Chinese Solar Eclipse Mythology

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Flag of the Qing Dynasty

Chinese solar eclipse mythology stretches over thousands of years. The fun myths and real life stories of the rise and fall of empires around solar eclipses give a unique view into this ancient culture. So grab a cup of your favorite tea and join us in a little historic sun gazing.

Hungry Dragons

One of the oldest Chinese solar eclipse myths is around the hungry dragon. A solar eclipse is a dragon eating the sun. To stop it from consuming the entire sun, a lot of noise has to be made. Originally, pots and pans where beaten to make noise to scare away the dragon. The noise making expanded to include drums, firecrackers and even the firing of cannons on naval vessels. This belief in the hungry dragons led to one of the first words for eclipse to be the Chinese word shi, which means to eat.

What this fun story hides is the obsession with the sky that heavily influenced Chinese culture. It was believed, and is still reference in modern day culture, that the heavens dictate the power of the leader. So understanding the heavens and its signs was a full time job for several members of the imperial court and a serious hobby for many of the commoners.

Chinese Astronomy and Solar Eclipses

Solar eclipses are seen as bad omens for Chinese Emperors, so astronomers where tasked with predicting them and ensuring that the Emperor was aware. If caught off guard, the Emperor was seen as out of favor with the heavens and weak. This opened up the possibility of having to pass the thrown to another family member or an opponent. The first detailed documentation of an eclipse was more of a documentation of the beheading of 2 of Emperor Kang’s astronomers for failing to predict the eclipse in 2134 B.C.E. (To put this in perspective, humans really didn’t have the mathematical equations or equipment to nail down the day and time of eclipses until the 1800s C.E.. So the Chinese advisers used observation of the moon and star placement to predict both solar and lunar equations usually within a few days of the actual occurrence.)

So why so much detail? The moon phases were used to build the original calendars and predict the change of seasons, which helped with planting and harvesting of foods. Getting the planting and harvest wrong, meant people would starve. It was the emperor’s job to tell people when to plant and harvest, so having help in predicting and documenting the sky was critical to the emperor’s success.

The Chinese obsession with the sky lead to a vast amount of documentation of the stars, sun and moon back into 2100s B.C.E. These were so detailed that they were used by the NASA Jet propulsion lab to help calculate the historic rotation of the planet.

 

So as we enjoy the eclipse on Monday, we will toast it with a cup of Jasmine Dragon Tears, as the poor dragon fails to eat the sun.

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