One Time­keep­ing Sys­tem to Rule Them All?

China Scenic - - Feature -

Al­though the royal court had po­lit­i­cal in­ten­tions in the cre­ation of the 24 so­lar terms, among the com­mon peo­ple of the Yel­low River Basin, at least the mid­dle and lower reaches, they were still of great im­por­tance to daily life. A well-known Chi­nese poem says, “Dur­ing the Qing­ming Fes­ti­val each year, the rain will fall.” Af­ter two long mil­len­nia, this line still holds true, and through­out the re­gion it will rain vir­tu­ally ev­ery year on this day, which marks the turn­ing point between the cold and warm sea­sons. This is an ex­am­ple of how ac­cu­rate the 24 so­lar terms can be.

The mis­sion­ar­ies who came to China in the late Ming Dy­nasty (1368–1644) shared a com­mon sus­pi­cion to­ward the 24 so­lar terms: through­out the vast ter­ri­tory of China, span­ning sev­eral tens of de­grees of lon­gi­tude, the tim­ing of the so­lar terms used in each area is the same! The West­ern­ers ex­pressed great doubt about this. Once the Je­suits be­came more fa­mil­iar with Chi­nese as­tron­omy, from time to time they would at­tempt to in­tro­duce Western astrol­ogy to the em­peror, and even­tu­ally were suc­cess­ful in hav­ing the con­cept of “time zones” as­sim­i­lated into the 24 so­lar terms, and the lo­cal times from east to west were ad­justed ac­cord­ingly. In ad­di­tion, in the al­manac for each year, the tim­ings of the 24 so­lar terms for all of the prov­inces and vassal states at the time were re­spec­tively recorded.

It is hard to tell whether this act had any sub­stan­tial in­flu­ence on the tra­di­tional views of China to­ward time and the world, but in the least it caused an ini­tial wa­ver­ing in the tra­di­tional view of a “stan­dard­ized time­keep­ing sys­tem”.

The Western mis­sion­ar­ies were sen­si­tive to lon­gi­tude, but not lat­i­tude. Lon­gi­tude cer­tainly aided in de­ter­min­ing the dif­fer­ent time zones of China and their cor­re­spond­ing so­lar terms, but us­ing lat­i­tude as a cri­te­rion could pro­vide sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence for

jus­ti­fy­ing the so­lar terms. In daily life, the dif­fer­ence of lon­gi­tude in ef­fect has a greater im­pact on the peo­ple’s us­age of the 24 so­lar terms.

As pre­vi­ously men­tioned, the climate and phe­no­log­i­cal changes in the Yel­low River Basin, where the Han em­per­ors resided, were used as stan­dard to de­velop the names of the 24 so­lar terms.

How­ever, when these so­lar terms are in­cluded in the of­fi­cial cal­en­dar, they are cer­tain to be sub­ject to tri­als through­out the widely vary­ing re­gions of China. For ex­am­ple, how would the fish­er­men in south­ern China, who have never seen snow or had the need to wear ther­mal un­der­wear, be able to ac­cept so­lar terms such as Xiaoxue (Lesser Snow) and Daxue (Greater Snow)?

With China’s mas­sive sur­face area and large num­ber of re­gions pos­sess­ing dis­tinc­tive ge­o­log­i­cal and phe­no­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, why would the 24 so­lar terms, which are stan­dard­ized based on the climate of the Yel­low River Basin, still be ac­cu­rate, re­gard­less of where they were ap­plied? Chi­nese nat­u­ral sci­en­tists since Zhu Kezhen (also known as Coching Chu, 1890–1974) have striven to prove that the 24 so­lar terms are not suit­able for ap­pli­ca­tion to all of China. How­ever, at present, the same uni­fied set of 24 so­lar terms is still used through­out the coun­try. Why is this? The an­swer sounds quite dis­may­ing: as the 24 so­lar terms are part of the na­tional cal­en­dar, it is not per­mit­ted for there to be a sec­ond set.

Fa­mous Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1912) scholar Gu Yanwu said that, in prim­i­tive so­ci­ety, astrol­ogy was a part of every­one’s life. With the ap­pear­ance of social classes and the con­cept of sep­a­rate states, a com­mand

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