Posts written by Bill M. Mak

International Conference on Traditional Sciences in Asia 2017: East-West Encounter in the Science of Heaven and Earth


International Conference on Traditional Sciences in Asia 2017: East-West Encounter in the Science of Heaven and Earth

Dates: 25 (WED) – 28 (SAT) October 2017
Place: Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan

Following the “International Workshop on Traditional Science in Asia (IWTSA) – Overlapping Cosmology in Pre-modern Asia”, which took place 17-19 June, 2015 at Kyoto University, we would like to bring together once again the leading scholars in the field of history of astronomy and astral science in various parts of Asia for an international conference on the topic of “East-West Encounter in the Science of Heaven and Earth”. While we tend to think of astronomical knowledge as unique to each civilization, the participants will share insights from historical studies and scientific projects exploring how different traditions interact across borders and cultures, making the science of the universe one of the most cosmopolitan knowledge systems. With particular focus on Asia – a region whose long scientific tradition has been understudied compared to that of its Western counterpart – the participants will discuss from different angles how pre-modern science had been transmitted, transformed and acculturated as they cross linguistic and cultural borders, past and present.

The proposed workshop in Kyoto will aim at promoting an in-depth dialogue between scholars of different disciplines and regional focuses through a combination of keynote lectures, panel sessions and a guided visit to historical places related to astronomical observation in Kyoto. Kyoto has been one of the leading centers of astronomical knowledge for centuries, and Kyoto University has been known for its research in the history of science. This conference will be our yet another effort to deepen our understanding the relationship between traditional and modern scientific knowledge through sustained, interdisciplinary dialogues among scholars of both the Eastern and Western traditions.

Proposed Topics/Panels topics

  1. East Asian astral and geo-sciences: science and the state; Conceptualizing, imaging and mapping heaven and earth; traditional mathematical astronomy ; transition to modern science
  2. South Asian (Indian and Buddhist) Astral and geo-sciences
  3. West Asian (Near Eastern) Astral and geo-sciences
  4. Reception and transmission of foreign sciences in Asia
  5. Contemporary research on historical astronomy and geo-sciences: eclipses and earth’s rotation; supernovae; solar-terrestrial physics, e.g. aurorae; archaeomagnetism; earthquakes


Last Monday, February 27, ISAW hosted a conference entitled Cosmos, East and West: Astral Sciences in South and East Asia and Their Interaction with the Greco-Roman World. The conference was organized by ISAW Visiting Research Scholar Bill Mak and ISAW Associate Professor of East Asian Art and Archaeology Lillian Tseng.

Read here.


Chinese zodiac and the Year of Rooster


The origin of the Chinese zodiac is unknown but the earliest examples from archeological finds are dated to around third century BCE. It comprises a series of twelve animals assigned to a cycle of twelve years. Unlike the Western zodiac, they are not associated with the stars. The twelve Chinese zodiac animals are however sometimes associated with the twelve “earthly branches” 地支, which are assigned in turn to the twelve directions starting from the north moving clockwise.

In a variety of esoteric Buddhist tombstones found in Yunnan (around 12th-14th century), the zodiac animals are depicted with a kind of cosmic significance. Together with esoteric Buddhist mantras such as the Uṣṇīṣvijayadhāraṇī and Sanskrit seed letters to represent a pantheon of astral deities, the zodiac represents a kind of spatial totality not unlike its Indian counterpart, the dikpāla-s or the direction guardians which are often depicted also as a series.

The sample below contains three zodiac animals at the bottom: Monkey, Rooster and Dog. The Rooster is represented by the earthly branch 酉 which is associated with the direction west.

The traditional Chinese calendar is luni-solar. In other words, the dates are determined by both lunar and solar factors. In the case of the Chinese new year, it is set at the beginning of the month which contains the day where the Sun is at 330 degree, or about one month before Spring Equinox. The beginning of the month is usually close to the New Moon. In the case of 2017, the New Moon falls on Jan 27 but the Chinese New Year begins on Jan 28.

Happy Chinese New Year of Rooster.

More on the Yunnanese esoteric Buddhist tombstones (in French):