 stellar spaces. The correspondence of this division to the Hindu system of the 28 Lunar Mansions, called Nakshatras, has given rise to much discussion. The Chinese sieu or stellar spaces are excessively unequal, varying from 24° in equatorial extent down to 24’. (Williams, op. cit.) [See P. Hoang, supra p. 449.]

12 Mr. Wylie is inclined to distrust the accuracy of this remark, as the only city nearly on the 36th parallel is P’ing-yang fu.

But we have noted in regard to this (Polo’s Pianfu, vol. ii. p. 17) that a college for the education of Mongol youth was instituted here, by the great minister Yeliu Chutsai, whose devotion to astronomy Mr. Wylie has noticed above. In fact, two colleges were established by him, one at Yenking, i.e. Peking, the other at P’ing-yang; and astronomy is specified as one of the studies to be pursued at these. (See D’Ohsson, II. 71–72, quoting De Mailla.) It seems highly probable that the two sets of instruments were originally intended for these two institutions, and that one set was carried to Nanking, when the Ming set their capital there in 1368.

13 The 28 sieu or stellar spaces, above spoken of, do not extend to the Pole; they are indeed very unequal in extent on the meridian as well as on the equator. And the area in the northern sky not embraced in them is divided into three large spaces called Yuen or enclosures, of which the field of circumpolar stars (or circle of perpetual apparition) forms one which is called Tze–Wei. (Williams.)

The southern circumpolar stars form a fourth space, beyond the 28 sieu. Ibid.

14 “This was obviously made in France. There is nothing Chinese about it, either in construction or ornament. It is very different from all the others.” (Note by Mr. Wylie.)

15 “There follows a minute description of the brass clepsydra, and the brass gnomon, which it is unnecessary to translate. I have seen both these instruments, in two of the lower rooms.”— Id.

16 [Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J., was born at Pitthens, near Courtrai; he arrived in China in 1659 and died at Peking on the 29th January, 1688. — H. C.]

17 We have attached letters A, B, C, to indicate the correspondences of the ancient instruments, and cyphers 1, 2, 3, to indicate the correspondences of the modern instruments.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24