The Reader’s Digest condensed guide to Chinese astrology

Advanced technology allowed the Chinese to make accurate notations of planets’ movements.

A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away (all right, China), the scholar and court astronomer Gan De turned to the night sky, and, with his fellow astronomer, Shi Shen, created the world’s oldest star-chart.

They are credited with having been the first to have their names appear on a chart of constellations; the earliest previously known star-charts were anonymous Babylonian tablets. In the West, no other star-chart would emerge until the 3rd century BCE, although I’m of the opinion that so much was lost at Alexandria and during various wars and sieges, how can one possibly know who created “the first” of anything? But I digress.

Not only did Gan De collaborate in creating this early star-map, he was also the earliest known person to see Jupiter and two of its moons by observing the planet through the branches of a tree, thereby shielding his eyes from the glare that ordinarily obscures one’s view of its moons.

Gan De also had the distinction of being an expert on the subject of Jupiter and its cycles, for he studied the planet for years, ultimately writing a monograph about it, and discovering its satellites 2000 years before Galileo, who, after all, relied on a telescope. Hardly impressive, compared to Gan De.

Chinese star chart

Now, something I did not explain thoroughly last time is that Chinese astrology does not calculate the position of the sun, moon, or planets at the time of birth. Instead, the Chinese rely on the 10 heavenly stems (the five elements in their yin and yang forms) and the 12 earthly branches, or the 12-year cycle of animals referred to as the Chinese zodiac.

The Chinese animal zodiac also operates on a cycle of months or ‘moons’ and of hours of the day. Therefore, the Chinese astrological system is very different from that of the West, with a different philosophy, founded on Confucianism, which, unlike Buddhism or Hinduism, held that people were teachable and could improve in this lifetime if they tried.

There was no wheel of karma to be shackled to; instead, for Confucianism, the individual can be ‘perfected’ in an almost purely material realm. This, by the way, does not negate the possibility of the soul for the Chinese:

Chinese philosophers often had a rather pessimistic view of post-mortem existence.  As one writer, speaking of the multiplicity of souls, explains:

“In life, as in death, these souls were most indefinite, vague, and feeble.  After death, when this small troop of colourless spirits was dispersed, how could they possibly be gathered together and reformed into a unity? …(T)he body is unique, and serves as the dwelling place of all these spirits….”

[Henri MasperoLe Taoism, Paris, 1950, p.17, quoted in D.  Howard Smith, "Chinese Concepts of the Soul," Numen, V, p.177.]

Here we see the contrast between the Egyptian and the Chinese position. For the Egyptians, bodily death means the release of the separate soul-principles, all of which maintain their identity (hence the need for canopic jars, to contain all the bits and pieces you came with). 

Thus the person has not one, but half a dozen simultaneous after-life existences.  But for the Chinese, although death likewise means the release of the separate soul-principles, this constitutes the end of the person as such, for “how could they possibly be gathered together…into a unity?”

The problem, therefore, is not one of contradiction, but of complementarity.  Both say the same thing, but they approach the matter from a different direction: the Egyptian from the perspective of the after-life, the Chinese philosopher, from the perspective of this life.

You see this ethos in the Chinese system of belief about what to expect from those born under their animal sign. The five elements (air, water, earth, fire, and metal), probably deriving from the five cardinal directions (east, west, north, south and center) help determine which of their influences will be felt most strongly in a person’s character and behavior.

So a person is judged to be more of something; more water, or more metal, or fire, for example. In some ways, the five Chinese elements might be compared to the four humours, the system Hippocrates devised in the West to explain human behavior, but this analogy leaves a lot to be desired. The five elements are still used today, as a matter of fact, as a way of helping explain how the body functions in relationship to the mind, creating a state of well-being or disease:

If you think about it, it seems to me we could benefit from incorporating the idea of a “center” into our thinking in the West. The Chinese rely on the five directions as a basis for their approach to astrological and astronomical practice, but we tend to forget that the center (where we stand) is just as important as any other location.

In fact, I postulate that it’s probably the most important point, yet how could we account for it in a traditional Western chart?

We think that’s what we mean when we use “the sun” in the chart, but the sun is not where we stand. We stand at the center of our world. We stand on the earth, our Earth. Or, ‘Urth, for those who like to spell it the way it’s pronounced. If we had solid ground to stand on as reflected in the chart, would we feel more “centered,” do you think?