The Chinese people tended to use astronomy for practical purposes from the
very beginning, unlike many of the other cultures studied here that focused
mainly on religious aspects of the sky. However, they did develop an extensive
system of the zodiac designed to help guide the life of people on Earth. Their
version of the zodiac was called the 'yellow path', a reference to the sun
traveling along the ecliptic. Like in Western astrology, the Chinese had twelve
houses along the yellow path.
The first Chinese written records of astronomy are from about
3000 B.C. The first human record of an eclipse was made in 2136 B.C., and
over hundreds of years of advanced sky-watching, the Chinese became very adept
at predicting lunar eclipses. They followed a calendar of twelve lunar months,
and calculated the year to be 365.25 days long. They translated this 'magic'
number into a unit of degrees, by setting the number of degrees in a circle
equal to 365.25 (as compared to our use of 360 degrees).
One of the famous observations made by Chinese astronomers was
that of a supernova in the year 1054. They referred to this phenomenon in
records as a 'guest star', and mention that it remained bright for about a
year before again becoming invisible. This supernova created what we see today
as the Crab Nebula. The explosion itself in 1054 was also recorded by the
Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest, but for some reason there is no
known record of this occurance in European or any other cultures.
In order to mark the passage of time and the seasons, the Chinese
primarily used the orientation of the Big Dipper constellation relative to
the pole star in early evening. They were also the inventors of the first
clock, a water clock which divided a day into 100 equal parts. During the
Ming Dynasty, between the years of 1436-1449, an observatory was built in
Beijing on the old city walls, and was filled with impressive bronze instruments.