Ancient History & Civilisation

16. Cosmic Capitals and Numinous Precincts in Early China

David W. Pankenier, Ph.D.

Lehigh University, Dept. MLL, 9 W Packer Ave. Bethlehem, PA 18015 USA


Study of the role of astronomical alignment in shaping the built environment suggests that centuries before the ascendancy of mathematical astronomy in the Han dynasty, the Chinese had already developed practical, geometrical applications of astronomical knowledge useful in orienting high value structures. The archaeological record clearly shows this fundamental disposition was firmly established already by the formative period of Chinese civilization in the early 2nd millennium BCE. The imperative to conform precisely to celestial norms led to the cosmological design of ritual precincts like the Hall of Numinous Brightness described here. Moreover, the identity between the Celestial Pole and the imperial capital and an intense focus on the circumpolar “skyscape” are manifested in the highly symbolic orientation of early imperial capitals.

1. The Mingtang “Hall of Numinous Brightness”

According to the Kang gao 康誥 chapter of Shangshu 尚書, following the establishment of the new Zhou dynasty (1046 – 256 BCE) capital at Luoyang in mid-11th century BCE, a precedent-setting assembly of all the vassals of the realm was convened. Classical texts consistently identify the location of this assembly as the Zhou sacred precinct called Mingtang “Hall of Numinous Brightness”. The Mingtang was also the location of similar highly symbolic ceremonial events recorded in early Zhou ritual bronze inscriptions. This is not the place for a comprehensive survey of the cosmological symbolism of the Mingtang in tradition and practice, not least because the subject has already been extensively studied (Hwang Ming-chorng, 1996). Here I propose just to consider the astral associations of the Hall of Numinous Brightness and two early capitals of China’s “Celestial Empire”. The most authoritative early discussion of the design and function of the Mingtang is that of Cai Yong 蔡邕 (133 – 192 CE) found in his Mingtang yueling lun 明堂月令論 “Excursus on the Hall of Numinous Brightness and the Monthly Ordinances”:

The Mingtang is the taimiao (Grand Ancestral Temple) of the Son of Heaven, wherein the Emperor sacrifices to his ancestors in the company of the Supernal Lord. The lineage of Xia called this place shishi (Chamber of Generations); the Shang people called it chongwu (Multi-storied Chamber); and the people of Zhou called it Mingtang (Hall of Numinous Brightness). The eastern [chamber] is called qingyang (Green yang); the southern is called Mingtang; the western is called zongzhang (Assemblage of Emblems); the northern is called xuantang (Sombre Hall), and the central chamber is called taishi (Grand Hall). The Book of Changes says: ‘Li is brightness, the hexagram of the south. The sage faces south and attends (to affairs), all under heaven face the brightness and are ordered. For the ruler of men there is no more true position than this’ . . . Therefore, although there are five appellations, principal among them is Mingtang . . . Compare this to the Northern Asterism which dwells in its place while all the myriad stars circle it, and the ten-thousand things are regulated by it. [It is] the source from which springs governance and instruction, and the origin of all change and transformation, manifesting unity. Therefore, it is said of the Mingtang that its affairs are great and its meaning profound. If one invokes the aspect of purity, it is called qingmiao (Pure Temple); if one invokes its aspect as the hall of governance, then it is called taimiao; if one invokes the aspect of veneration, then it is called taishi; if one invokes its aspect of facing toward the light, then it is called Mingtang; if one invokes the aspect of the schools of the four gates, it is called the daxue (Great Learning); if one invokes the aspect of being surrounded on the four sides by [a body of] water, round like a jade bi, it is called biyong [Circular Moat]. They are all different names for the same thing—it is one thing. (Mingtang yueling lun, Siku quanshu, 3.6 a-b).

Summing up, Mark Edward Lewis (2006, 271) put it like this:

“the Bright Hall is a microcosm in which both cosmos and state are completely realized. It is a ritual complex that combines rites to ancestors and cosmic deities; an administrative center where all officials are gathered and all policies enacted; and an educational institution in which all true teachings are presented. It is also the summation of the ritual structures of earlier dynasties. As a chart of the cosmos, the source of order, and a summation of history, it becomes the perfect image of power.”

1.1 The Mingtang as Celestial Simulacrum

It will be important to consider in more detail some features of the Mingtang that have a direct bearing on the notion of a normative celestial temple. The political and religious significance attaching to the Mingtang, held to inhere in the very design and layout of the Hall, indicates that in addition to the functions named above, the solar and lunar observations essential to calendrical astronomy would also have been performed within these precincts. Given the archetypal role of proper orientation based on the guidance derived from the “images” suspended in the heavens, it now seems clear that the Pure Temple (Great Square of Pegasus) displayed so prominently in the night sky above may actually have been the prototype of the Mingtang on the ground.


Figure 1a: Artist’s conception of Wang Mang’s 王莽 (45 BCE – 23 CE) Mingtang (after http-//王莽改制/xgtupian/1/8).


Figure 1b: Plan of Wang Mang’s Mingtang based on the 1956 archaeological excavations south of the Han capital of Chang’an (after Yi Ding et al., 1996, 174).

Immediately following the passage above, Cai Yong quotes the Yueling ji 月令記 “Records of Monthly Ordinances”:

The Mingtang is that wherein the unification of all things by Heaven and Earth is manifest. The stellar image in Heaven through which the Mingtang communicates is called the [Northern] Asterism (UMa). Therefore, its twelve palaces here below are the [twelve solar] chronograms. The water surrounds it on the four sides, emblematic of the king’s acting as the model for all under Heaven, his virtue reaching abroad to the Four Seas, like this water. (Siku quanshu, Yueling ji, 3.6 a-b).

Here we have it explicitly stated that the correspondence between Mingtang and Heaven is not merely one of cosmological analogy, but that, in fact, this sacred space is precisely the axis mundi through which the terrestrial sovereign communicates with his celestial counterpart at the Pole. Still another Han source, the Liji Mingtang yinyang lu 禮記明堂陰陽錄 “Yin-yang Record of the Hall of Numinous Brightness of the Classic of Rites”, elaborates on the details of this resonance between the temporal and celestial realms:

The yin and yang of the Mingtang are the means by which the kingly ruler responds to Heaven. The scheme of the Mingtang is that it is surrounded by water, the water swirling leftward in imitation of Heaven. In the interior is the taishi “Great Hall”, in imitation of the zigong (Purple Tenuity Palace; circumpolar stars in UMa and Draco); emerging [from it] to the south there is the Mingtang, in imitation of taiwei (Palace of Grand Tenuity; stars in Leo and Virgo); emerging [from it] to the west there is the zongzhang (Assembly of Emblems), in imitation of wuhuang (Five Ponds; stars in Auriga); emerging [from it] to the north there is the xuantang “Somber Hall”, in imitation of yingshi (Lay-out-the-Hall; Square of Pegasus); emerging [from it] to the east there is the qingyang Green yang, in imitation of tianshi (Celestial Marketpace; stars in Ophiucus and Hercules). [Each of] the Supernal Lord Shangdi’s four seasons govern its own palace, the kingly ruler too in carrying out Heaven’s unification of all things attends to the affairs of the kingdom from the [appropriate] quarter. (quoted in Sui shu: Niu Hong zhuan, 49.1304; cf. Taiping yulan, 533.2b).

If this sounds somewhat idealized, compare Li Daoyuan’s 酈道元 (d. 527) striking description in Shuijing zhu 水經注 “Annotated Water Classic” of the design of the Mingtang in the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 capital of Pingcheng 平城 (present-day Datong 大同) in the early 3rd century:

The Mingtang was round above and square below, on the four sides there were twelve doors and nine rooms, without common walls. Outside the rooms, within the columns and beneath the silk atrium awning were installed mechanical wheels and pale blue-green silk decorated with blue semi-precious stones—looking up it resembled the sky. [On it] were painted the Polar Asterism and lunar lodges, so that it resembled the canopy of Heaven. Each month as the [Northern] Dipper pointed to [successive] chronograms, it revolved to correspond to the way of Heaven; in this respect [the Mingtang] departed from the ancient [model]. On top [of the Mingtang] was added a Numinous Terrace, and below water was led in to form a biyong [Circular Moat]. Along the water’s edge stones were laid to form embankments, in this respect according with the ancient scheme. This is what was laid out and built during the Taizhong (227-232) reign period. (Siku quanshu edition, Shui jing zhu jishi ding’e, 13.10b).

2. The Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE) Cosmic Capital

Conscious imitation of the celestial patterns is perfectly consistent with the heavenward orientation of rulership in China from the outset, and in early imperial times gained physical expression, not only in the Mingtang, but in the imperial capital itself. There are ample historical instances of just such mimicry, which go well beyond the cardinal orientation and number symbolism of the Mingtang. In the “Basic Annals of the First Emperor of Qin” in Shiji “The Grand Scribe’s Records” (ca. 100 BCE) there is the following description of the layout of the Qin capital of Xianyang 咸陽:

Thus he laid out and started to build the audience halls to the south of the Wei [River] in the Shanglin [Menagerie]. He started first with the E-pang 阿房 [palace], which was five-hundred paces from east to west and fifty rods from north to south . . . From all sides ran stepped passageways reaching directly from the Hall to the Southern Mountains. He built an elevated passageway from E-pang [palace] across the Wei [River] to connect that hall to Xianyang, thereby symbolizing the Gedao 閣道 “Stepped Passageway” (Cassiopeia), [which runs] from near the Celestial Pole across the Milky Way to connect with lunar lodge Yingshi 營室 Lay-out-the-Hall. (Nienhauser 1994, 148; tr. modified).

Note here the explicit identification of the capital of Xianyang with the Celestial Pole, and the focus on the connection between the Pole and the Celestial Temple, Yingshi Lay-out-the-Hall (Square of Pegasus), communication between the opposite sides of the Milky Way being accomplished via the Stepped Passageway. Elsewhere in the same chapter, Sima Qian again mentions the link between the terrestrial palace and Celestial Pole:

In his [First Emperor of Qin’s] 27th year (220 BCE) . . . He built the Xin 信 “Trust” Palace to the south of the Wei [River]. Shortly afterward, he renamed the Xin Palace the Jimiao 極廟[Northern] Culmen Temple to symbolize the Celestial Pole. From the Culmen Temple a road led to Mount Li 酈, where he built the front hall of the Ganquan “Sweet Springs” 甘泉Palace. He constructed a walled corridor to connect it to Xianyang (Nienhauser 1994, 138; tr. modified).

This cosmological analogy, redolent of the celestial source of the imperial charisma and legitimacy, was certainly widely recognized from Qin and Han times on. The Sanfu huangtu 三輔黃圖 “Yellow Plans of the Three Capital Commanderies” (ca. 3rd to 6th century), a widely circulated text compiled from Han sources and frequently quoted down through the Song dynasty (960 –1279), confirms that this astral-terrestrial correspondence was commonly understood. For example, Zhang Shoujie’s 張守節 (fl. 725 – 735) Zhengyi 正義 commentary in Shiji quotes the Sanfu huangtu as follows:

The Sanfu huangtu says: ‘When the First Emperor of Qin unified all under heaven he made Xianyang his capital. Because he laid out a palace on North Hill, the Zigong (circumpolar Palace of Purple Tenuity) resembled the Emperor’s Palace. The Wei River ran through the capital, simulating the Milky Way, and the Transverse Bridge crossed [the Wei River] to the south, on the model of Oxherd Qianniu (lunar lodge #9, β Cap) (Shiji, 86.2535).’

In the First Emperor of Qin’s time, in late October to early November the brilliant silvery ribbon of the Milky Way arched across the sky from southwest to northeast, between the circumpolar palace of the heavens and lunar lodge Oxherd (β Cap), precisely like its terrestrial correlate, the Wei River. The Pure Temple (Great Square of Pegasus) was due south, perpendicular to the horizon and only at this moment capable of fulfilling its polar alignment function (Pankenier, 2010). Here we have the probable explanation for the Qin dynasty’s choice of precisely this time to begin the New Year—the highly symbolic celebratory moment when Heaven above and the sub-celestial realm below were exactly congruent.

3. The Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) Cosmic Capital

Meticulous mathematical analysis by Stephen Hotaling using scale drawings of the layout and curious configuration of the walls of the early Han capital of Ch’ang-an (built 194 – 190 BCE) suggests that the contours of the northern wall of the city reproduced the shape of the Northern Dipper, while the southern wall reproduced the shape of the Southern Dipper (lunar lodge #8, ϕ Sgr) where the ecliptic intersects the Milky Way (Hotaling, 1978, 1-46, fig. 22; cf. Liu, 2007, 115). Hotaling (1978, 6) cites in evidence an account in the Sanfu huangtu which states explicitly:

The south of the city wall was in the shape of the Southern Dipper, the north was in the shape of the Northern Dipper; it is for this reason that until now people refer to the city wall of the Han capital as the ‘Dipper (dou) wall’. (Sanfu huangtu, Siku quanshu, 1.7 a-b).

The east wall of the city, on the other hand, was aligned on true north, while the imperial palaces inside the city, such as the Weiyang 未央 “Everlasting” Palace, were rectilinear and cardinally oriented (Liu, 2007, 116).


Figure 2: Stephen Hotaling’s proposed reconstruction of the walls of Chang’an (after Hotaling 1978, 39).

At the upper left in Fig. 2 is Hotaling’s inset drawing showing the stars Dubhe and Merak in the “bowl” of Ursa Major pointing toward Polaris. However, Polaris was not the Pole Star in the early Han, and the Southern Dipper, whose outline is supposedly replicated in the south wall, should not lie due south directly behind the Northern Dipper. Instead it should lie well to the north of the southwesterly direction in which the “handle” portion of Chang’an’s north wall points in the reconstruction. Most problematical of all, if the design of the north wall of Chang’an had been conceived as Hotaling suggests, the fictive Pole in Chang’an such a configuration would imply would necessarily lie outside the city wall some distance to the north, much as would Kochab β UMi, the brightest star near the Pole in Han times. But placing the Celestial Pole, and hence the axis mundi, outside the walls of the imperial capital is an untenable proposition.

Hotaling’s suggested configuration is one that would typically result from drawing the Dipper on a sheet of paper, then placing this chart face up on the ground in order to plan something according to the stellar pattern. However, proceeding in this fashion would invert the orientation of the Dipper, which is fine if the purpose is merely to draw a chart of the constellation. To exactly replicate the stellar pattern on the ground, however, one has to place the drawing of the Dipper face down, as if the circumpolar stars had floated down to the ground surface (or been projected through a template). This procedure correctly reproduces the precise configuration of the circumpolar sky on the ground, thereby preserving an exact correspondence between the imperial capital and the Supernal Lord’s abode at the Pole.

Thus Hotaling’s reconstruction, while otherwise ingenious, is conceptually flawed in a crucial respect. The contradictions can easily be resolved, however, if one imagines the Dipper “emptying” inward rather than outward as in Fig. 2 above; that is, configured in a manner identical to its depiction on shi 式 “cosmographs” (Fig. 3) and stone reliefs of the period (Fig. 4). It is extremely doubtful whether the diviners who made such cosmographs or the engineers who built Chang’an’s walls ever imagined themselves actually looking down on the pole from a vantage point outside the cosmos. They simply followed the procedure described above: “looking up they took the images from Heaven”, then floated them down unmediated to earth. They were not about mapping the sky, but about making a precise simulacrum of the Celestial Pole.


Figure. 3: Early Han cosmograph with the Dipper at the center of the rotating “Heaven Plate”; from the tomb of the Marquis of Ru Yin, ca. 168 BCE (after Major, 1993, 42).


Figure 4: Stone carving from the Wuliang Shrine (ca 2nd c. CE) showing the Supernal Lord Shang-di driving his heavenly chariot, the Dipper (after Major, 1993, 108). (Note the depiction of Alcor.)

On Hotaling’s drawing in Fig. 2 the proposed revision would simply entail flipping the north-south positions of the pairs of “bowl” stars—Megrez and Phecda, Dubhe and Merak—with the result that the Pole (and all the “imperial” stars of UMi) would then lie inside the walls of Chang’an. Admittedly, the position of the last star in the handle of the Dipper, Alkaid (η UMa), looks out of place and somewhat incongruous in Hotaling’s drawing of the north wall, but it was the reconstruction of precisely this section of the wall that posed the greatest problems, leading to Hotaling’s characterization of this part as tentative. Significantly, this modification of Hotaling’s solution would also resolve the seemingly problematical identification in Fig. 2 of the south wall with the Southern Dipper (ϕ Sgr), because now the Southern Dipper’s location vis à vis the north wall’s Northern Dipper would correspond to its true position in the sky. On the Han cosmograph in Fig. 8 Nandou, Southern Dipper, is shown by the character dou 斗 in the 8 o’clock position. This would also explain the curious fact, which confounded Hotaling, that the moat along the south wall of Chang’an actually cut through the ‘scoop’ of the Southern Dipper where it protrudes from the wall. Given the precedent established by the First Emperor of Qin as documented above, who exploited the Wei River’s course to make it flow through the capital of Xianyang, and given the fact of the Southern Dipper’s actual location in the “silvery river” of the Milky Way, this curious feature of the south wall of Chang’an now also fits the pattern.

Whether or not we have recovered the precise explanation for the idiosyncratic configuration of the walls of Chang’an, we have it on good authority that the identification of the earliest imperial capitals with the Celestial Pole was certainly in the minds of their builders and imperial residents. Between early Zhou (early first millennium BCE) and the immediate pre-imperial period the picture remains somewhat confused, and confusing. A vast amount of new archaeological information has emerged since Wheatley’s (1971) pioneering study, but the data on cardinal alignment has yet to be systematically compiled and analyzed. A significant obstacle is that many site plans in the archaeological reports fail even to indicate the direction of magnetic north, much less axial alignments of structures in azimuth. Mingtang from the earliest period are notoriously difficult to identify from excavated foundations, but there are notable examples of precise north-south orientation, such as the Eastern Zhou (8th – 7th century BCE) royal city of Wangcheng (von Falkenhausen 2006, 172). As in the case of the shift from the west-of-north to the east-of-north bias coincident with the Xia (1953 – 1555 BCE) to Shang (1554 – 1046 BCE) dynastic transition (Pankenier, 2004), changes in alignment can most definitely be indicative of significant socio-political or cultural transitions, as has been pointed out in the case of the Western Zhou devolution of power to Qin in Shaanxi:

Qin tombs differ in two respects from Eastern Zhou-period tombs elsewhere in the Zhou culture sphere: they are overwhelmingly oriented east-west rather than north-south, and they feature flexed rather than extended burial. These idiosyncracies have been taken as markers of an alien ethnic identity of the Qin people. And indeed it is impressive to observe how the predominant tomb orientation at central Shaanxi cemeteries suddenly shifted by 90 degrees at the transition from Western to Eastern Zhou, when the Qin took over the area from the royal Zhou (von Falkenhausen 2006, 215).

4. Conclusion

The ancient Chinese were intensely interested in the circumpolar region, and especially in the mysterious Pole itself, from the very beginning of Chinese civilization (Pankenier, 2004). Study of the role of astronomical alignment in shaping the built environment shows that centuries before the emergence of mathematical astronomy in the Han dynasty, the Chinese had already developed practical, geometrical applications of astronomical knowledge. A case in point is the sophisticated use by mid-1st millennium BCE of the parallel sides of Ding — the “Pure Temple” (Great Square of Pegasus) — to achieve a ritually correct polar alignment of symbolic structures (Pankenier, 2010; Ban Dawei, 2008).

I have traced the evidence of a persistent intentionality—a focus on the heavens, and especially the circumpolar sky—in symbolic representation, literary sources, and applied astronomy. There are innumerable references in classical Chinese literature to the vital necessity of maintaining conformity with the normative patterns of the cosmos. Long before this core idea became enshrined in the imperial ideology, the archaeological record clearly shows this fundamental noetic disposition was firmly established by the formative period of Chinese civilization in the early 2nd millennium BCE. The imperative to conform to Heaven made it essential to devise practical methods of achieving that objective. The practice of divination is one modality that exemplifies this impulse. Devising a calendar is another. The design and symbolism of ritual precincts like the Mingtang “Hall of Numinous Brightness” is another. And finally, as shown here, an age-old preoccupation with the circumpolar “skyscape” continued to manifest itself in the highly symbolic orientation of early imperial capitals.


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