Sunday, January 27, 2008

Time, Space, Harmony

More than 4,000 years later, the fate of Hsi and Ho is still regrettable, but not nearly as important as the fact that we know about their fate at all. The Chinese made records of their astronomical observations and, indeed, along with the Babylonians were some of the earliest people to do so. Some oracle bones (animal bones used to foretell the future) from the Bronze Age Shang dynasty (about 1800 B.C.E.) bear the early Chinese ideogram character for “pillar.” Scholars believe that this ideogram is associated with a gnomon, a pillar or tower erected for the purpose of measuring the sun’s shadow in order to determine, among other things, the dates of the solstices.
Writings from the Zhou dynasty, in the seventh century B.C.E., reveal that a special tower was built to measure the sun’s shadow. During the Han era (C.E. 25–220), the town of Yang-chhêng was judged to be the center of the world, probably because the principal gnomon was installed there (or the gnomon may have been installed there because it was considered the center of the world). By C.E. 725, many smaller gnomons— what might be called field stations—were set up along a single line of longitude extending some 2,200 miles from the principal gnomon at Yang-chhêng. With this system, the Chinese could calculate calendars with considerable precision. In subsequent eras, even more elaborate gnomon towers—observatories, really—were built, including that of the astronomer Guo shou jing at Gao cheng zhen in Henan province, in C.E. 1276.
Why this passion to measure the heavens and the passage of time? Living in harmony with nature has always been important in Chinese philosophies, and, in terms of practical politics, exact knowledge of the heavens aided rulers in establishing and maintaining their absolute authority.

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