Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker

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Chapter V - Evidence of Eclipses

Having now shown, as shortly and as intelligibly as we can, how the germs of Chinese development were sown at the dawn of true history, let us proceed to examine how far that history, as it has come down to us, contains within it testimony to its own truth. We shall revert to the description of wars and ambitions in due course; but, as so obscure a subject as early Chinese civilization is only palatable to most Western readers in small, varied, and sugared doses, we shall for the moment vary the nourishment offered, and say a few words upon eclipses.

Confucius, whose bald “Spring and Autumn” annals, as expanded by three separate commentators (one a junior contemporary of himself), is really the chief authority for the period 722-468 B.C., was born on the 20th day after the eclipse of the sun which took place in the 10th month of 552 B.C., or the 27th of the 8th moon as worked out to-day (for 1908 this means the 22nd September). Confucius himself records thirty-seven eclipses of the sun between 720 and 481, those of 709, 601, and 549 being total. Of course, as Confucius primarily recorded the eclipses as seen from his own petty vassal state of Lu in Shan Tung province (lat. 35” 40’ N., long, 117” E.), any one endeavouring to identify these eclipses, and to compare them with Julian or Gregorian dates, must, in making the necessary calculations, bear this important fact in mind. It so happens that nearly one-third of Confucius’ thirty-seven eclipses are recorded as having taken place between the two total eclipses of 601 and 549. This being so, I referred the list to an obliging officer attached to the Royal Observatory, who has kindly furnished me with the following comparative list:-

Confucius’ Date.Oppolzer’s Julian Date.
B.C. 601, 7th moon.600, September 20.
“ 599, 4th “ 598, March 5.
“ 592, 6th “ 591, April 17.
“ 575, 6th “ 574, May 9.
“ 574, 12th “ 573, October 22.
“ 559, 2nd “ 558, January 14.
“ 558, 8th “ 557, June 29.
“ 553, 10th “ 552, August 31.
“ 552, 9th “ 
“ 552, 10th “ 551, August 20.
“ 550, 2nd “ 549, January 5.
“ 549, 7th “ 548, April 19.

It will be observed that there is no Oppolzer’s date to compare with the first of the two eclipses of 552; this is because I omitted to notice that there had been recorded in the “Springs and Autumns” two so close together, and therefore I did not include it in the list sent to the Observatory; but with the exception of the total eclipse of 601, all the other eclipses, so far as days of the moon and month go, are as consistent with each other as are modern Chinese dates with European (Julian) dates. As regards the year, Oppolzer’s dates are the “astronomical” dates, that is, the astronomical year–x is the same as the year (x + 1) B.C.; or, in other words, the year of Christ’s birth is, for certain astronomical exactitude purposes, interpolated between the years 1 B.C. and A.D. 1, as we vulgarly compute them: that is to say, the eclipses of the sun recorded 2,400 years ago by Confucius, from notes and annals preserved in his native state’s archives as far back as 700 B.C., are found to be almost without exception fairly correct, with a uniform “error” of about one month, despite the fact that attempts were made by the First August Emperor to destroy all historical literature in 213 B.C. This being so in the matter of a dozen eclipses, there still remain two dozen for specialists to experiment upon, not to mention comets and other celestial phenomena. From this collateral evidence, imperfect though it be, we are reasonably entitled to assume that the three expanded versions of Confucius’ history are trustworthy, or at the very least written in the best of faith.

Just as our mathematicians find no difficulty either in foretelling or retrospecting eclipses to a minute, so does the ancient “sixty” cycle, which the Chinese have from time immemorial used for computing or noting days and years, enable them, or for the matter of that ourselves, to calculate back unerringly any desired day. Thus, suppose the 1st January, 1908, is the 37th day of the perpetual cycle of sixty days; then, if the Chinese historians say that an eclipse took place on the first day of the new moon, which began the 9th Chinese month of the year corresponding in the main to our 800 B.C., and that the 1st day of the moon was also the 37th day of the sixty-day perpetual cycle, all we have to do is to take roughly six cycles for each year, six thousand cycles for each thousand years, allowing at the same time two extra cycles every third year for intercalary moons, and then dealing with the fractions or balance of days. If our calculation does not bring the two 37th cyclic days together accurately, we must of course go into the question of how and when the Chinese calendars were altered, a subject that will be treated of in a subsequent Chapter. It must be remembered that there can never be any question of so much as a whole year being involved in the balance of error; for, with the Chinese as with us, one year, whenever modified, always means that space of time, however irregularly computed at each end of it, within which two solstices and two equinoxes have taken place, Voltaire, in the article on “China” of his Universal Dictionary, remarks that “of 32 ancient Chinese eclipses, 28 have been identified by Western mathematicians"; and M. Edouard Chavannes, who has given a great deal of time and labour to working out the mysteries of the Chinese calendar, does not hesitate to claim accuracy to the very day (29th August) for the eclipse of the sun recorded in the Book of Odes (as re-edited by Confucius) as having taken place on the 28th cyclic day of the beginning of the both moon in 776 B.C. (i.e. of–775). This eclipse is of course not recorded in the “Springs and Autumns,” which begins with the year 722 B.C.

The Chou dynasty, which came into power in 1122, for the second time put back the year a month because the calendar was getting confused. That is, they made what we should call January begin the legal year instead of February; or the still more ancient March; but some of the vassals either used computations of their own, or kept up those handed down by the two dynasties previous to that of Chou: hence in the Confucian histories, as expanded, there are frequent discrepancies in consequence of events apparently copied from the records of one vassal state having been reported to the historian of a second vassal state without steps having been taken to adjust the different new years.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Opening Scenes  •  Chapter II - Shifting Scenes  •  Chapter III - The Northern Powers  •  Chapter IV - The Southern Power  •  Chapter V - Evidence of Eclipses  •  Chapter VI - The Army  •  Chapter VII - The Coast States  •  Chapter VIII - First Protector of China  •  Chapter IX - Position of Envoys  •  Chapter X - The Second Protector  •  Chapter XI - Religion  •  Chapter XII - Ancestral Worship  •  Chapter XIII - Ancient Documents Found  •  Chapter XIV - More on Protectors  •  Chapter XV - State Intercourse  •  Chapter XVI - Land and People  •  Chapter XVII - Education and Literary  •  Chapter XVIII - Treaties and Vows  •  Chapter XIX - Confucius and Literature  •  Chapter XX - Law  •  Chapter XXI - Public Works  •  Chapter XXII - Cities and Towns  •  Chapter XXIII - Break-Up of China  •  Chapter XXIV - Kings and Nobles  •  Chapter XXV - Vassals and Emperor  •  Chapter XXVI - Fighting State Period  •  Chapter XXVII - Foreign Blood  •  Chapter XXVIII - Barbarians  •  Chapter XXIX - Curious Customs  •  Chapter XXX - Literary Relations  •  Chapter XXXI - Origin of the Chinese  •  Chapter XXXII - The Calendar  •  Chapter XXXIII - Names  •  Chapter XXXIV - Eunuchs, Human Sacrifices, Food  •  Chapter XXXV - Knowledge of the West  •  Chapter XXXVI - Ancient Japan  •  Chapter XXXVII - Ethics  •  Chapter XXXVIII - Women and Morals  •  Chapter XXXIX - Geographical Knowledge  •  Chapter XL - Tombs and Remains  •  Chapter XLI - The Tartars  •  Chapter XLII - Music  •  Chapter XLIII - Wealth, Sports, Etc.  •  Chapter XLIV - Confucius  •  Chapter XLV - Confucius and Lao-Tsz  •  Chapter XLVI - Oracles and Omens  •  Chapter XLVII - Rulers and People  •  Ancient Chinese Law

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Ancient China Simplified (1908)
By Edward Harper Parker
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