[KS] Ch'oe Sejin; Days of the Week; Choso^n Dynasty Regnal Years

gkl1 at columbia.edu gkl1 at columbia.edu
Thu Jun 16 18:10:26 EDT 2005

   I had meant to comment on Gale's seeming assumption that the Ming
astronomers had invented the sun-moon-five-planets scheme for naming
the days of the Western week, but forgotten to do so. Now that
Stefan raises it again it's worth getting the story out there. Gale
launches his speculation with a particularly egregious misreading of
the reign-title "Wanli" (designating the years 1573-1619) as somehow
meaning "universal calendar," and THAT somehow involving the Jesuits
in introducing the western week. It is certainly true that the
Jesuits became closely involved with Chinese astronomy during those
years, but this concerned only the technical matters of calendrical
mathematics, not any cultural matters such as changing the lunar
calendar or hyping the Western week. From the early decades of the
17th century until the dissolution of the Jesuit order in the first
half of the 1770s, the Jesuits enjoyed official status in China as
astronomers, designers of observational instruments, calendrical
specialists, mathematicians, and cartographers, also training
Chinese specialists in these fields. They served as officials of
the late Ming and early-to-mid-Qing governments, holding the
directorship of the Imperial Bureau of Mathematics and assistant
directorship of the Imperial Observatory. Their prime
responsibility as far as the calendar is concerned was to establish
and verify the most accurate possible calculations for the solstices
and equinoxes; predict accurately other calendrical constants
involving the phases of the moon; and above all predict lunar and
solar eclipses. Their total success in these enterprises kept
Chinese emperors happy with their services for about 160 years.
   But as far as anything concerning the Chinese lunar calendar,
which remained in force until 1911, the Jesuits' only
responsibility was to supply Chinese specialists with the technical
numbers. It was the Chinese who laid out the 24 solar periods of the
traditional agricultural calendar, with all its very important
holidays and festivals; and only they who determined the placement
of the intercalary months that were necessary to keep the solar and
lunar cycles in reasonable accord with each other. The western week
had nothing to do with any of this. To the extent that it was
involved with their religious work, the Jesuits appear to have
decided not to rock the boat, given the Chinese sensitivity to any
detail having to do with the reckoning of time. In China, the
government defined and named all units of time. This tradition
still lives: China occupies parts of four time zones, but the whole
country must live with whatever time it is in Beijing, no matter
when the sun rises where the poor citizen may be. In China, the
government has always owned time.
   That's why in traditional times Korea had to use Chinese
year-titles and go to Beijing every New Year's Day to formally
receive the calendar (although as a practical matter it was made
available six or seven months earlier).

Gari Ledyard

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