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Daniel Crouch Rare Books

Huntian yitong xingxiang quantu 渾天壹統星象全圖 [Complete Celestial Chart]

Charting the Unfathomable Sky

1230 by 2160mm. (48.5 by 85 inches).


A monumental Chinese celestial chart Huntian yitong xingxiang quantu, one of the largest planispheres published during the Qing dynasty (1636-1912). The work combines both Chinese and Western astronomy, highlights the fundamental role that knowledge of the heavens played in Chinese politics, and illustrates the Qing dynasty’s endeavours to seek authentic truth in ancient texts.

The present chart is based on the oldest recorded celestial planisphere, the Tianwen tu 天文圖 produced, during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), by Huang Shang 黃裳 (1146-1194) tutor to Emperor Guangzong’s son. The work was engraved on stone by Wang Zhiyuan 王致远 (1193-1257) in 1247, and set up in the Confucian Temple in Suzhou, where it still stands. As well as depicting the heavens, and providing an introduction to the birth of the cosmos, the planisphere bore an overt political message: that the tian 天 (Sky or Heaven), would bestow tianming 天命 ("The Will of the Sky," or “The Mandate of Heaven”) on just rulers of China – named Tianzi 天子 (Son of Heaven), similar to the divine right of kings prevalent in Europe. The chart thus reassures the Song Emperor that, despite recently losing the north of China to the Jurchen, he still had the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ and was still China’s rightful ruler. A message that would not have been lost on the Qing scholars, whose own times were beset by internal rebellion and encroachment from belligerent Western powers.

The present chart is no mere copy of Huang Shang’s work, and shows significant revision and updating to include new constellations and western geographical information. One of the most intriguing differences can be seen to the title, which contains the characters Huntian 渾天, and illustrates the Qing scholars continuing interest in the Later Han 後漢 dynasty (25-220) (especially Confucian) philosophy and philology. The term refers to Huntian shuo 渾天說 (Spherical-Heaven Theory) which was formulated during the Later Han, and argued that a spherical earth was suspended within a celestial sphere. It displaced an ancient celestial theory, Gaitian shuo 蓋天說 (Canopy-Heaven Theory), which stated that the earth was a square and covered umbrella-like by a celestial hemisphere.

The present chart can be seen as an embodiment of the Qing ‘Kaozheng’ scholars’ principles: the study of ancient, primary sources, in this case the Tianwen tu celestial planisphere, in order to better understand the past, so that it might be a truer and more accurate guide to the present.

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