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Bill Rankin, 2007

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1: The Stars
2: The Ecliptic
3: The Chinese Sky
4: The Ancient Greek Sky
5: The Modern Western Sky

Certain basic facts about the night sky and the motion of the objects within it — the Sun, Moon, and five visible planets — are constant the world over. But different cultures attribute very different meanings to what they see.

Compared to the familiar Greek system of large pictures of Gods and mythological beasts, the Chinese sky is more like a map: rivers, roads, walls, offices, and various functionaries are set-pieces in a complex bureaucratic wonderland. The Greeks saw themselves living under a divine and overwhelming sky; the Chinese saw the sky as the mirror of their own social system.

And notice the difference between the ancient Greek and modern skies. In the ancient system, pictures floated freely in space, figures on a neutral backdrop. Today, however, the sky is completely carved up into small territories, where every patch of sky belongs to a constellation. Perhaps not unlike the Chinese, we have made the sky the mirror of our own human world, the patchwork of the sky reflecting our own system of territorial nation-states.

Special props to Sun Xiochun and Jacob Kistemaker, The Chinese Sky During the Han (1997). This is version 1.1, with some small fixes to the five Chinese palaces.