One of the joys of learning enough classical Chinese to get yourself in trouble is the ability to go back to the source of interesting East Asian factoids you heard when you were a kid, and see what they were really about. For example, I distinctly recall reading about supernovae like the ones in 1006 and 1054, and how they had been dated precisely by cross-referencing records from various record-keeping civilizations—including China's, where they were called "guest stars." Really?

Yes! The word is 客星, pronounced kakusei or kyakusei in Japanese, and the components do indeed add up to "guest" + "star." ("Visitor" might be a better translation than "guest," especially in this age of television, but I suppose it doesn't hurt to be polite.) The word can also mean "comet"—Y.-N. CHING and Y.-L. Huang call 客星 "the common term for transient events such as comets and supernovae, where the meaning of the omen stressed its transience."

In Japanese letters, kakusei famously appears in FUJIWARA no Teika 藤原定家's Meigetsu ki 明月記 ("Chronicle of the Bright Moon"), which despite the fancy name was just a personal diary and blog-style trivia collection. Although Teika didn't witness the kakusei he lists — the information was "cribbed from those that actually looked at the sky", as Mumeishu put it in a comment earlier in the week — the factoids do come after a few days of excited entries about a comet (that is, a kakusei) that he himself saw in 1230, according to the entry at muyuuan linked above.

Here's Teika on the 1054 supernova, one of the more famous ancient supernovae because it eventually became the Crab Nebula and we can still see that today.


[Reign of] Emperor Reizei II, second year of Tengi, middle third of fourth month: from the hour of the Ox onwards, guest star seen at degree [= right declension] of Shi and Shin [觜 and 参, a.k.a. Meissa and Mintaka] towards the east. Shone near star Tenkan [天関, a.k.a. Zeta Tauri]. In size like unto Year Star [歳星, a.k.a. Jupiter].

Here's a page with a diagram of all of the above. Modern scholars tend to assume that "fourth month" was a brusho for "fifth month," based on what would actually have been visible from Earth at the time.

Side note: Why is Jupiter, usually called 木星 ("Star of the element of wood") in modern Japanese, called the "Year Star" (歳星) here? Turns out that the term "Year Star" dates back to ancient China, and was bestowed on Jupiter after somebody noticed that it took about 12 years to circle the sun, meaning that it moved around one-twelfth of the celestial equator each year. This division into twelfths was important to Chinese astronomers, so a planet that moved into a different twelfth each year was notable. And eventually this same division evolved into the twelve-year cycle of "Chinese astrology" that we all know and love.

Popularity factor: 17

language hat:

The word can also mean "comment"

No comet.


In addendum: Comets were subcategorized by appearance (or, *cough* by other means), so you wouldn't have a 彗星 without one (1) and only one visible tail; a 孛星 needed to have four (4!) visible tails (「諸道勘文」、『群書類従』). I haven't yet found the equivalent for Hale-Bopp with 2--but then, there is a lot of written material from the Han on astronomy that I'm putting off the reading of.

It's not that I don't think Teika looked at the sky--I just think that he would have been hard pressed to identify some of the asterisms up there. It seems that when a courtier starts talking about which 宿 it is currently, he might be using a chart like I understand is in the 宿曜経, where it's calculable depending on month and date. There's an entry in 明月記 where the planets are messed up, I think, and that's in a section where Teika's relaying information he received from a visiting monk. This may be indicative of the level of stargazing knowledge that non-astrologers had at the time, but more research is required.

On the other hand, although Fujiwara no Munetada (中右記) has some odd assertions to make about astronomy (the sun sets at the same time everywhere, for one), he also has an entry where he refers to time-telling by the sky (it was cloudy, so he did not know at exactly what time his kid was born). Whether that was something he could do himself, I'm not sure. He certainly did not self-identify as someone who knew much about the stars.

(For the rest of how much dead courtiers knew about the sky and when they knew it, wait for my book in 5-6 years, perhaps....)

Sivin has a particular translation for 度, but I can't remember what it is off-hand.

And I do have to wonder about the Jupiter-"Chinese Zodiac" connection I keep hearing about. Sure, it makes a certain amount of sense, but the 干支 were originally for counting days on the oracle bones. Maybe that just gives you a 12, 10 and 60 cycle to then apply to the heavens when you find a nice periodic planet like that.... But I still have some doubts.


LH: God dammint! Fixed. Thanks!

MMS: "there is a lot of written material from the Han on astronomy that I'm putting off the reading of" -- there's a sentence I want to use someday (I suppose I could today, actually). Re Teika and the sky, the impression I get from the very superficial understanding of his character that I have is that he probably wouldn't have been that interested in boring old everyday asterisms, but totally into the weird stuff. Unfortunately if you don't do the boring homework your understanding of the weird stuff is bound to be a bit shallow (case in point: me).

The 12s thing--dividing the year, night sky, and anything else round enough into multiples of 12/60 is a pretty widespread ancient-civ phenomenon, right? I wouldn't really be surprised if the day cycle came from the same multiples-of-twelve idea and they realized they could overlay the two cycles later to make things more complicated (always a plus for bureaucrats with gov't contracts). Speaking totally out of my hat here of course.


"And eventually this same division evolved into the twelve-year cycle of "Chinese astrology" that we all know and love."

I don't love it. Only uma-doshi folks love it, and I'm hebi-doshi.


Heh. I'm uma-doshi. In some parts of the world. Eat it, serpent!

Related: A friend of mine reportedly threw a tantrum when informed as a small child that she was born in the year of the monkey. She would have preferred rabbit. Didn't do her any good. Wyrd bith ful araed!


Is my understanding that 木星 is a combination of the 五行 with the stars? When did that come about? And why did the Jesuit system mapping days of the week to planets catch on in Japan but not China?


Insert the word “correct” before my first question mark above.


Carl: I don't know that it was the origin of things (but I'm highly agnostic about origins, particularly when dealing with pre-Han China), but 木星 was understood to be wood phase, at least as far as considering influences. But that wasn't the only way to read astrology--you could use precedent, particularly from the "Confucian apocrypha" versions of the Spring and Autumn Chronicles, for example. (Confusing the issue, these apocrypha sometimes used Five Phase explanations for why, say, a lunar eclipse was followed by a consort or minister's death. But there are other places where any phase explanation is only implicit, if not absent completely. And since implicitness relies on the reader....)

The 七曜 actually come from China as well, although the 七曜暦 was really more "where are the 7 Luminaries at?" than "Is it the weekend yet?", if I'm understanding the 延喜式 correctly. But there are calendrical notes of elemental phase (one day is 土, another is 火) that I seem to remember seeing, so perhaps things are more confused than I am yet aware. I'll not be brushing up on my 具注暦 for another month or so.

As to when the 7 day week, I'd have to check with Tanaka's book (if he has it), but I think that's more Meiji even than Edo? In which case, you can thank the Europhiles.


The 12s thing (24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute, 360 degrees in a circle) is also said to be Babylonian. I don't know if other ancient cultures figured this out for themselves or not.

Also, it seems like the 5s thing, and the 8s thing, and trying to combine 5s, 8s, and 12s together, originated in China.


Which Tanaka? Which book? *curious*


Stefan Tanaka's <i>New Times in Modern Japan</i>. The complaint is that the book's pretty poor on the premodern in general (having it as sort of the unchanging, ahistorical backdrop against which Meiji modernizes), but he covers the Gregorian reform. As far as I know, it's the only book in English to do so.

I decided to see what Uchida Masao (『暦と時の事典』) had to say, and it looks like 曜日 made it into use in the Sengoku period, although east and west had different order of planets. The Jōkyō calendar reform added a note of 曜日, but only at the start of the month. 「もちろん、曜日がそれほど重視されていたと思われないからたいした影響はなかったであろう。」


The reason why the 12 thing is so common is that it is the (closest whole) number of moon cycles to a year. Predicting the year became of paramount importance when people switched from hunting/gathering to agriculture. It's difficult to count to 365, so counting months makes things easier.

The reason why the 12 cycle is then applied to the (double) hours of the day is because the same stars pass overhead in a (double) hour as in a month. So you can see that the Asians who use the 12 (double) hours per day have it right, and the 24 hour thing is the abberation. But presumably the Sumerians counted day and night each separately. So for them a month had 60 day/nights (whereas for us it has 30 day+nights).

So anyhow the fasciation with 12 derives *from* the zodiac (i.e., the 12 part nature of the year/day), not the other way around.


Incidentally the 7 day week, presumably comes from the (closest whole) number of days to a moon-quarter, and is thus equally ancient. (The coincidental fact that there just happened to be 7 "planets" presumably reinforced the correctness of this count.) The Hebrew bible merely enshrined the preexisting week into their own mythology.


Philip: Ancient, but not always used by ancients. Nara and Heian Japan used the 旬 (10-day period), if they weren't using day of the month or month (or 干支). There simply is no word for a week up through the end of the Kamakura Period. I think the Egyptians also used a 10-day period, but I could be confusing them with post-revolutionary France.

The Heian court could also be pretty nocturnal, despite the perfectly natural light source of the sun. (Bowring in Religious Traditions of Japan blames why they didn't follow a "rational diurnal" period of activity on taboo or superstition. Sometimes it looks like they just get late starts to my eyes, but time-selection divination doesn't always make it to the record. And just because it's natural, doesn't mean that pre-modern humans did it, of course.)

L.N. Hammer:

A *lot* of aristocratic societies have tended to the nocturnal -- the later-bedding and later-rising the better, in the sophisticate view. Examples off the top of my head include 18th/19th century England and Imperial Rome. When I first encountered the late nights of the Heian court, my reaction was "yup, aristocrats at non-work."



Matt: You might enjoy the 36th tale of 江談抄, about 致忠. And the footnote told me that the association of Jupiter with wood can be found in the 史記, so perhaps Dong Zhongshu can be blamed for it.


If anyone still checks this page....

There's a type of calendrical note you find at the top of 具注暦 from Heian-Kamakura (at least), which gives you the constellation for the day (one of the 28 lunar lodges) in combination with one of the "seven luminaries." This is NOT the 七曜暦 I mentioned above, and has much less to do with astronomy. (It is, however, a 七曜.)

While the 28 constellations are determined by month and day (with some confusion over intercalary months) according to the 文殊師利菩薩及諸仙所説吉凶時日善悪宿曜経 (that's a mouthful), the seven luminaries... well, I couldn't find anyone that told me how those were calculated.

But so far, the ones I'm plugging in to the calculators, seem to match up pretty well with what would be our days of the week for the corresponding Western date.

Score one for Iran, I guess.

Sunday still wasn't a day off, however.

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