early Chinese astrology: SPP

In 1995 a joint Sino-Japanese archaeological expedition excavated a Niya burial ground and found a bowman’s armband in the tomb of a “beautifully dressed Europoid couple” (i.e., definitely not Han). Although it’s nearly two thousand years old, it’s remarkably well preserved, even in its colors.

detail of the brocade, showing the Chinese characters discussed in the post

The text (right to left) reads “wǔxīng chū dōngfāng lì Zhōngguó” (五星出東方利中國 / 五星出东方利中国 ) (“when the five planets appear in the east it is beneficial for China”).

As David W. Pankenier — the author of Popular Astrology and Border Affairs in Early China: An Archaeological Confirmation (2.3 MB PDF), the latest rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers — notes, “One could hardly ask for more eloquent testimony to the pervasiveness of astrological thinking in early China than this accessory from one of the remotest frontiers of the empire.” (See his paper for all sorts of details.)

As I suppose befits something on the subject of astrology, some superstitious people in China latched onto the phrase as a prophecy of the greatness of the People’s Republic of China (whose flag has five stars). The text, however, doesn’t refer to wǔ [kē] xīng (“five stars”) but to the wǔxīng (“the five planets”), which people these days might call the wǔ dà xīngxing (“five greater stars”). But superstitious nationalists aren’t known for letting facts get in the way of what they want to believe.

The five planets are:

  • 火星 Huǒxīng Mars (lit. “fire star”)
  • 水星 Shuǐxīng Mercury (“water star”)
  • 木星 Mùxīng Jupiter (“wood star”)
  • 金星 Jīnxīng Venus (“metal star”)
  • 土星 Tǔxīng Saturn (“earth star”)

Those in beginning Mandarin classes are no doubt grateful that for days of the week modern standard Mandarin has adopted what is mainly a numbering system (i.e., lǐbài, lǐbài’èr, lǐbàisān… — day of the week no. 1, day of the week no. 2, day of the week no. 3 …) rather than the old names, which use the names of the planets (along with the sun and moon). Students of Japanese aren’t so lucky.

Or maybe I’ve got that backward; many who study languages that use Chinese characters as a script have more than a bit of masochism.