Connecting the Heavens and Earth: Astronomy and Sky Knowledge in East Asia and Beyond

For thousands of years, a rich tradition of astronomy and sky knowledge developed in China and around East Asia, and eventually met with European ideas and discoveries.

By Adler Planetarium

Crop of Hun T'ien Yi T'ung Hsing Hsiang Ch'uan T'uAdler Planetarium

A Mandate of Heaven

The Chinese empire was grounded on the idea that everything on Earth has a direct correlation with the sky. Just as the stars seem to revolve around the celestial pole - corresponding to the center of the star map shown here - everything in the empire revolved around the emperor.

The Chinese emperor’s power was legitimized by this connection with the sky, an idea known as the “Mandate of Heaven.” The order of the heavens, as well as any apparent anomalies that occurred in it, were reflected by events in the empire. As a result, celestial phenomena were carefully recorded and studied.

Tian wen tu zhu xiang yi fu : bu fen juanAdler Planetarium

Oddities in the Sky


Chinese astronomers and scholars kept detailed records of celestial events, both astronomical and meteorological. Transient phenomena such as meteors, comets, and novae were of particular importance, since they were regarded as potential omens.  


Shown here is a page from “Tian wen tu zhu xiang yi fu,” a work produced in China sometime between the 14th and the 17th centuries. It includes reports of unusual astronomical and meteorological phenomena. This illustration documents a possible comet.

Temmon zukaiAdler Planetarium

Following the Moon’s Path

Chinese astronomers developed their own system of constellations. These constellations had a direct connection with varied aspects of daily life in the Chinese empire, ranging from the emperor and his court to something as mundane as a toilet’s placement. These constellations were adopted in other areas of East Asia, as exemplified by this star map from a 17th-century Japanese book. 

The map also shows the 28 lunar mansions – the constellations seen in the path of the moon – with their dividing lines radiating from the center. This system of dividing the sky helped astronomers track down the motions of the moon, the sun, and the planets. It fulfilled the role that the Zodiac constellations played for astronomers in Ancient Mesopotamia, the Islamic World, and Western Europe.  

Magnetic Compass: Geomancer's, Far EasternAdler Planetarium

Heaven and Earth United

The “luopan,” or geomantic compass, represents the union between heaven and Earth, and is the central tool of “feng shui,” an ancient Chinese art that seeks to create harmonious spaces. This luopan was made in China in the 19th century.

The compass needle, placed in a bowl called the “heavenly pool,” indicates the magnetic south, a piece of information central to the practice of feng shui. Additionally, there are markings for 24 cardinal directions known as “the 24 mountains.” The instrument can be used by a  feng shui expert to determine the orientation of a certain construction or object and decide on the most favorable alignments.

Shogaku tenmon shinanshōAdler Planetarium

Celestial Frameworks

Armillary spheres were used in China and other parts of East Asia from the first century BC onwards, with the instrument evolving in the ensuing centuries. This 18th-century illustration from Japan shows an observation armillary sphere. It consists of a framework of rings with which the positions of celestial objects can be measured.

Another type of armillary sphere was specifically suited to demonstrate the celestial motions and to assist with calculations relating to the production of calendars. Some of these instruments were put in motion by the fall of water, making them akin to mechanical clocks that showed the apparent motion of the celestial sphere.  

Globe: Celestial, with clockwork, Far EasternAdler Planetarium

A Copper Sky

This celestial globe was made in China in the first half of the 19th century. It shows the Chinese constellations on the surface of a sphere made of copper.

Celestial globes are closely related to armillary spheres. They were used for teaching and demonstration purposes and as aids to astronomical calculations. This example is fitted with clockwork in order to simulate the apparent motion of the celestial sphere.    

Sundial: SkapheAdler Planetarium

A Bowl-Shaped Sundial

Different types of sundials have long been used around the world for finding the time. This 18th-century sundial is based on a design that developed in Korea three centuries earlier. It was known as “Angbu ilgu,” meaning “an upward-looking bowl sundial.

The instrument is designed for use in the latitude of Seoul. These sundials were placed in busy urban areas for the public display of time, and became icons of Korean culture.

Yume no shiroAdler Planetarium

From Calendars to Puzzles

As in many other cultures and regions, calendars played a fundamental role in the daily life of East Asian civilizations. Their production was one of the main functions ascribed by rulers to court astronomers and mathematicians.

This image from a 19th-century Japanese work shows a “mekuragoyomi”, a type of calendar created with pictures to make it accessible to audiences who were illiterate. Even for those who did read, it could serve as a useful summary of important dates for farming and village life. The “picture writing” used in these calendars eventually turned into puzzles for general amusement. 

Sekai daisō no zu.Adler Planetarium

Cultural Encounters on a Trading Post

This map from 19th-century Japan presents the world according to Buddhist cosmology, together with a world map based on geographical knowledge brought by the Dutch to Nagasaki.  

Nagasaki was the main gateway between Japan and European trade and travelers during the Edo period (1603-1867). As shown by this map, it also served as a place for the exchange of ideas and knowledge.  

Temmon Soten ZuAdler Planetarium

The Tides are Turning

This device is called a volvelle or wheel chart. It is formed by several concentric paper and cardboard discs stacked together, which can be rotated in order to perform calculations. The whole assemblage functions as an analog computer.

The device shown here is part of a 17th-century work from Japan comprising other tools of the same kind. This volvelle in particular correlates the phases of the Moon with the tides. It may have been adapted from similar paper instruments found in European books on astronomy and navigation.

QB3 .N6 1710Adler Planetarium

Connecting East and West

Jesuit missionaries were pivotal in introducing elements of Western astronomy in China, and in presenting Chinese science and culture to European audiences. Such was the case of François Noël (1651-1729). This chart is taken from his book “Mathematical and Physical Observations in India and China” (1710).

The chart lists two groups of characters used in the Chinese calendar, respectively the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches. In the same book, Noël also discusses Chinese astronomical records, comparing them to observations made in Europe.

The Observatory at PekingAdler Planetarium

An Observatory with Several Lives

The Observatory of Beijing was originally built in 1442. Between 1669 and 1674, per the request of the Chinese emperor, six new large instruments, some of European design, were built and added under the supervision of the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest. They can be seen in this late 18th century illustration. 

Other instruments were added in the first half of the 18th century. Today, you can still visit the Observatory, and it is a monument to the study of the heavens and how astronomy has connected cultures over the centuries.

Heitengi zukai.Adler Planetarium

Telescopic News

These illustrations from an 18th-century Japanese book represent a telescope next to a celestial globe (right), and a telescopic view of sunspots (left). The telescope was introduced in China and Japan by Europeans soon after its emergence in Western Europe in the early 17th century.

News about telescopic observations made by Galileo Galilei and others also reached East Asia quickly through the actions of Jesuit missionaries. References to such observations, which included those of sunspots, the satellites of Jupiter, and the craters of the Moon, gained an enduring presence in Japanese astronomy books. 

Yume no shiroAdler Planetarium

Scientific Reason and the Dreams of Old

This depiction of the solar system belongs to “Yume no shiro” ("In place of dreams"), a book by the Japanese merchant and Confucian scholar Yamagata Banto (1748-1821). It shows the sun, the planets up to Saturn, and their satellites.

The inclusion of this scientifically-informed illustration in Yamagata's work reinforced the central claim of "In place of dreams" - that the "dreams" of old, including religion, superstitions, and ancient traditions, should be replaced with scientific reason.

Kansoku to Sokuryō Kigu ZuAdler Planetarium

Measuring the Heavens and Earth

This scene is part of a 19th-century Japanese scroll depicting a surveying operation and the instruments used for that purpose. Another segment of the scroll illustrates a surveying party arriving in the area where fieldwork was to take place, a scene that was certain to impress onlookers.

Astronomical observations helped surveyors measure the coordinates of points in the terrain and determine the directions of reference markers, information that was essential for the production of maps. As in other parts of the world, surveying was another kind of activity that brought together the study of the heavens and Earth. 

Yunnan ObservatoryAdler Planetarium

Looking Up by Other Means

This antenna was developed by Chinese astronomers and engineers and installed at Yunnan Observatory in 1983 to study radio waves emitted by the sun. It testifies to the new concepts, instruments, and techniques that during the 20th century shaped modern astrophysics, and specifically the field of radio astronomy. 

These tools and resources may be newer, but they serve the longstanding purpose of better understanding the Universe and our connection with it that has led civilizations through history to look up.   

Credits: Story

This exhibit includes works from the collections of the Adler Planetarium and the Library of Congress. Click the title of each work to see the respective rights/credits.

This exhibition was created with the support of the following people, and the Adler extends our thanks to them:

Dr. Joshua Levy and Dr. Cameron Penwell for their assistance with selecting and contextualizing materials from the Library of Congress. 

Dr. Deborah Bekken, Prof. Yulia Frumer, Dr. Richard Pegg, Dr. Sara Schechner, Dr. Zhang Nan, and Dr. Zhao Ke for their advice and suggestions. 

Keiko Mizuno and Lu Zhang for their translations of this exhibition in to Chinese and Japanese. 

Special thanks to our generous supporters:
Amy and Steve Louis Foundation
Roderick and Marjorie Webster Fund at The Chicago Community Trust

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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