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Members' Research Report Archive

Astrology and Astronomy in the Art of Liao-Yuan China and Inner Asia

Michelle McCoy [University of California, Berkeley]
Ittleson Fellow, 2015–2017


Tejaprabhā and the Gods of the Five Planets, 897, Mogao Grottoes Cave 17. The British Museum. © Trustees of the British Museum

From roughly the tenth to the fourteenth century, astral bodies gained unprecedented importance across what is now China, becoming increasingly a focus of empirical inquiry, literati poetics, religious devotion, divination, and mortuary practices. This development is documented in a broad range of materials, including rock-cut shrines, wall paintings, portable paintings and prints, and tomb sculptures. Surviving examples come from an equally extensive geographic and cultural range, encompassing the Han Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279) as well as neighboring states founded by the lesser-known, non-Han cultures of the Khitan Liao (907–1125) to the north and east, in present-day Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, and the Tangut Xixia (1038–1227) to the northwest.

Previous studies of this material have seldom strayed from readymade contextual categories—Buddhist, Daoist, official, or mortuary; exoteric or esoteric; Han Chinese or otherwise. My dissertation is the first study to treat astral materials across contexts from this period as a coherent visual and material culture. This is possible, and necessary, because the astral bodies informed a symbolic language and body of knowledge grounded in cosmological principles that, although largely unfamiliar today, were current across many sectors of cultural production. These principles were expressed in visual form as abstract spatial structures that I term “schemas,” which entered into dynamic, often dialectic relationships with pictorial figures (such as humanlike deities and symbolic emblems). By examining figure-schema dynamics across multiple contextual registers, I aim to offer a new approach to transregional exchange in this multicentered era.

First emerging as a personified incantation in Tang dynasty (618–907) sources, the Buddha Tejaprabhā had become, by the tenth century, the central figure of Buddhist astral deity worship in China and inner Asia. By some measures, he was a minor deity, surviving in only a few dozen representations and sutra manuscript copies across this vast territory. Yet despite their rarity, the materials of the Tejaprabhā cult tell a strikingly coherent story across time, place, and culture. I examine how Tejaprabhā paintings express not only a widespread desire to avoid astrological calamity caused, for example, by comets or inauspicious planetary movements but also larger, often implicit beliefs about the structure and continual transformation of the world. These materials record the synthesis of a distinctly Chinese Buddhist planetary cosmology, in which the center of the cosmos was not only occupied by the Buddha rather than exclusively by the emperor but was also untethered from any specific earthly territory or polity. Buddhist astrology’s potential to create new cosmological syntheses was most fully embraced by the Tangut Xixia state. The numerous extant paintings, prints, and other materials related to Tejaprabhā and his astral retinue from Tangut sites express a new world order, in which the theoretically totalizing Sinitic imperial vision became just one of many cosmological possibilities. They demonstrate, moreover, the importance of pictorial art in this period as a site of knowledge production.

To the east of Xixia in Liao territory, the longstanding tradition of painting “star maps” on tomb ceilings took a turn toward the divinatory and diagrammatic in the late eleventh-to mid-twelfth-century cemetery of a local elite Chinese family, the Zhang. Whereas in earlier tombs the planets and constellations were arrayed across a continuous field or sequenced within a single circular band, the tableaux in this cemetery combine depictions of up to five classes of astral objects—stars, planets, the sun and the moon, cyclical animals, and the Hellenistic zodiac signs—configured as concentric rings in a manner recalling bronze mirror design. Examining the correlative, topographic, and astrological logic behind the position and sequencing of each ring, I argue that these tableaux are pictorial analogues to popular horoscopic diagrams that drew on new transmission from the Hellenistic world for which scanty direct evidence survives. Connecting these ceiling paintings with the overall content and structure of the tombs, I consider changes in the practices of tomb siting and production that may have enabled this transformation from starry array to divinatory chart.

What is possibly the period’s most ambitious astral synthesis occurred in Xixia territory, in a mandala that survives from Kharakhoto, the repository in present-day Inner Mongolia that housed most of the period’s Tejaprabhā materials. This large silk painting attempts, somewhat unevenly, to assimilate in pictorial form virtually all astral deities then in circulation into the totalizing cosmological framework of the tantric mandala. The painting is but one component of (or perhaps accessory to) a complex liturgical system that involved multiple stages of offerings, contemplations, and empowerment. It is known through the unlikely survival of unique ritual manuscripts written in the Tangut language. My reading of these texts against the painting indicates that this was a new mandala system in active formation, in which the Sino-Tangut cosmographic tradition collided with a largely irreconcilable structure used in rites to appease the planets in a variety of Indian traditions. Although its precise date remains elusive, the encounter this mandala demonstrates with not only Chinese and Tibetan but also Indian culture improves understanding of the sources of Tangut culture.