Sunday, January 27, 2008

Why the Emperor Executed Hsi and Ho

Like human beings everywhere throughout history, the Chinese in ancient times were a self-centered people. In fact, the Chinese word for their own country means “Middle Kingdom.” Their belief was that the objects in the heavens had been put there for the benefit of humankind in general and for the emperor in particular. Perhaps for this reason, they felt particularly threatened when, occasionally, something seemed to take a bite right out of the sun, then nibble away, gradually and ominously darkening the sky and the earth below.
The Chinese reasoned that a great dragon was attacking the sun, trying to consume it, and that since it was a beast, it might be susceptible to fear. So, in the midst of an eclipse, people would gather to shout, strike gongs, and generally make as much noise as possible—the more noise the better, since the beast was very big and was certainly very far away. Eventually the noise appeared to always scare off the dragon.
Because it was important to assemble as many people to make as much noise as possible, it was of inestimable value to get advance warning of an eclipse. With infinite patience, generations of Chinese astronomers observed solar eclipses and discovered something they called the Saros, a cycle in which sun, moon, and earth are aligned in a particular way every 18 years, 11.3 days—more or less.
Armed with a knowledge of the Saros, the Chinese were able to predict eclipses—usually.
We know of this because in 2136 B.C.E. there was an unpredicted eclipse, which caught the noisemakers unawares. It was only by great good fortune that the sun wasn’t consumed entirely. The Imperial Court astronomers Hsi and Ho weren’t so fortunate. They were executed for having fallen down on the job. (The royal astronomer position may have been particularly difficult to fill after the “departure” of Hsi and Ho.)

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