A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE KOREAN ASTRONOMY
THIS IS A COPY OF THE ORIGINAL FOUND HERE
- THE LINK I HAVE FOUND TO BE SLOW
Department of Astronomy
Seouyl National University
Shillim-Dong, Seoul, Korea
1. Old Choson or Tankun Choson
The first nation that had been ever built by Korean was the Old Choson
dynasty. According to the Remained Historical Affairs of the Three Kingdoms
this country was built in B.C. 2333. Old Choson was perished in B.C.108
when it was invaded by the Han dynasty.
Most of the historical records of this period are found in the Handan Old
Archives and the Ancient History of Tankun Choson and Kija
Choson . In these two books, we can find records of ten solar eclipses,
one aggregation of five planets, and one big tide.
An attempt to reproduce these astronomical events by numerical simulation
was made by La and Park (1993). In spite of the difficulties concerning
the uncertainty of the exact dates and the definite location of the captital
city of the Tankun Choson, it is concluded that five records out of ten
were realized (La and Park 1993).
One can be reminded of the fact that the aggregation of the five planets
is a rare event. When they calculated the position of the five planets
around B.C.1733, they found that there were really one aggregation of the
five planets. The nearest such events before and after this aggregation
are spaced by 550 years. In view of this fact that the two archives recorded
such a rare event correctly, they draw a tentative conclusion that these
archives are at least partially reliable (La and Park 1993).
Old Choson continued to exist throughout the bronze age and the iron age.
So there are a large number of archaeological antiquities. For example,
near Pyeng-Yang are some of them, which indicate that there were
some kind of astronomical activities in this era.
For more specific, various Eastern asterisms are engraved on the head stone
of the about 200 dolmens. These antiquities are thought to be related to
the primitive belief that spirits become stars on the heaven.
2. The Era of Powers
After the invasion of the Han dynasty and wide spread of ironware, around
the 2nd century B.C., Tankun Choson) was split into dozens of small countries.
Unfortunately there are few first-hand records for this period. However
we have several history books written by some foreign historians, where
some pieces of records about the ancient Korean countries. For example,
according to Sangouji, the Ye, which is one of such ancient Korean countries,
is described as follows. "in the Ye people observe the asterisms
to predict whether it will be a good harvest or not". In view of this description
we can see the people in this period observed the stars and were very familiar
to the astronomy in their life.
3. The Three Kingdoms
By the 5th century A.D., there had been continuing mergers between small
countries and finally there appeared four countries : Koguryo , Paikche
, Silla , and Kaya . Soon Kaya was conquered to be parted its land by Silla
and Paikche. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to find astronomical
records or antiquities of Kaya.
As for the other three countries, the history of this period remains mainly
in the History of the Three Kingdoms and also in the Remained Historical
Affairs of the Three Kingdoms .
But here let's first look around the vivid frescos painted by people of
this era. There are a lot of frescos painted on the inner walls of old
tombs of the Koguryo era. Upon seeing these pictures one may get a strong
feeling that the Koguryo people had a keen interest in the heavenly bodies
and a high level of astronomical knowledge. Asterisms and the abstract
symbols that stand for the heavenly bodies or astronomical concepts were
painted. Moreover there are frescos that displays legends about asterisms.
According to the inscriptions of Chon-Sang-Yol-Cha-Poon-Ya-Ji-Dowe can
infer that its prototypical map was originated from the Koguryo era. In
view of the painted asterisms, it may naturally feel that their achievements
in astronomy were enough to make such a prototypical map.
In case of Paikche, in A.D. 602, Kwan-Nuk, scholar of Paikche, went to
Japan to hand over books on the calendar, astronomy and geomancy. Because
nearly all of their cultural achievements were destroyed by invaders (Silla
and Tang), we can't find enough historical or archaeological materials
to testify the level of Paikche's astronomy. However reproducing their
astronomical records, we can imagine the astronomical achievements of Paikche
According to one of the record, Venus appeared in daytime at A.D. 224,
which is reproduced as a real event. An observation of a delicate phenomenon
such as this provides a hint indicating that they possessed a profound
knowledge about motion of heavenly bodies.
As for Silla, we have several antiquities, which shows that astronomical
activities were comparably high with the two preceding kingdoms. In A.D.
647 reigned by Queen Sunduck , the astronomical observatory Chumsungdai
, the oldest observatory remaining in Korea, was constructed.
In the two books mentioned above, we can find the valuable astronomical
records which the passionate and skillful people of the Three Kingdoms
left to us.
The records include the occultations of the planets by the Moon, the aggregations
of several major planets, the appearances of Venus in the day-time, guest-stars
or novae , and the solar and the lunar eclipses.
Park and La (1994) performed nemerical calculations to check the
reliability of the astronomical records of the early Three Kingdoms. They
conclude that most of the records can be reproduced. Especially the results
on the eclipses show that there are separate locations of strong concentrations
in the mean magnitude of solar eclipses. Assuming that these locations
indicate those of the optimal observing sites, it is very interesting to
note that they coincide with those of the capitals of each kingdom.
They also performed Monte Carlo simulations to show that the records on
eclipses can not be what were randomly copied from Chinese history books.
These results show that the people of the Three Kingdoms observed the astronomical
Historically there are still some controversies on this result on the location
of each countries. Personally I think that an analysis of occultation records
will resolve some controversies on this topic, because occultations are
very rarely occurring phenomena and can be observed from a very locallized
and narrow region on the earth.
4. Palhai and the latter period of Silla
Today it is a very difficult matter to find the antiquities or the first-hand
archives of the Palhai era, let alone the second-hand astronomical records.
In view of the generally-agreed fact that Palhai inherited the culture
of the Koguryo, the Palhai people must have performed a variety of astronomical
In the 7th century, the latter period of Silla begun. Since then the interaction
between the Tang dynasty and the Silla dynasty had increased. In 682 a
monk from Tang, Toh-Cheung, presented a celestial planisphere to Silla.
In 718 the first clepsydra was constructed. In 749 a doctor of astronomy
and three doctors of clepsydra were appointed.
There is a record which indicates the fact that the Silla people could
calculate and predict solar eclipses. According to this record, "in A.D.
800 there should be a solar eclipse, which, however, did not occur". We
may draw a tentative conclusion that their calculations were not precise
There are only two pieces of records that are believed to be the lunar
eclipses, and they are successfully reproduced to be the penumbral eclipses.
However it does not seem that the Silla people observed the lunar eclipse
intentionally. We do not know whether this fact is related to the political
reasons or the technical reasons.
Astronomical archives of this period include the History of Koryo , the
Brief History of Koryo. And these records are summarized in the Choson
era into "the Review on the Old Astronomical Records of the Koryo Dynasty"
According to the History of Koryo, the most remarkable observational astronomer
was Oh Yoon-Boo. He was such a passionate observer that he would not sleep
in order to observe the heavenly bodies. Eventually he made a whole sky
star atlas and became famous in the Eastern Asia of the Yuan dynasty. Unfortunately
this atlas is lost.
There remains an old observational station at Kaisung (°³¼º),
the capital city of Koryo. Also there was an royal observatory called Seo-Woon-Kwan
(¼¿î°ü) : an institute for the observations
of astronomical and meteological phenomena.
In this period the Arabic astronomy was introduced to Koryo. One of the
vivid examples is the Zodiac animals engraved on the bronze mirror. In
general it is certain that these figures were originated from the Arab.
Generally speaking the Arabic astronomy was flown into the Eastern countries
with the aid of Buddhism. After the Arab was included into the territory
of the Mongol Empire, the Arabic astronomical knowledge was begun to be
directly imported to Koryo.
For example, in the Yuan dynasty, Shou-Shih-Li, a method of making an astronomical
calendar, was developed by one of the most famous Chinese astronomers Kwok
inspired partly by the Arabic astronomy. Soon Shou-Shih-Li was transferred
to Koryo by the Mongol empire to be written in the History of Koryo.
In this way the Arabic Zodiac came to appear on the bronze mirrors of the
Koryo period. Related with this we note that in Chon-Sang-Yol-Cha-Poon-Ya-Ji-Do
the names of Zodiac are seen.
In contrast to the fact that the Ming dynaty destroyed nearly all the astronomical
achievements of the Mogol empire, the Koryo dynasty preserved and handed
them over to the Choson dynasty, where further significant improvements
Astronomical records of this era are as follows : solar and lunar eclipses,
aurorae, occultations of stars by the Moon, occultations of stars by the
planets, occultations of planets by the Moon, sunspots, comets, novae or
supernovae, and various and numerous meteological phenomena.
Especially an analysis of the sunspot records indicates that those records
have a trend showing the well-known 11 year long-term period and, what
is more, about 100 year period .
As for solar eclipses, among total 132 records 109 are reproduced as real.
There are records that were calculated and predicted but not able to be
observed because of the bad weather. We can infer from these facts that
Koryo people could calculate the solar eclipses as is the case for the
Silla people (Park and La 1994).
As for the lunar eclipses, it is concluded that the Koryo people observed
mainly the umbral eclipses. Among 222 records only a few can not be reproduced
and moreover it is because these are due to mere typographical errors in
history books or the uncertainty of exact year of records. What is more
remarkable is that there are 23 calculated records of lunar eclipses all
of which are reproduced as real phenomena. There are such records as "there
should be a lunar eclipse but couldn't observe because of rain or thick
clouds". Moreover there is a record that "there should be a lunar eclipse
but was not(A.D.1030)", which is reproduced to occur in the morning after
the sunrise. These facts indicate that the Koryo people had the ability
to calculate and predict lunar eclipses even though their computation was
not perfect (Ahn 1997).
We have still a lot of topics to study harder, which may help to unveil
the hidden astronomical history of the Koryo dynasty
On top of the stony coffin of Kwon Jun , 28 Shu was painted, which are
the Eastern asterisms lying on the ecliptic region. These 28 Shu are lunar
mensions approximately corresponding to the Western Zodiac constellations.
It might not be a mere accidental fact that Kwon Jun is the grandfather
of Kwon Keun who played a leading role in the production of Chon-Sang-Yol-Cha-Poon-Ya-Ji-Do.
In these respects the Choson people inherited their astronomical knowledge
and interests on the heaven from the Koryo dynasty.
We can see the historical records of this period mainly in the Real Records
of Choson Dynasty and the Diary of Royal Secretary and so on. For
more than 500 years, they had piled up the valuable and detailed astronomical
records. For example, the Kepler supernova, SN1604, was monitored and reported
daily except possibly for rainy or cloudy days.
However, in spite of its high value as astronomical data, the astronomical
records are not even sorted into to each phenomenon. It is, I think, our
task to study these records scientifically .
a. the First Period
In 1396, Chon-Sang-Yol-Cha-Poon-Ya-Ji-Do was engraved on the big and plain
stone. It is a celestial planisphere sectioned with Cha and Poon-Ya.
Its map projection law is found to be the polar equatorial and equidistance
projection : the linear distance of an object on the map from the center
is linearly proportional to the north polar angular distance. A statistical
analysis shows us that the circumpolar stars whose declinations are larger
than 50 are at the epoch of about 1300. On the other hand the upper culmination
stars whose declinations are lower than 50 are at the epoch of the first
As is inferred from the inscription on the map, its prototypical map could
be made at the Koguryo era. So we can easily understand the prototypical
map of the Koguryo era was revised at 1396 when the map was engraved (Park
\& Ahn 1996).
It is a very notable fact that this planisphere had been a standard one
of the Choson dynasty until the new Western planispheres were introduced
to become standard ones. It had profound influences on the Japanese astronomy.
In the 15th century King Sejong promoted science and technology as an efficient
way to realize the political idealogy, which was also a tradition of old
In this period the famous astronomer Yi Soon-Jee played an important role
in the field of astronomy. In 1442, he and his collaborators, including
Kim Dam, made Chil-Jong-San which is composed of both traditional
and Arabic methods. We may regard Chil-Jong-San as a program to calculate
the positions of five major planets as well as the solar and the lunar
eclipses. As a consequence, using this method they could make an accurate
astronomical calendar. Chil-Jong means the seven luminaries : the Sun,
the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
One of the famous technocrats in this period is Jang Young-sil. He made
an automated clepsydra named Ja-Kyog-Roo and various astronomical instruments.
At the time there were only a few countries who could make such a precise
chlepsydra in the world.
The astronomical activities in this period were led by the government.
They operated a royal observatory, Kwan-Sang-Kam and several observational
stations. Over two hundred scholars were engaged in this institute. Whenever
special celestial phenomena had happened, they quickly observed and reported
the result to King and bureaucrats by official documents, Sung-Pyun-Cheuk-Hoo-Tan-Ja,
meaning "rapid reports on the observations of celestial events." (Yu 1994)
b. the Middle Period
After the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 and the Manchu war of 1636,
most of the Korean astronomical achievements were destroyed. In the mean
time, the new knowledge of the European astronomy started to appear in
Choson, which had been exported to China by the Jesuit missionaries.
In 1631, Jeong Doo-Won brought a telescope from China for the first time
in the Korean history. Since then several other people also brought telescopes
to Choson. However, it is still uncertain whether or not they used these
telescopes to observe the heavenly bodies.
In the 18th century the Korean Renaissance of culture was set in. The scholars
who made a practical approach to the nature and the society came to have
interests in the European science and technology, especially in astronomy.
One of them is Hong Dae-Yong who visited Beijing several times and
contacted European missionaries to gain access to study European astronomy.
In his books he mentioned the rotation of the earth, the infinite Universe,
the existence of E.T., and the Galilean relativity in 1760s. Although a
large part of the knowledge was borrowed from the Western astronomy, some
of his ideas were creative ones. He even made a private observational station
in his own house.
A large number of Official astronomers also played a very important role
in this period. One of them was an observational astronomer Ahn Guk-Bin
who lived in the 18th century. He made a new planisphere which reflected
the changes influenced by European astronomy.
c. the Latter Period
In the 19th century, the Choson dynasty began to decline but the astronomical
Nam Pyong-Gil (1820-1869) and his co-workers made Song-Kyong which is a
star catalog with star atlas. The catalog lists positions and magnitudes
of traditional 1319 stars with their Eastern names and additional 130 stars
near the south celestial pole with their Western names.
Ahn et. al. (1996) identified these stars with the stars in the Yale Bright
Star Catalog (1996). They conclude that Song-Kyong contains an observational
error of a few arc-minute, and that this error is a real observational
error. They also found that its magnitude system is very close to the modern
stellar magnitude system of Pogson's law.
Furthermore, Choi Han-Ki (1803-1877) referred to Hershell's theory on the
structure of the Galaxy, Kant-Laplace theory on the Galaxy formation in
his book, "Dynamic Changes of Stellar Chi " published in 1867. He also
explained in his book, "the interactions between the Spirit and the Creative
Energy ", the refraction of stellar light incident on the atmosphere and
the heliocentric motion of the solar system. It is not an exaggeration
to say that Choi Han-Ki might make a new paradigm to define the modern
When Jung Young-Taik translated and published the history of the Western
astronomy in 1908, the Koreans began to get into contact with the modern
astronomy for the first time.
Unfortunately, in 1910, Choson was pillaged by the Japanese Imperialism.
At the same time, independent developement in astronomy as well as other
cultural parts was highly suppressed.
7. Depressed period (1910-1945)
The first Korean modern astronomer is Dr. Lee Won-Chul. He studied in the
Yonhee college. When he was a senior he had the first chance to contact
the modern astronomy. After graduating from the Yonhee college he went
to the United States of America to study astronomy. He investigated the
pulsating stars. In 1925 he presented the preliminary results at the American
Astronomical Society Meeting. After he obtained his Ph.D. degree in 1926,
he came back to Korea to become a prefessor of astronomy in the Yonhee
college. Unfortunately under the severe political suppression by the Japanese
government-general he had to give up the teaching position.
After the restoration of Korean independence he worked hard to establish
the root of Korean astronomy. He died in 1963. Still some people call "$\eta$
Aql" as "Won-Chul's star" to honor him.
8. Modern times
In 1958 the Department of Astronomy at the Seoul National University was
On the vernal Equinox in 1965, the Korean Astronomical Society (KAS) was
In 1973 the KAS joined the IAU as a regular member.
In 1974 the Korean Astronomy Observatory was established.
In 1978 the Mt. Sobaek Observational Station was constructed. Click to
Mt. Sobaek Observational Station Home page
In 1985 the Taeduk Radio Astronomy Observatory (TRAO) was constructed.
In 1996 the Mt. Bohyunsan Optical Astronomy Observatory (BOAO) was constructed.
My deepest thank goes to Dr. Lee Hee-Won for his valuable comments and
suggestions on the logical context of this work, as well as English. I
also thank Dr. Lee Eun-Hee for her sending me the table for matching a
lunar calendar and the solar calendar and her Ph.D. thesis on Chil-Jong-San.
I am grateful to Mr. Yang Hong-Jin, who provided me with the table on the
old Eastern solar eclipses. It is my pleasure to thank Mr. Pyo Tae-Soo
now in the Tokyo University for the old paper on the identification of
Eastern asterisms in the History of Koryo. I would like to thank Ms. Rita
Kim now in the Princeton University for the paper on the Kepler supernova.