Monday 25 March 2013

A Study of the (Western) Zodiac Signs in Chinese Art

A Study of the (Western) Zodiac Signs in Chinese Art[1]
In 1987 UNESCO listed the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang to be of one of the World Heritage sites on account of its exceptional significance to human history and creativity; and the Mogao caves are also considered one of the earliest and most important surviving examples of Buddhist art in China.[2]  One of the Mogao Grottoes will be considered and discussed in this paper.  However, despite the challenge of limited materials (both primary and secondary sources) and extant artifacts relating to the “Western” zodiac signs in China, I would like to draw a connection between East and West via the route of the Silk Road, officially launched in the 2nd century BCE of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China, by tracing the travel and uses of motifs and images of the Babylonian (or Western) zodiac signs.  Due to the breath and depth of scopes of zodiac signs, the visual evidence for this paper primarily focuses on mural paintings from China,[3] which date mainly to the 10th through 13th century CE.  However, some additional findings of the Babylonian zodiac in other Asian regions, such as Japan and India, though not be included in this paper, are further indications that art and the visual representation of ideas are not confined by geographical boundaries but were spread by devoted believers, caravans, and other channels.  In this paper, I will firstly consider the origins of the twelve zodiac signs; next will be a discussion of the sites of the discoveries of these zodiac signs in China, and lastly I will offer a scenario explaining the travels of these motifs/beliefs.

The history of astrology is mysterious and yet lengthy.  Horoscopes, sometimes diagrams of astrological patterns and signs, have existed and been implanted in many ancient civilizations, including Mesopotamia and Greece.[4]  In Greek horoscopes, two features are common:  the presence of twelve signs and their arrangement in a circular pattern with the name of each sign inscribed.[5]  This layout continues into medieval Europe, as evidenced by manuscripts,[6] and later in Asian civilizations.
In the case of China, the idea of applied astronomy and the study of constellations in the early era were documented in ancient texts, and occasionally sketches and diagrams of constellations are accompanied by difficult to decipher texts which were only understood by a very small group of professionals.[7]  Before the introduction of the twelve astrological signs into China, twenty-eight stars or “houses” of astrology were used.[8]  These twenty-eight stars were divided into four groups, an idea of associated with the four directions (North, South, East and West) or with the four seasons; each direction (or season) corresponds to seven or eight stars respectively.[9]  Chinese twenty-eight star astrology in its early stage was used mainly for predicting the seasons and the times of year for agricultural purposes, ritual practices, military combat, and other various others; however, all of these event-predictions were also strongly associated with the destiny of kings and their kingdoms, which became significant in Chinese politics after the 4th century.[10]  The twenty-eight stars were later incorporated into astronomy and astrology, calendars, and rituals in China until the late Ming Dynasty (1369-1644 CE), circa the 17th century, when the Jesuit missionaries introduced and demonstrated the accuracy of western astronomical technology in specific events that impressed the Chinese Emperors; the use of the twenty-eight star system was then gradually and completely abandoned at Court.[11]  
Unfortunately, for the use of the Babylonian or Greek astrological signs in China, no literary documents dating before the 7th century CE have been found.[12]  However, with the imperial patronage of Buddhism, which originated in India, the nomenclature and understanding of the Babylonian zodiac was transmitted to China from the 7th to 10th centuries CE through Buddhist sutras.[13]  In its original context of both Babylonia and Greece, the twelve zodiac signs had developed into images that resembled the current popular presentation of the zodiac and its attributes; these pictorial motifs survived in the “Chinese version” of the twelve astrological signs. Babylonian or Greek astrology was thus brought to China, in particular to Dunhuang and its environs, where pictorial records of the constellations and astrology are preserved today.  Furthermore, concerning the use or function of the Western zodiac signs in China, no other literary documents have been found.[14]  Based on the extant pictorial evidence, some of the twelve astrological signs of Babylon were found in Buddhist caves and burial chambers where rituals were practiced and seasons were in play; perhaps we could assume that the use of Babylonian or Greek astrology was sometimes associated with the twenty-eight star astrology in ancient China.[15]

The Locations of Discoveries
            In China, these astrological signs are surprisingly found in several sites, which date from the 7th to 13th century, from the Tang to Yuan Dynasties.  These sites are largely confined to the Northwestern region of China, which included the Silk Road.  Among these geographical sites, only two, the Xuanhua tombs (Hebei Province) and the Mogao caves (no. 61), have been studied with images being partially published.[16]  A few objects, included here, are in the collection of the Xixia Museum in the Ningxia Muslim Autonomous Region, having been unearthed in recent years.[17]  My selections in this paper focus mainly on mural paintings because of their state of preservation, visibility and colors.

a. Xuanhua site, Hebei Province
The Xuanhua site, discovered in 1971 with excavations completed in 1975, contains several tombs that share one family name, Zhang. Three of these Zhang family tombs, which are labeled M1, M2, and M5 by Chinese archeologists, feature the Babylonian (or Greek) zodiac signs on the ceilings of several tombs.  M1 is the tomb of Zhang Shiqing, M2 is the tomb of Zhang Gongyou, and M5 is the tomb of Zhang Shigu.   The star ceiling mural from these three tombs displays a combination of both Chinese twenty-eight stars and the Western (or Babylonian) zodiac respectively.
In tomb M1, the twenty-eight stars of the inner circle, depicted as a lotus, are Chinese and the twelve astrological signs of the outer circle are Babylonian.  The master of tomb M1, Zhang Shiqing, died in 1116 AD, and was buried in the same year.  The mural painting of the celestial ceiling is also likely to be dated around 1116 AD.[18]  The most intriguing element of these celestial ceilings are not the twenty-eight stars, which were well-documented in China, but the twelve astrological signs are perhaps the earliest known complete zodiac in Chinese art.  On the ceiling mural of tomb M1, the twelve astrological signs align with the Chinese twelve stars in an arrangement of four directions and four seasons—spring includes Aries, Taurus (which is missing in this mural painting and was probably destroyed by tomb robbers), and Gemini in the West, the summer includes Cancer, Leo, and Virgo in the South, the autumn signs are Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius in the East, and finally, the winter signs are Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces in the North.   

Ceiling Mural, Xuanhua Tomb (courtesy of Xuanhua Liaomu, Beijing: Wenwu Chubenshe, 2001) 

The reason that the archeologists were able to identify these twelve signs was because of the pictorial similarities between the original Babylonian and “Chinese version” of the zodiac.  The key features of some signs, particularly the animal signs, remain close, such as Aries, Cancer, Leo, Scorpio, and Pisces; however, some signs, at the same time, appear more “Chinese” or “localized”.  For example, a water-bearer as Aquarius was represented as the jar alone in this mural, and the design of the water jar was modified from a Greek high-neck amphora into a short-neck Tang style jar.  The man and woman of Gemini are “Chinese” in customs and appearance, and Virgo is no longer singular, but is depicted as a pair of female figures in different dress and colors.  The symbol of Libra, a scale, has become a Chinese scale, and the man’s head with the horse body of Sagittarius has become a groom leading a horse.  In terms of artistic technique in tomb M1, the artisans generally created outline sketches and then applied the colors to the space, a common technique used in both wall and ink paintings.  Some attempts at shading the volumes of the animals’ bodies to create a sense of three-dimensionality are visible, but are not fully achieved.
The twelve astrological signs from the ceiling mural of tomb M2 survive intact as twelve distinct images displayed in an inner circle, surrounding the lotus at the center.  The constellation ceiling of tomb M2 adds the Chinese animal zodiac signs, locating them at the outer circle of the placement, something not included in tomb M1.[19]  In terms of directional placement, attributes, and artistic technique, the signs are identical to those in the tomb M1.
Tomb M5 lies south of tomb M1 and has been plundered. The inclusion of all three systems of astrology (the Babylonian zodiac, the twenty-eight stars, and the Chinese twelve animal zodiac) is identical to tomb M2; and the placement of the directions of the signs is identical to tomb M1.[20] As for the style and representation of the signs, as well as the directional placement of the zodiac in both M2 and M5, they are similar to those in M1, so we could suggest that both murals were done by the same hand or that the artisans shared a similar artistic tradition or understanding of astrology, although the dates for tombs M2 and M5 are not specified in the excavation report.[21]

b. Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu Province
The Mogao caves at Dunhuang of Gansu Province are comprised of the North and South Cliffs, with about 1,000 caves in total number.  Cave no. 61 is one of 492 painted caves of the South Cliffs.  The entrance pathway of cave no. 61, which has been touched, repainted, re-inscribed in different styles, time periods, and languages, has not been fully studied.  However, the depiction of the Babylonian zodiac in Cave no. 61 is the most unique feature among the Dunhang caves, because Cave no. 61 is the only cave at Mogao which bears the twelve astrological signs of Babylon.
Both walls of the entrance pathway display both the traditional Chinese twenty-eight stars and the Babylonian twelve-sign zodiac.[22] The key icon on the South Wall, which has been identified as Buddha Tejaprabha, is shown sitting in a chariot, which is surround by Five Stars (Stars of the Four Directions and the Center), and the Sun and the Moon.  In the background is the Chinese twenty-eight astrological stars, with Babylonian astrological signs grouped on the top, bordering the ceiling on both walls. Nine out of the Babylonian twelve signs remain on both walls, and six signs are repeated, namely Aries, Taurus, Virgo, Cancer, Scorpio, and Capricorn; overall they add up to a complete set of the twelve astrological signs from both the South and North Walls.[23]  It is unclear what is the reason for the nine signs on each wall; however, my speculation is that the twelve signs were originally placed on each wall, and that some are now missing, probably covered by later designs and painting.  It is also possible that artists/artisans intended to reflect the accuracy of the constellations in the seasons, and that the North and South walls represented the Northern and Southern hemispheres.[24]  All stars on both walls, as well as the Sun and the Moon, are personified as human figures in Chinese costumes; the rendering of these personified constellations and their compositions are superior to those of the mural paintings of the Xuanhua Tombs.  The refined figures of Mogao Cave no. 61 display characteristics of Tang figure painting tradition, such as round faces with rosebud lips and almond-shaped eyes, full bodies with elaborate drapery which gives a sensuality and weight to the three-quarter profile of the figures; such characteristics were continuously adopted by artists of the Five Dynasties (907-960 CE).
The star murals in the Xuanhua tomb chambers function astronomically in a cosmic setting (perhaps from the perspective or viewing direction of the deceased), but the Mogao caves served as living prayer halls and temples in their time.  The astrological signs in Cave no. 61 may have been associated with rituals and religious practices.  No matter what function they provided, it seems clear to me that the twelve astrological signs were adapted in Northwestern China.[25]

c. Ningxia Muslim Autonomous Region, Xi Xia (Tangut) Museum[26]
            Several painted silk banners, currently in the collection of the Xi Xia (Tangut) Museum, featuring Buddha Tejaprabha, the twenty-eight stars, and the Babylonian zodiac were unearthed in the 1990s.  Although the condition of these silk banners is damaged and fragile, some of the twelve zodiac signs are legible, including Pieces (twin fishes), Aries (a goat), Gemini (twin figures), and Leo (a lion).  The details and composition of the banners are from skillful painters and the use of colors is vibrant.  In addition, their association with Buddha Tejaprabha is identical to the South Wall of Mogao Cave no. 61, even though their artistic styles differ, suggesting that the practice and belief of Buddha Tejaprahba may have prevailed in the northwestern regions under the rule of the Tangut Empire (Xi Xia in Chinese).
Scenario for the travel and transformation of the signs
            How did the Babylonian (or Greek) zodiac signs reach the northwestern regions of China? Travel and cultural exchanges on the Silk Road are certainly a known fact.  However, due to diverse cultural, ethnic, and even religious groups who were travelers on the Silk Road, images of the Babylonian zodiac were likely transported via objects, including diagrams, sketches, personal accessories, and other vessels and means.  I map the path of the Babylonian (or Greek) signs from Xuanhua and Dunhuang, to the east, connecting Xi’an, the capital city of Tang China, and reaching Japan; to the west, continuing to Kashgar, where the route splits West, leading to Iran (and neighbor nations), and South, leading to North India.  

Details, Entrance Pathway, Mogao Caves, No. 61, Dunhuang (courtesy of DunhuangResearch Academy, China)

As previously noted, this research is challenging and complicated due to its geographical scope and cultural/religious diversity.  Here, I provide no conclusions, but rather wished to raise questions in the study of cross-culturalism.  A few final remarks regarding this research may perhaps add some insights.  One concerns the function of the astrological signs in the surviving artifacts and the other is the symbolic purpose of these motifs.
The medium of the artifacts discussed includes mural paintings and silk banners; their uses mainly focus on ritual and religious practices and functions. Based on the extant scholarship and the visual evidences of this paper, the uses of the Babylonian zodiac signs were largely associated with religious/Buddhist practices in China.  It is logical and sensible that the Babylonian astrological signs should have been displayed in a sequence; the examples of artifacts that I have included in this paper confirm this practice. 

Contributed by: Dr. Diana Y. Chou

[1] I would like to express my gratitude to Professors Roderick Whitfield (Emeritus Professor, SOAS, University of London), and Wang Huiming (Dunhuang Research Academy, China) for advising me on the uses of the images and Professor Gerry Guest for editing this paper. A much detailed research of this subject, including Japan and India, will be published in Ancient World History International Conference 2012 Proceedings: The Interchanges and Comparisons between Civilizations (forthcoming, 2013).
[2] (accessed on December 19, 2012); Roderick Whitfield, Susan Whitfield, and Neville Agnew, Cave Temples of Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000).
[3] Due to copyright issues, most images will not be provided here.
[4] Johannes Thomann, “Square Horoscope Diagrams in Middle Eastern Astrology and Chinese Cosmological Diagrams: Were These Designs Transmitted Through the Silk Road?,“ in Philippe Forêt and Andreas Kaplony, ed. The Journey of Maps and Images on the Silk Road (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008), 97-117.
[5] Johannes Thomann, “Square Horoscope Diagrams in Middle Eastern Astrology and Chinese Cosmological Diagrams,” 98.
[6] Johannes Thomann, “Square Horoscope Diagrams in Middle Eastern Astrology and Chinese Cosmological Diagram,” 99.
[7] Xia Nai, “Cong Xuanhua Liaomu de xintu lun ershiba xu he Huandao shier gong,” Kaogu xuebao, No. 2 (1976): 35-58; Da Xia xunzun: Xi Xia wenwu jisui (Beijing: China Academy of Social Sciences Publishing, 2004), 75-80.
[8] Xia Nai, “Cong Xuanhua Liaomu de xintu lun ershiba su he Huandao shier gong,”35-58.
[9] Xia Nai, “Cong Xuanhua Liaomu de xintu lun ershiba su he Huandao shier gong,” 36-37.
[10] Xia Nai, “Cong Xuanhua Liaomu di xingdu lun ershiba su he Huangdao shier gong,” 39-40.
[11]  David Mungello, The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800 (NY: Roman and Littlefield Publishers, 2009); John Witek ed., Ferdinand Veribest (1623-1688): Jesuit Missionary, Scientist, Engineer, and Diplomat (Nettetal: Steyler Verlag, 1994); Dunhuang Shiku Quanji, 23: 20-21 (Hong Kong: The Commercial Press Ltd, 2001); Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542-1773 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).
[12] “Liaodai caihui xintu shi wo guo tianwen shi shang de chong yao fa xiang,” Wenwu, 8 (1975): 40-44.
[13] Xia Nai, “Cong Xuanhua Liaomu de xintu lun ershiba su,” 52.
[14] “Liaodai caihua xintu shi woguo tianwenshi shang de zhongyao faxian,” Wen Wu, no. 8 (1975): 40-44.
[15] Xia Nai, “Cong Xuanhua Liaomu de xintu lun ershiba xu he Huandao shier gong,” Kaogu xuebao, No. 2 (1976): 35-58.
[16] Tansen Sen, “Astronomical Tomb Paintings from Xuanhua: Mandalas?,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 29 (1999): 29-54; Wen Wu, no. 8 (1975): 31-39; Tomb Murals of Liao Dynasty in Xuanhua, Cultural Relics Publishing House (Beijing, 2001); Xuanhua Liaomu, 2 volumes (Beijing: Wenwu Chubenshe, 2001); Dunhuang Shiku quanji (Hong Kong: The Commercial Press Ltd., 2001); Zhongguo Meishu quanji: Dunhuang bihua, vols. 14 & 15 (Shanghai: Renming Meishu chubanshe, 1988); Liu Haiwen, ed., Xuanhua xiabali er qu Liao bihua mu kaogu fajue baogao (Beijing: Wenwu chubenshe, 2008).
[17] Genghis Khan: The Ancient Nomadic Culture of the Northern China (Beijing Chuben she, 2004); Selected Treasures from Hejiacun Tang Hoard (Beijing: Wenwu Chubenshe, 2003).
[18] “Liaodai caihui xintu shi wo guo tianwen shi shang de chong yao fa xiang,” Wenwu, 8 (1975): 41.

[19] Xuanhua Liaomu: 1974-1993 nian kaogu fajue (Beijing: Wenwu chuban she, 2001), vol. 1: 268-277.
[20] Xuanhua Liaomu: 1974-1993 nian kaogu fajue (Beijing: Wenwu chuban she, 2001), vol. 1: 257-259.
[21] Xuanhua Liaomu: 1974-1993 nian kaogu fajue (Beijing: Wenwu chuban she, 2001), vol. 1: 250-277.
[22] Tonkō Bakukōkutsu: Tonkō Bunbutsu Kenkyūjo hen (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1980-1982), vol. 5, 23; Dunhuang shiku quanji 23: kexue jishu huajuan (Hong Kong: The Commercial Press Ltd., 2001).
[23] Dunhuang shiku quanji 23: kexue jishu huajuan (Hong Kong: The Commercial Press Ltd., 2001), 20-22.
[24] This speculation requires a further study.
[25] Some scholars have suggested that Yulin Grotto no. 35 also displays the zodiac (Dunhuang shiku quanji 23: kexue jishu huajuan, 22); however, I have not included this cave in the current paper due to a lack published images and study.
[26] Da Xia xunzun: Xi Xia wenwu jisui (Beijing: China Academy of Social Science Publishing, 2004), 176-185.


  1. Great article and research and find, Thank you so much.

  2. Interessante.... obrigado pela indicação do blog! ;)

  3. Love your blog! I've been quite a lot of research into this area so this has really helped, thank you!