Eclipses in Ancient China Spurred Science, Beheadings?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 29, 2008

NEW PHOTOS: Solar Eclipse Seen Around the World August 1 >>

The Olympics aren't the only epic event occurring in China next month. A total solar eclipse, the first since 2006, will turn day to night on Friday, the first of August.

The eclipse will also be visible in parts of northern Canada, Greenland, Siberia, and Mongolia. (Learn more about this week's eclipse.)

Many Chinese will celebrate the celestial event with parties and viewing festivities—but it wasn't always so.

The Chinese have a long, sophisticated history of charting the skies and have recorded eclipses for thousands of years.

The events were once considered ill omens and, if the ancient records are to be believed, dramatic eclipses may have caused more than one unfortunate astrologer to lose his head.

(See photos of solar eclipses.)

Ominous Omens

Ciyuan Liu and Liping Ma, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Xueshun Liu, of the University of British Columbia, studied early eclipse records and wrote of the total eclipse's special political position in ancient Chinese culture.

"It was a warning to the Emperor—for the Sun was the symbol of the Emperor according to traditional astrological theories," Liu said in email, quoting his 2003 paper published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage

"When an eclipse occurred, the Emperor would normally eat vegetarian meals, avoid the main palace, perform rituals to rescue the Sun and, sometimes, issue imperial edict to take the blame on himself."

The earliest known recorded solar eclipse in about 2100 B.C. surprised ancient astrologers Xi and He in the court of Emperor Zhong Kang, one story goes.

Continued on Next Page >>


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