guest star of the heavenly palace

“Then I watched the sky. I discovered near Deneb there is one more star. I check the star charts. No star there. So I determine this is a nova. This nova can be seen for four days naked eye and then it disappeared. It was independently confirmed by National Observatory. This was my biggest discovery in life as amateur astronomer.

“In 1054 AD there was a supernova, so bright, in Taurus. In Chinese a supernova is called a guest star. This supernova is the Guest Star of the Heavenly Palace.”

Naishi Min was for many years the director of the planetarium at the Shenyang Science Palace in Shanghai. He explained that Chinese philosophy specifies five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and soil. These are associated with five kinds of organism: fish and dragons, beasts, birds, shells and humans.

In the spring sky are five constellations, associated with the five organisms, colours and cardinal points: the blue dragon in the east (our Scorpio), the white tiger in the west (Orion), the red phoenix in the south (Hydra) and the black tortoise in the north (parts of Pegasus and Aquarius). The fifth cardinal point is the center, and its constellation is the Yellow Dragon, the Emperor Xuan Yuan. It’s our Big Dipper.

I asked whether the constellations were associated with the elements. Naishi thought for a minute and said firmly: “No.” Everyone chuckled. The elements are associated instead with the five naked-eye planets: Mercury is water, Venus metal, Mars fire, Jupiter wood and Saturn soil.

He showed us an ancient carving (first century AD)? of the Yellow Emperor in his chariot, clearly recognizeable as the Big Dipper. The Emperor holds a fireball with a tail in his hands. Naishi cross-referenced this with contemporary astronomical records, and sure enough: “Halley’s Comet,” he said proudly, and the audience sighed happily.

Western constellations are stars joined by lines – individual actors connected by stories, all jumbled up together. Chinese constellations are areas of sky separated by walls. The Emperor rules from his heavenly palace. The order and hierarchy in the sky reflects the order and hierarchy ordained here on earth.

The traditional Chinese name of Sirius is Heavenly Wolf(!); Canopus is Old Man of the South; Vega is Weaving Princess; Altair is the Cowboy. The Princess and the Cowboy were in love, but the Princess’ cruel mother separated them by creating the Silvery River (the Milky Way). All the magpies in the world took pity on the lovers. On the seventh day of the seventh month they create a bridge over the river so the Cowboy and the Princess can be together.

Lots and lots more: the 28 lunar mansions, twelve of which define the Chinese zodiac (Claire’s a horse, Jeremy’s a dog, I’m a pig – “I know”, said Ian). Naishi himself, his daughter and brand new grandson are all monkeys. “I’m the monkey king!” he said. He makes wonderful popup books of constellations and rocket ships and telescopes and armillery spheres. In the sun there is a crow with three feet – the ancient Chinese interpretation of sunspots. In the moon there’s a rabbit.

The moon goddess’ husband had two pills for longevity. He gave them both to her. The first made her immortal, and the second made her so light she floated up into the moon.

As we drove home:

Ian: What did he call the supernova? The gayest star?

Kat: The gassed star?

R: The guest star!

Kat: The guessed star?

Starting July at the Chabot Space & Science Center: Dragon Skies: Astronomy of Imperial China.

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