The Tang Dynasty cosmic worldview that Nara Japan inherited

Layout of cosmically heaven-aligned city, Changan of the Tang Dynasty, Shaanxi History Museum:

Layout of cosmically heaven-aligned city, Changan of the Tang Dynasty, Shaanxi History Museum: “Scenes of Flourishing Tang”, P27. Zhejiang People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1999.

During the Nara period, the Japanese court actively sought to absorb the body of advanced ideas and knowledge of astronomy, engineering and city-building, medicine, technology, arts and music and governmental organization, that were coming out of the Chinese Tang Dynasty’s capital city Changan (Cho-an to the Japanese). These ideas were transmitted via two-way diplomatic missions between Nara and the Changan capital, and for the most part, the incoming corpus of knowledge and ideas, studied, embraced and adopted enthusiastically, including its fashions — much of which almost wholesale. More details and background on thishere.

Plan of Nara (image source: wiki college notes by Angelo di Franco

Plan of Nara (image open source: Wiki College Study Blue notes by Ornello di Franco)

The city of Changan,

“continued to be the principal capital of the empire and entered the greatest period of its development under the Tang Dynasty (618-907). “At the height of its glory in the mid-eighth century, Chang’an was the most populous, cosmopolitan, and civilized city in the world” (Richard B. Mather, foreword to Xiong, p. ix), occupying some 84 sq. km. with around one million inhabitants. It suffered major damage during the An Lushan rebellion in the mid-8th century, but even toward the end of the Tang period, when the empire was in disarray, the “enormous size” of the city impressed an Arab visitor.

Under the Tang, the city was a major religious center, not only for Buddhism and Taoism but also for several religions which were relatively recent arrivals in China: Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism and Manichaeism… a Japanese pilgrim noted in 844 that there were over 300 Buddhist temples in Chang’an.” — “Chang’an (Xian)” (a University of Washington’s resource)

作者安东尼·阿维尼在“地球将天空” gives us a good account and concise summary of the Tang Empire-Son of Heaven’s worldview that would have been transmitted to Japanese during the Nara period.

“…cities with long written histories – like Beijing – provide us with some unanticipated connections.

The written legacy helps us understand the reasons behind the desire to orientate one’s capital to the stars. A strong bond existed between astrology and good government: a mandate from heaven underlay all Chinese dynastic ideology.

Chinese society has always been bureaucratically organized. Family histories contain lengthy chapters on astronomy, with data such as where and when celestial objects appeared or disappeared, their colour, brightness, direction of motion and their gathering together in one place. These histories also suggest implications that such data might have on family affairs: thus one Chinese historian and court astrologer explains that when planets gather, either there is great fortune or there is great calamity. He knows this because when they gathered in Roon (Scorpio), the Zhou dynasty flourished, but when they gathered in Winnowing Basket (Sagittarius), Qi became the emperor.

The Chinese called their constellations the ‘heavenly minions’. But when they looked among them in the north they saw not a pair of wheeling bears flanked by a dragon as we do, but rather a celestial empire. Which constellations did they recognize and what do the Chinese stars tell us about their ideas concerning rulership and the orientation of the city? Confucius compared the emperor’s rule with Polaris, the north star: just as the emperor was the axis of the earthly state, so his celestial pivot was the polar constellation. The economy revolved around the fixed emperor the way the stars turn about the immoveable pole. According to one legend, the Divine King was born out of the light radiated upon his mother by the Pole Star. Four of the seven stars in what we know as the Little Dipper, plus two others, constituted the Kou Chen or ‘Angular Arranger’ of the Chin Shu dynasty. These stars made up the great ‘Purple Palace’ and each of their celestial functionaries had its terrestrial social counterpart. One member of the group was the crown prince who governed the moon while another, the great emperor, ruled the sun. A third, son of the imperial concubine, governed the five planets, while a fourth was the empress, and a fifth the heavenly palace itself. When the emperor’s star lost its brightness, his earthly counterpart would sacrifice his authority, while the crown prince would become anxious when his star appeared dim, especially when it lay to the right of the emperor.

The four surrounding stars of the palace proper are Pei Chi, the ‘Four Supporters’. On Chinese star maps they appear well situated to perform their task, which is to issue orders to the rest of the state. The ‘Golden Canopy’ is made up of seven stars, most of them corresponding to the pole-centred stars of our constellation Draco. It covered the palatial inhabitants and emissaries. Beyond them lay the stars of the Northern Dipper. More concerned with realizing celestial principles in the earthly realm, these ‘Seven Regulators’ are aptly situated to possess the manoeuvrability to come down close to Earth so that they can inspect the four quarters of the empire. According to one version, the Big Dipper is the carriage of the great theocrat who periodically wheels around the central palace to review conditions. Its stars are the source of Yin and Yang, the two-fold way of knowing what resolves the tension between opposing polarities: male and female, light and dark, active and passive. Yin and Yang wax and wane with cosmic time and make up the potentiality of the human condition. For every affair of state the starry winds of good and bad fortune blow across the sky.

Why this royal fixation with the stars of the north? Like the power invested in royalty, they were eternally visible, never obscured by the horizon. Indeed in temperate latitudes the stars that turn about the pole are raised quite high in the sky. The fixity of the polar axis is a cosmic metaphor for the constant power of the state.

Given the close parallel between the events surrounding the palace economy and the celestial arrangement, it seems logical to enquire whether Chinese royal architecture, like that of Stonehenge and Teotihuacan, is also situated in perfect harmony with the land- and skyscape.

To harmonize the arrangement of the royal capital with the local contours of cosmic energy, the king would call in a geomancer to perform the art offeng shui. This expert would decide where to select and how to arrange a site. His sources of cosmic knowledge were the local magnetic field, the paths of streams and the land forms; he might also consult oracle bones, engraved pieces of bone and shell used in divination. Sometimes workers would need to remove vast quantities of boulders or plant forests of trees to regulate the disposition of Yin and Yang energies passing in and out of the site.

There is an account of the foundation ritual associated with the city of Lo-yang of the Zhou dynasty at the close of the second millennium bc. On the second day of the third month:

Diog-Kung, Duke of Zhou, began to lay the foundations and establish a new and important city at Glak (Lo) in the eastern state. The people of the four quarters concurred strongly and assembled for the corvée … In the second month, the third quarter, on the sixth day in the morning the King walked from the capital of Diog (Chou) and reached P’iong (Feng). The Great Protector preceded Diog-Kung to inspect the site. When it came to the third month … on the third day the Great Protector arrived at Glak in the morning and took the tortoise oracle as bearing on the site. When he had obtained the oracle, he planned and laid out the city. On the third day the Great Protector and all the people of Yin began work on the public emplacements in the loop of the Glak river.

The attention to detail regarding place and time suggests that acquiring proper urban form depended on getting things right with nature – especially the cardinal axes. If it were to function properly, the city needed to be accurately partitioned into its quarters.

Beijing still preserves its ancient cosmic plan. If you stand in Tiananmen Square you can line up the Bell and Drum Towers, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong on a perfect north-south axis. Continue that line and you’ll discover that it runs through the gates of the old city. Today the cosmic axis is defined by a marble pavement that marks the imperial meridian. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, which houses the emperor’s throne, lies at its northern terminus; this symbolizes the circumpolar region where the earth meets the sky.

Beijing offers a lasting reminder of the cosmically ordained duties of the emperor. He had to perform a specific task at the beginning of the first month of each season, these being determined by the court astronomers who followed the course of the moon and sun and the five planets across the lunar mansions of the Chinese zodiac. The emperor would go to the eastern quarter ouf his domain to start the new year every spring equinox to pray for a sound harvest; then, followed by his ministers, he would plough a ceremonial furrow in a field. At the other seasonal pivots he would visit the other quarters of his city.

This calendar would have been familiar to any farmer, for it was based on what he could see in the sky. At the beginning of summer Antares lay due south at sunset, while on the first of winter the Tristar of Orion’s Belt took its place. Of course, farmers knew well when they could plant, but they needed to be aware that the official time to do so occurred when the handle of the Dipper pointed straight down, for then was it the first day of spring – the time for the king to come forth and speak to the people about the new year’s harvest.

The keeping of the observations and the preparation of the calendar resided in the state observatory. This institution lay hidden within the bowels of the Purple Palace. The importance of astronomical observing in the world of politics made secrecy a necessity. One directive issued by a ninth-century Tang Dynasty king reads:

If we hear of any intercourse between the astronomical officials or of their subordinates, and officials of any other government departments, or miscellaneous common people, it will be regarded as a violation of security relations which should be strictly adhered to. From now on, therefore, the astronomical officials are on no account to mix with civil servants and common people in general. Let the Censorate see to it.

And so the astronomers, spurred on by their government, performed their appointed task: to give the correct time so that the affairs of state might be properly conducted. “

Source of article excerpt:Bringing the Sky Down to Earthby Anthony Aveni | Published in History Today Volume: 58 Issue 6 2008 (retrieved online Jan 25, 2014:

安东尼·f·阿维尼是罗素高露洁Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University. He is the author of People and the Sky: Our Ancestors and the Cosmos (Thames & Hudson).

Further recommended sources and readings:

Nara capital built in the shadow of the Chinese empire & under the influences of the Silk Road(Heritage of Japan wordpress blog)

C. Cullen, Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China (Needham Resarch Institute, 2007)

Victor Cunrui Xiong,Sui-Tang Chang’an: A Study in the Urban History of Medieval China(Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000).

2 responses to “The Tang Dynasty cosmic worldview that Nara Japan inherited

  1. I’ve been looking into the traditional Chinese “cosmic worldview” recently… though I think that mention of the cosmic reasons for the layout of Nara & Kyoto is relatively standard even in undergrad surveys, the elements relating to worship of specific stars is something I’ve only just begun to investigate. Thanks for sharing about it!

  2. Pingback:Learning Japanese at 50: Looking at the Past – Reflections on the Path

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