The world's oldest existing manuscript star chart was discovered in a Buddhist cave complex in Dunhuang, China, and is now held at the British Library in London. The chart is important for our current understanding of the history of astronomy, thanks to the accuracy and detail it provides about the sky seen from China at this early period. Research by French scholars working with IDP has shown that the chart, sometimes referred to as the Dunhuang Star Chart, maps over 1300 stars and probably dates from about AD 650.
Astronomy was central to Chinese politics, to the extent that all the official dynastic historical records contain chapters on astronomy. Chinese astronomy differs from the ecliptic-based Chaldeo-Greek tradition in its equatorial character, due to the central role of the polar star. The celestial region close to the equator is divided in 28 asterisms (groups of stars), which can be considered as an equatorial Chinese zodiac. The grouping of the stars in China is also totally different from the Greek tradition of large constellations. The Chinese grouped the stars into numerous small asterisms (nearly three hundred), some associated with objects and others with people, both real and mythical. Many stories became associated with these characters.
IDP has a downloadable educational resource on Chinese astronomy and astrology. Comprising information pages, discussion topics and classroom activities, it uses the Dunhuang Star Chart as the basis for an exploration into the science, myth and history of Chinese astronomy. The resources includes an A4 version of the Chinese Sky wall chart (pictured above) which you can download as a PDF (7.9MB) and print yourself. Copies of the A1 wall chart are also available to teachers and students through IDP.
For your free copy of the A1 size chart, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with an address for postage. Contributions towards postage and packing will be gratefully received. We welcome feedback, so if you have any comments or pictures relating to your experience of using these resources, please get in touch.
The research and resource were enabled by a grant from the Royal Astronomical Society.