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Appendix I. The Conjunction of the Five Planets in Tung-Ching

HS 1A: 18b reads, "In the first year, in the winter, the tenth month [Nov. 14-Dec. 12, 207 B.C.] there was a conjunction of the five planets in [the constellation] Tung-ching."

Dr. J. K. Fotheringham of Oxford has very kindly calculated this conjunction. According to his results, this conjunction cannot have been correctly recorded for 207 B.C., inasmuch as at that time, although the planets were within about 41° of longitude of each other, "Mercury and Jupiter were on one side of the sun, visible as morning stars, and Venus, Mars, and Saturn were on the other side, visible as evening stars." In 206 B.C., Mars was far away from Jupiter.

The date of closest approach for these planets was on May 30, 205 B.C., when the planetary longitudes were as follows: Mercury and Jupiter at 88.3° right ascension, Saturn at 90.7°, Mars at 98.4°, and Venus at 111.3°. The total range in right ascension was thus 23°.

But at that time all the planets were not in the constellation Tung-ching. The right ascensions of the stars in that constellation are calculated for 205 B.C. by Dr. Fotheringham as follows: μ Gemini as 62.8°, ν as 64.9°, ε as 67.3°, γ as 67.8°, ξ as 70.5°, ζ as 73.3° and λ as 77.7°. Tung-ching is however stated by Chinese authorities to contain 33 Chinese degrees, which is about 32.5° in European measurement. The next constellation in the Chinese zodiac is Kuei 鬼, whose constituent stars ranged at that date from 95.3° to 98.8° R.A. This constellation is said to contain 4 Chinese degrees (about 3.9° in our measurement). Hence "it is clear from this that the space between one asterism in the list of zodiacal constellations and the next was reckoned to the preceding asterism. At least this was so with" Tung-ching. Then Tung-ching extended from 62.8° to 95.3° R.A. Even so, on May 30th, Mars was in Kuei and Venus in the next constellation, Liu.

Dr. Fotheringham has however calculated that on May 16th, 205 B.C., when Mercury was first opposite the first star in Tung-ching, being at 62.8°, the other planets were located as follows: Jupiter at 85.0°, Mars at 88.8°, Saturn at 88.9°, and Venus at 95.9°. They were thus spread over 33.1° of longitude. The first four planets were in Tung-ching, and Venus was just over in Kuei. Venus had last been seen in Tung-ching I on May 14th, two evenings previous. But Kuei is usually mentioned together with Tung-ching in the HS; the two were grouped together as the constellation Shun-shou 鶉首 (lit., "the head of the quail"). Chinese astronomers thus had no difficulty in giving "the conjunction the benefit of any doubt." We may then take the middle of May 205 B.C. as the date of this conjunction.

How did this conjunction get dated in November 207 B.C. in the HS? That date was the result of a misunderstanding on the part of the author. The earliest extant statement about this conjunction is found in the SC 37: 40a, "When the Han dynasty triumphed, the five planets appeared in conjunction in [the constellation] Tung-ching." [Cf. Mh III, 407. Chavannes adds a note that this conjunction happened in 200 B.C., on the authority of Ssu-ma Cheng's So-yin. But the So-yin gives that date, not to this conjunction, but to the event mentioned next, the siege of Kao-tsu at P'ing-ch'eng, for the note comes after the sentence recounting the siege. Elsewhere the SC (Mh. II, 389, 390) gives this date for the siege.]

The date when "the Han dynasty triumphed" may be variously given. Kao-tsu dated his accession from the time he received the surrender of Tsu-ying in November 207 B.C., but Hsiang Yü was not killed until January 202 B.C., and Kao-tsu did not ascend the throne as emperor until Feb. 22, 202 B.C. It might also be said that the triumph occurred when Kao-tsu returned from Han and conquered the three Ch'in successor states---June 206 B.C. He however first actually assumed imperial prerogatives when he did away with the Ch'in dynasty's gods of the land and grains and substituted his own---on March 5, 205 B.C. About the time of the conjunction in May 205 B.C., Kao-tsu did triumph over Hsiang Yü, when he entered P'eng-ch'eng, Hsiang Yü's capital, but he was severely defeated immediately afterwards. Perhaps this conjunction actually helped to keep up his courage after that defeat (cf. 1A: 33b). It was thus quite natural that Kao-tsu's assumption of imperial prerogatives in March 205 should have been linked with the conjunction in May, and that the conjunction should have been said to have happened when the Han dynasty triumphed.

The astrological interpretation of this conjunction also assisted in bringing about the statement in the HS. The ancient Chinese allocated the various regions of the sky to various states, just as was the case in the ancient Mediterranean world. According to Cheng Chung (ca. 5 B.C.-83 A.D.), Shun-shou, which includes Tung-ching and Kuei, was allocated to Ch'in. Since Kao-tsu had possessed himself of this territory, it is natural that the conjunction should have been interpreted I with reference to his dynasty. Ying Shao remarks that this conjunction indicated that a new emperor of a new dynasty would conquer by his righteousness.

Because of this astrological interpretation, when the exact date of the conjunction had been forgotten, it was natural to have put this conjunction at the beginning of the Han dynasty's reign. Liu Hsiang (80-9 B.C.) wrote, "When the Han [dynasty] entered [the region of] Ch'in, the five planets appeared in conjunction in [the constellation] Tung-ching." In SC 89: 9b (repeated in HS 23: 6b, 7a) we find a further detail: "The old gentleman Kan said, `When the King of Han [Kao-tsu] entered the pass [Oct. 207 B.C.], the five planets appeared in conjunction in [the constellation] Tung-ching. Tung-ching is the portion [of the heavens allocated to] Ch'in. Whoever reached [that place] first should have been made its king.' "

With the foregoing statement before him, it is quite natural that Pan Ku should have written as he did and dated this conjunction at the official beginning of the Han dynasty in November 207 B.C. He evidently had no exact record of the conjunction except the foregoing passages and was not sorry, in his record, to glorify the dynasty under which he was writing. [Reproduced by permission from the Jour. A. O. S., Sept. 1935, vol. 55, pp. 310-3.]

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia