Posts written by Bill M. Mak


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):

[International Conference] Cosmos, East and West: Astral Sciences in South and East Asia and Their Interaction with the Greco-Roman World

9:30 AM
ISAW Lecture Hall

Conference organized by Bill M. Mak (ISAW Visiting Research Scholar) and Lillian Tseng (ISAW)

Poster_cosmos Final——sm


The astral science was among the most developed bodies of knowledge in the ancient world. A complex and interrelated system of astronomical observation, astral rituals, divination and physiognomy was developed in Greece, India and China. While each civilization cultivated this knowledge along its own cultural trajectory and each system contained features unique to its own, there were moments when their paths crossed and ideas cross-fertilized and hybridized. This conference is concerned with the traditional lore of the cosmos and its evolution in South and East Asia, and how the astral knowledge of the “West” was received in the “East” in the pre-modern world.

The event will take place in conjunction with the ISAW exhibition “Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” which all participants will have the opportunity to visit, as well as the evening exhibition lecture by Prof. Stephan Heilen on the same day.


Bill Mak (Kyoto University)

Lillian Tseng (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU)


9:00am – Registration

9:30am – Opening Remarks

Chair: Lillian Tseng (Associate Professor, ISAW, NYU)

9:40am – Bill Mak (Associate Professor, Kyoto University)
“How Greek was Greco-Indian and Greco-Chinese Astral Science?”
Commentator: Stephan Heilen (Professor, University of Osnabrück)

10:30am – Coffee Break

10:50am – W. Randolph Kloetzli (Ph.D., University of Chicago)
“Ptolemy and the Indian Religious Cosmologies”
Commentator: David Pankenier (Professor Emeritus, Lehigh University)

11:40am – Michio Yano (Professor Emeritus, Kyoto Sangyo University)
“The Size of the Universe in Indian Astronomy”
Commentator: Alexander Jones (Professor, ISAW, NYU)

12:30pm – Lunch

Chair: Bill Mak (Associate Professor, Kyoto University)

1:50pm – Marko Geslani (Assistant Professor, Emory University)
“Omens in Late-Vedic Rituals: Early Evidence”
Commentator: Pia Brancaccio (Associate Professor, Drexel University)

2:40pm – David Pankenier (Professor Emeritus, Lehigh University)
“Astrological History in the ‘Treatise on the Celestial Offices’ in Han China”
Commentator: Nathan Sivin (Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania)

3:30pm – Coffee Break

4:00pm – Kenneth Zysk (Professor, University of Copenhagen)
“Greek and Indian Physiognomy”
Commentator: Claire Bubb (Assistant Professor, ISAW, NYU)

Registration is required at

Updates and conference program available at: