Horoscopy in East Asia: Some Thoughts

Fortune Teller
"Along the River During the Qingming Festival" 清明上河圖 (1085–1145)
The last twelve months or so I've been working on various projects related to astrology in East Asia and/or Buddhism in East Asia. After finishing my doctorate in the Netherlands in September of last year, I had the privilege to spend six months in Erlangen, Germany, just outside Nuremberg in Bavaria, at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität. The six months of work were quite gainful. I also had the opportunity to communicate with scholars of various fields on topics related to divination in history.

The primary study that resulted from my stay there was "The Sinicization of Indo-Iranian Astrology in Medieval China" published as volume #282 in Sino-Platonic Papers (see here). I remember as an undergraduate student reading a number of papers in this journal, so I was enthusiastic about submitting a paper. This somewhat lengthy study documents in detail how horoscopy was not only introduced into China, but moreover the processes through which it became a naturalized system of divination that could be easily employed within the framework of Chinese observational astronomy.

The basic history runs as follows.

Buddhists had translated some Indian astrological material between the fourth to sixth centuries, but none of it could be practically implemented in a Chinese context, given that the Indian astronomical parameters cited in texts were vague and ill-defined for use in China. There was also no need for the Buddhist community to practice any of this astrology until the eighth century, when "esoteric" teachings or Mantrayāna was introduced starting in the early eighth century.

The Indian monk Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637–735) and his colleague Yixing 一行 (673–727) in the 720s translated a manual of Mantra practice titled Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi-sūtra, otherwise known as the Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經, in which it is expressly stated that rituals must be astrologically timed.

The commentary these two men produced further elaborated upon the meaning of this point from a mostly Indian perspective, but this would have left Chinese readers unable to determine dates and times on their own without reference to an Indian specialist, since authoritative texts in Chinese describing the seven-day week and other features of the Indian calendar did not yet exist. I wrote about this in “Early Tantric Hemerology in Chinese Buddhism: Timing of Rituals According to Śubhakarasiṃha and Yixing” in the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies (available here).

The task of producing an authoritative manual on astrology for Buddhist use ultimately was left to a later generation. The monk Amoghavajra 不空 (705–774) produced such a text, its titled abbreviated as Xiuyao jing 宿曜經 (Scripture of Constellations and Planets), in 759 with a subsequent revision in 764. This text primarily explains nakṣatra (lunar station) astrology, but it also defines the seven-day week and its hemerological features.

One of the interesting things I discovered about this text is that the technique described therein called “Three Sets of Nine” (三九之法) corresponds to a widely practiced Indian technique called tārā-bala (“Star Force”), tārā-cakra (“Star Wheel”), or nava-tārā (“Nine Stars”). The twenty-seven nakṣatras are each assigned a category from which predictions are made. This is easily understood looking at the following diagram:

"Three Sets of Nine" in Xiuyao jing

The nakṣatra hosting the Moon at the time of a person's birth is assigned the function or theme of life, and thereafter in a counter-clockwise fashion the other nakṣatras are assigned specific themes. If the Moon was present in Kṛttikā, then for the rest of one's life Kṛttikā would be defined as the life sign, and any planets transiting through there would be carefully evaluated and monitored.

There are actually allusions to this system in the Agnipurāṇa (121.21–23 & 132.14–18), a major ancient Hindu work. I don't believe Amoghavajra consulted this work, but rather he was drawing upon material common to Indian astrology in general.

This particular technique ought to bring to mind the system of twelve places or houses that ultimately stems from Hellenistic astrology, in which the twelve zodiac signs are assigned twelve specific themes based upon the positions of the zodiac signs in relation to the ascendant. The twelve houses as they are generally understood in East Asia are displayed in the following figure:

Twelve Houses in East Asia

As with the nakṣatra technique, the first house is of chief importance, and planets transiting through it would be closely monitored, since unfavorable configurations would be cause for alarm.

The extant literature, and even the art record, show that astrologers throughout the medieval period prescribed apotropaic rituals and prayers with which a client could mitigate negative effects brought on by unfavorable planets transiting through critical points in their natal chart.

Buddhists utilized an array of mantras. Daoists seem to have preferred ritualized petitions that incorporated prayers, but we see both Buddhists and Daoists using the same source material that had been translated from what appears to have been Sogdian (an Iranian language). The primary example of this phenomenon that I've documented is the ninth-century ritual directed to Saturn, found in very similar forms in Buddhist and Daoist sources. The Daoist Scripture of the Secret Essentials of the Compass Spiritual Terrace (Chengxing lingtai biyao jing 秤星靈臺袐要經) gives the following information about petitioning Saturn:

Furthermore, the *Navagraha-sūtra states that one is to cast, using plow iron, one true image of Saturn, seven inches tall. Take a black porcelain jar and fill it. Place it [the image] at the head of one’s bed. On every day of Kēwān [Saturday] at dawn, drip black oil and sesame broth on its head. After [three?] year[s] remove it. If painting [the image of the deity] and making offerings, one must also offer it fruits throughout the year. It is especially excellent to wear the color black. The incantation: “Kēwān is my lord; I [stating your name], your retainer, beg your protection and liberation from distress.” Afterward, having paid respects and provided the offerings, personally consume them. [Offer] good foods, sour and bitter in flavor. One should read the Eight Yang Sūtra. Carry realgar and cinnabar. Burn Persian incense. Wear black garments. Do not enter the temples of evil gods. It is taboo to eat beef. It is taboo [to use] vessels made of horn. 

Kuyō hiryaku 九曜秘曆法
Those familiar with Arabic and Latin traditions of astral magic, namely the Ghāyat al-ḥakīm or Picatrix, will detect the parallels between this and other traditions from the west of China. Magical practices from Iranian sources were translated into Chinese starting around the year 800. These were quickly naturalized and integrated into local religious systems (Buddhists carried them over to Japan starting in the mid-ninth century). The above ritual calls for Persian incense, which corresponds to styrax, which elsewhere in Eurasia is the primary incense associated with Saturn (the Orphic Hymns of Hellenistic times also prescribes styrax when praying to Kronos). The color black is universally a Saturnine color. Sesame oil is still used in rituals directed to Śani (Saturn) in India today. The association between Saturn and the bull is unique to this East Asian tradition. Similarly, the donkey is a Martian animal in East Asian astrology, but this association is not attested elsewhere in the world, although the Greco-Egyptian tradition associated the donkey with the god Seth-Typhon, who conceivably could have been equated to Mars/Ares.

The level of complexity of the above ritual in relation to what we see in more developed magical traditions in western Eurasia and Africa, however, is relatively simple. The text mentions Saturday, but does not explicitly describe planetary hours, however "every day of Kēwān [Saturday] at dawn" would, in fact, refer to the hour of Saturn, since the first hour at dawn on a Saturday is always ruled by Saturn. The planetary hours, however, are never mentioned in East Asian sources, whereas the rituals of the Picatrix are often timed with these hours in mind. The system of keeping time in East Asia developed independent of Mesopotamian and later Greco-Egyptian conventions, so it would not have been practical to implement the system of twenty-four seasonal hours.

Foreign astrology and the associated iconography were evidently familiar to some artists as well, including the creator of the in the “Painting of the Divine Forms of the Five Planets and Twenty-Eight Lunar Stations” (五星二十八宿神形圖), which has been constantly misdated to the sixth or eighth centuries, when in reality it is a product of the tenth or eleventh centuries. In this painting we see the planetary deities alongside inscriptions that allude to astrological lore which would have been immediately recognizable to a contemporary astrologer on the other side of the world. For instance, Saturn and his icon are presented as follows:

The god Saturn has a palace of black smoke. Sacrifice to him black sesame oil, vegetables, and drinking water. For the coins, use old black ones, and for the vessels use those made of iron. Restrain yourself from excessive intercourse. Saturn is an Imperial Censor. One should do activities related to water and earth. Build up ancestral temples, farmlands and levees.

We again see reference to the color black and sesame oil. Agriculture and waterways are governed by Saturn. Saturn in astrology indicates barrenness and the quelling of passions, hence the admonishment here to refrain from intercourse. Those trying to court influence with the god would maintain celibacy, a Saturnine characteristic. This appears to have been done in China primarily to ease the passage of the planet Saturn when he transited through a critical house within one's natal chart (such as the first or eighth house, which relate to life and death respectively).

I've not observed in Chinese sources any magic of the sort we see in the Picatrix that attempts to capture and manipulate planetary influences through the production of talismans. We might characterize this Chinese astral magic as simply "apotropaic" rather than as a type of sorcery or theurgy, although the aforementioned Daoist text prescribes on a New Moon offering porridge made with sesame oil to destitute people and Daoist clerics, since Saturn governs those who cultivate austere spiritual practices. The text goes on to prohibit harming filial sons and the elderly, and to avoid most merriment, since Saturn relishes sorrow and dislikes music. These sort of practices could be characterized as active cults and moreover supplementary to other endeavors, such as longevity exercises. Saturn governs old age, which is one reason why he was generally disliked in the Hellenistic world, although Daoists in China who sought immortality would have regarded him quite favorably, and indeed this seems to have been the case during the ninth and tenth centuries.

Horoscopy only increased in popularity at common and elite levels of Chinese society from the tenth century, judging from various records and later literature. We possess a single Chinese horoscope from this century. It was rediscovered at the town of Dunhuang in northwest China, along with many other texts and paintings. This document (P. 4071) consists of handwritten notes for a natal horoscope of 3 October 930 CE. The document itself was produced on 25 January 975 by Kang Zun 康遵 (d.u.). It is a handwritten manuscript and predictably full of scribal errors (the document itself appears to have been used as scrap paper later on, judging from the doodles on it).

The birth chart itself was not preserved among the extant notes, although the planetary positions relative to the zodiac signs and lunar stations are provided in addition to the hour of birth. These details allow us to reconstruct the birth chart. Scholars to date misread parts of the document, leading to an erroneously positioned ascendant sign. My reconstruction of the natal chart looks like this:

The planetary positions are not always given with degrees, which suggests that the astrologer was merely using tables, rather than always working out the calculations necessary for exact positions.

The chief concern of the client, it seems, was their annual profections (indicated in the figure above alongside the zodiac signs), the details of which comprise the bulk of the notes.

Annual profections or the revolution of years (行年) are attested in Hellenistic sources, and were evidently popular in the Arabic speaking world, and very likely in the earlier Sassanian Persian tradition too. This is a relatively basic astrological technique in which each zodiac sign represents a year of life. As seen in the above figure, the first year of life (age 0 in modern Western reckoning) was governed by Mars (Scorpio's planetary ruler). On the forty-ninth birthday of the client, Scorpio would again be evaluated with particular attention paid to any planets transiting through this sign. The Japanese horoscope of 1113 also deals at length with annual profections (see page 69 in my paper on Japanese Buddhist astrology here), which highlights the widespread use of this technique across East Asia throughout the medieval period.

The other significant transmission of horoscopy into China occurred during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), a time when Marco Polo noted the presence of many astrologers living in the Chinese capital. Some astrological texts in Arabic were brought to China, although state-sponsored translations of these Arabic works only occurred during the following Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The Emperor Hongwu 洪武 (r. 1368–1398) ordered translations of some of these into Chinese, one of which was an introduction to astrology titled al-Madkhal by Kūšyār ibn Labbān 闊識牙耳 (971–1029). The title in Chinese is now simply Mingyi tianwen shu 明譯天文書 (Book of Astronomy Translated in the Ming).

According to the text's preface, the Emperor was quite impressed with the accuracy of astronomy from the Western Regions (anywhere west of China was called the "Western Regions"). His staff at the national observatory translated the al-Madkhal in 1383. We have the original Arabic of this text along with the Chinese. The al-Madkhal draws heavily from Claudius Ptolemy’s Tetrábiblos, which is why I call this the "Ptolemaic transmission" of astrology into China, in contrast to the earlier Indian, Indo-Iranian, and Dorothean transmissions during the eighth and ninth centuries. Judging from citations of the al-Madkhal in one sixteenth century manual of horoscopy, we can infer that local astrologers were using this work and incorporating it into their practices.

One research project I would like to undertake at some point is a reading of the Arabic text alongside the Chinese translation. The problem is that I am illiterate in Classical Arabic, so I would have to gain literacy in this language in order to do this. As a Sinologist who primarily reads Classical Chinese, I would be fascinated to learn how Emperor Hongwu's staff translated Arabic astrological terms into Chinese. Yano Michio translated the Arabic into English, and from this I was able to tell that some components were dropped in the Chinese translation, such as reference to the Western humors, elements, and even the Canary Islands (the farthest known landmass to the west until Europeans landed in the Americas). At some point perhaps I will have the opportunity to do an intensive Classical Arabic course, and then be in a position to read the Arabic text in relation to the Chinese translation.

Horoscopy was still widely studied in the sixteenth century. One of the great Chinese manuals on this topic to be produced in thirty fascicles (equivalent to thirty "chapters") is the Xingxue dacheng 星學大成 (Great Compendium of Stellar Studies) by Wan Minying 萬民英 (1521–1603). I've paid particular attention to the sections dealing with the planets in zodiac signs and lunar stations, but he covers a great deal of other topics, some of which are native Chinese concepts (such as the five elements). At times his vocabulary usage is inconsistent, since he compiled his work from a large array of primary sources, leading to rather obscure explanations. Nevertheless, a lot of the material he cites stems from much earlier texts from the ninth or tenth centuries that are not extant, which I why, I argue, we can utilize this body of lore to better understand how early Chinese horoscopy worked (we also can refer to the two Japanese horoscopes that faithfully employ methods inherited from China).

Longshan-si in Taipei, Taiwan
Chinese interest in horoscopy persisted after the collapse of the Ming dynasty in the year 1644. Chinese understanding was considerably developed and refined through interaction with Europeans, especially Jesuit missionaries, such as Nikolaus Smogulecki (1611–1656). At the same time, China was gradually exposed to European astronomy and heliocentric models of the solar system.

I have yet to figure out the fate of horoscopy in China after this point. I know that "astrology" is still practiced in China and Taiwan (and I've seen translations of modern Western works in Taiwan), but I am uncertain as to whether it is strictly speaking connected to the earlier tradition of horoscopy. This might be worth investigating next time I visit Taipei, where one can find many fortune tellers of various schools plying their trade around the area of Longshan-si 龍山寺 (especially in the underground shopping area).

As to future research, I plan to produce an academic monograph within the next few years, but at the same time I will publish a few new studies, one of which deals with the iconography of medieval Japanese star maṇḍalas (星曼荼羅). I would also like to explore some of the Japanese Mikkyō (Esoteric Buddhist) manuals that explain rituals dealing with astral deities. There are also texts presently unavailable to me hidden away in Japanese libraries and private collections (such as in old monasteries) that I would like acquire (or at least get copies of them!).

If you would like to read my studies, please feel free to download the pdfs from Archive.org.

Sidereal and Tropical Zodiacs in Medieval East Asia

Japanese Sukuyōshi 宿曜師 (astrologer-monk)
The primary difference between East Asian horoscopy and astrological traditions from the rest of Eurasia and Africa is that the former employs a system of observational astronomy based upon a celestial equator divided into 365.25 degrees. Although Chinese astronomers at court were indeed exposed to the concept of a 360 degree ecliptic, initially through an Indian astronomical manual titled Navagraha-karaṇa (Jiuzhi li 九執曆), translated in 718 by Gautama Siddhārtha 瞿曇悉達, this parameter was never adopted in China until the Early Modern period when Jesuit astronomers were active in China. Chinese astrologers continued to use the ancient Chinese system of twenty-eight sidereal lunar stations of unequal dimensions. They nevertheless had to figure out a way to divide the ecliptic into twelve spaces of uniform length when horoscopy was introduced starting in the late eighth century.

The astronomer-monk Yixing 一行 (673–727) sometime during the 720s had already proposed that the zodiac signs were equivalent to the twelve Jupiter stations (十二次) in Chinese astronomy. Jupiter has a sidereal orbital period of 11.862 years. Ancient China therefore divided the ecliptic into twelve zones based upon the movements of Jupiter.

This system, however, is actually different from the system of zodiac signs, which were originally devised in Mesopotamia sometime around the year 500 BCE. The zodiac signs are simply twelve divisions of a 360 degree ecliptic. The original system was based upon sidereal parameters, that is to say the starting point of the zodiac signs (the first degree of Aries) was originally fixed to a specific star. Later in the early centuries of the first millennium, Hellenistic astronomers decided to align the first degree of Aries with the point of the ecliptic into which the Sun rises at the vernal equinox. This is called the tropical zodiac.

The reason that this was felt to be necessary was because fixed stars move at a rate of one degree every 71.6 years due to axial precession, resulting in the zodiac signs no longer being aligned with seasonal markers. Arab and later Latin traditions throughout the Medieval period all used the tropical zodiac, whereas India predominately has used a sidereal zodiac until even the present day, although the authors of the Buddhist Kālacakra Tantra from the early eleventh century used a tropical zodiac, perhaps owing to Islamic influences.

The earliest zodiac tables in China date to the eighth century and follow Yixing’s convention of equating the zodiac signs to the Jupiter stations. The Xiuyao jing 宿曜經 (Sūtra of Constellations and Planets), which was produced by the monk Amoghavajra 不空 (705–774) and a team of court officials in 759 with a subsequent revision in 764, includes some tables of the zodiac signs as they align with Chinese lunar stations and the twelve lunar months. A table from the Qiyao rangzai jue 七曜攘災決 (Secrets of the Seven-Planet Apotropaism), an early text of Sinicized Indo-Iranian horoscopy that dates to around the mid-ninth century, similarly equates the zodiac signs to the Jupiter stations (in this case, the twelve Earthly Branches 地支 from Chinese lore are used as functional equivalents). This tells us that Chinese astrologers indeed maintained a dedicated interest in horoscopy once it was translated into Chinese, but they never adopted foreign astronomy apart from a few minor elements, such as Babylonian goal-years (the recurring periodicities of planetary orbits; these numbers were first discovered in Mesopotamia).

Although these tables use sidereal parameters, there was another system devised in China that was basically a tropical zodiac projected onto the twenty-eight Chinese lunar stations. One piece of evidence to support this claim is found in the Qiyao rangzai jue

This text was preserved only in Japan, chiefly because the monk Shūei 宗叡 (809–884) brought back a copy of it in the year 865, which was subsequently recopied and studied by later generations. The extant text has a line appended to it by a Japanese scribe, with an inscribed date of spring in the year 999, that states that the vernal equinox is to be aligned with Aries, but now there was a discrepancy of more than three degrees. This is in reference to the table of twenty-four solar terms (二十四節氣) in the Qiyao rangzai jue, which is a Chinese system of dividing a year of 360 solar days into twenty-four units of fifteen days each. This system differs from the Chinese lunar calendar of 360 civil days, especially since the solar terms accurately follow the passing of the seasons.

At some point during the ninth century, I argue, some astrologers in China, most certainly working with foreign experts, decided to divide the twenty-four solar terms into twelve units. These twelve units, each comprised of thirty days, were treated as zodiac signs. To make matters more interesting, the first degree of Aries was supposed to be aligned with the vernal equinox. This means that this system was tropical in orientation, in contrast to the other extant zodiac tables mentioned above that are based upon sidereal parameters.

The details of how this system worked are easily understood if we examine the following diagram that I produced:

We can see that each zodiac sign is of uniform length, but the Chinese lunar stations maintain their traditional unequal proportions. In actuality, this model shaves off small portions of the Chinese lunar stations (they traditionally altogether total 365.25 degrees) in order to fit them into a system based upon 360 solar days. Nevertheless, this is a minor compromise, since the result was a functional tropical zodiac in a Chinese context.

The movements of the planets were still tracked according to their positions in the lunar stations, but one could easily determine the zodiac sign in which they were positioned by referring to the degrees subsumed under each sign. Many of the lunar stations fall under two signs, but this is not an issue in this system. The significations of the planets in each of the zodiac signs could easily be interpreted using this model.

It would make practical sense to pin the first degree of Aries to the vernal equinox, since the equinox is easily tracked, but as to the reason why this happened in China, it most likely stemmed from a wider adoption of the tropical zodiac in the Near East and more specifically the Iranian cultural sphere. Although there are no documented Arab astronomers in China during the period in question, we know that there were Iranian and other Near Eastern men (Byzantines, Syrians, etc) who ended up in Tang China during the eighth and ninth centuries. 

The Arabs adopted a tropical zodiac from early on (around the eighth century or so), but we might suspect that there was an early trend in that part of the world, perhaps among Persians and others, favoring the tropical system, rather than a sidereal system. Arab astronomy is often said to have favored a tropical zodiac due to the prominence of the work of the classical author Claudius Ptolemy (2nd century CE), but there is no evidence of Ptolemy’s work in China until the fourteenth century. It is therefore difficult to determine why a tropical zodiac was designed for use in China during the early ninth century. It might simply have been a result of one foreign astrologer arguing for it.

After examining sources from sixteenth China, however, I realized that this earlier system fell into disuse in China. It appears the dimensions of the zodiac signs became reassigned in a way that made them not entirely uniform in length. 

Nevertheless, the Sukuyōshi 宿曜師—the astrologer-monks of Medieval Japan—appear to have preserved the conventions outlined above, although they also developed what they had received from China. They continued using Chinese observational astronomy to calculate planetary positions, resulting in a quite functional tradition of horoscopy that lasted from the late ninth to fourteenth century. You can read about the history of Sukuyōdō 宿曜道 in my recent paper published in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, volume 45, no.1 (2018).