Horizons and Destiny by Michelle McCoy

I spent the bulk of my time as a Global Horizons fellow working on a book about art and astrology in medieval China and Inner Asia. During the period I study, roughly the 10th to 13th centuries, the territory now known as China was ruled by multiple competing states and ethnic groups. Among them were the Tanguts, a Tibeto-Burman people who controlled a key silk road conduit and left behind a rich body of astrological art. Bookended by two famously expansive and cosmopolitan empires, the Tang and the Mongol Yuan, this period is persistently viewed as a fragmented, comparatively inward-looking age. The history of astrological art tells a different story, however, one of complex connections with many cultures of Eurasia.

A small, portable painting from the Tangut site of Kharakhoto in present-day Inner Mongolia is an exemplary case. (Fig. 1) Viewers familiar with central and western Eurasian medieval traditions might immediately begin to parse the image and speculate about its function. The refined goddess carrying a pipa is Venus, and the disc-enclosed bull floating at upper left represents Taurus, one of the zodiacal houses over which she rules. As the Tangut inscriptions tell us, the smaller official-deities flanking the goddess stand for corresponding “lodges,” constellations drawn from a blended Indian-Chinese system. We can hypothesize that the card was originally part of a twelve-card set representing the complete zodiacal ring. The hypothetically complete set would have made for a lucid pictorial summation of an astrological scheme that the Tanguts themselves seem to have understood as imported from “western” sources, likely received through now-lost Chinese translations.

Fig. 1. Venus with Taurus and Lodges, ink and color on paper, 13th century, 20.5 х 14.4 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

The term astrology tends to invoke the idea of celestial bodies moving through the visible heavens. However, when we attempt to locate this Tangut Venus and her companions in space, questions emerge. Where do the cloud rafts that trail off into the opaque red background ultimately originate? What is this celestial realm? Although much remains unknown about Tangut cosmology, there is little evidence that would suggest they adopted the nested-spheres model commonly associated with the medieval horoscopy evidenced by the painting. This raises a problem familiar to scholars of transcultural exchange: evidence for the transmission of one thing does not necessarily imply the transmission of another, including that which we might expect to be concomitant or even fundamental.

Outside the realm of figure painting, horoscopic charts themselves are helpful in attempting to identify and explain the gaps. Take, for example, the representation of the ascendant, the section of the zodiac ring rising above the eastern horizon at the time of the client’s birth—a fitting subject for the present venue.

Fig. 2. Printed horoscope from the 14th century showing the Destiny Place (Ming wei) above 3 o’clock. After Needham (1959).

Following Chinese practice, Tangut horoscopy identifies the ascendant using the term “Destiny Place,” a reference to the first Place of Hellenistic horoscopy and synonymous with time of birth. Some textual sources explicitly locate the Destiny Place in the east, the fixed position of the ascendant. Its position in extant diagrams, however, is variable. In some charts, the Destiny Place appears below 9 o’clock, the standard east-rising position, but in this fourteenth-century Chinese example (Fig. 2), it appears above 3. Despite this shifting position of the horizon-as-Destiny Place, the chart itself in East and Inner Asian horoscopy lost no cultural authority. Its radial design served as a powerful mechanism for ordering and making legible the many sets of data, disparate numerically and heterogeneous in origin, that went into calculating fate based on the moment of birth.