Monday, May 20, 2013

Research and resources on Chinese astronomy

The Chinese Sky. Poster available from IDP (see below).
Illustrations by Nilesh Mistry.

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 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.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Calligraphy of Wang Xizhi

Above: Or.8210/S.3753 — British Library manuscript featuring copies of no. 3 (Longbao tie 龍保帖) and no. 8 (Zhanjin tie 瞻近帖) from Wang Xizhi’s Shiqitie.

Below: Pelliot chinois 4642 — Bibliothèque nationale de France manuscript featuring a copy of no.23 (Zhanji hutao tie 旃罽胡桃帖) from Wang Xizhi’s Shiqitie.

The fourth-century calligrapher Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303–361) became known in China as the 'Sage of Calligraphy' for his mastery of all calligraphic forms, in particular semi-cursive script (行书). His work was prized by calligraphers, collectors and emperors, both for its artistry and its rarity. As none of his original work is known to have survived, it was through rubbings, tracings and copies that his legacy was secured as generations of calligraphers tried to emulate his distinctive style.

Even in Dunhuang, on the opposite side of China from his native province of Shandong, we know of at least two manuscripts that have been identified as copies of Wang Xizhi’s work. One of these is now in the Stein Collection at the British Library and the other, first identified by Pelliot, is at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Dating back to the Tang period (618–907), these manuscripts show three parts of the Shiqitie (十七帖), a model work in cursive script consisting of letters and other miscellaneous texts and named after the first two characters of the original piece.

Copies of Wang Xizhi's work continue to be identified and to make headlines. As recently as January 2013, a fragment of a letter held in a private Japanese collection was identified by specialists at the Tokyo National Museum as an expert copy of a Wang Xizhi original. It was promptly displayed in the museum's exhibition Wang Xizhi: Master Calligrapher, which ran from 22 January to 3 March 2013.

These manuscripts will feature in The Calligraphy of Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi (王羲之王獻之書法全集), to be published in June 2013 by the Forbidden City Publishing House.