Chinese astronomy numbers ten times as many constellations as Western astronomy, some 280 constellations located in the ecliptic region (equivalent to our zodiac) and across the celestial sphere.


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The names of these constellations reflect the political organization of an emperor-centric society. Constellations can vary enormously in size according to the social clout associated with their names, which refer to the palace, bureaucracy, markets and prisons, and even courtesans, ministers and officials.

The sky is divided into three enclosures that echo the structures of traditional Chinese society. The first enclosure is the Purple Palace, a sort of Forbidden City that covers the northern polar region. The second enclosure, the Supreme Palace, is made up of government and dignitaries. The Heavenly Market enclosure is dedicated to the Emperor’s judiciary and subjects.


The ecliptic region is divided into four groups of ancient constellations. Each group is watched over by an animal guardian: the Azure Dragon of the East, symbol of wood; the Black Tortoise of the North, symbol of water; the White Tiger of the West, symbol of metal; and the Vermillion Bird of the South, symbol of fire. The Golden Dragon, symbol of earth, is sometimes placed at their center to ensure balance among the five elements. Each of these groups in turn contains seven lunar mansions, making a total of 28 mansions which correspond to our zodiac constellations. Each of the mansions is named after one of the guardians or a societal structure.


Illustration : White Tiger by Santtu Mustonen