Knowledge, Belief and Political Order: The Historical Writing of Aurora in the Medieval World
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Abstract: This paper investigates how the recording of a unique natural phenomenon, aurora, in ancient East Asia reflects the system of knowledge and different ideas of political control. The possibilities of witnessing aurora were much higher in ancient East Asian world than in modern times, which are resulted from the variation of North Geomagnetic Pole and solar activity. The paper approaches the subject through a comparative perspective between the East and West. Specifically, it addresses four aspects: (1) The pattern and criteria of aurora records; (2) The establishment, transmission and transformation of the knowledge of aurora; (3) The origins of the thought and belief on disasters and anomalies associating with the phenomenon of aurora; (4). The institutional, military and social significance of aurora writing. Through a thorough survey of the aurora accounts from the Han to the Northern Song dynasty (3rd century BC to 12th century AD), it reveals a principal pattern: firstly, it describes aurora in details, including the emerging time, location where it was observed, its color and shape, and, secondly, providing an interpretation based on divination. Finally, this interpretation is linked to a specific political event or political figure. This pattern of narrative was forged during the Han, and had been adopted in the subsequent eras with minor variations. The interpretation, which usually treats aurora as a disastrous and anomalous sign, were based on the theory of Yinyang and the Five Elements. It was the cornerstone of aurora writing in traditional China. Notwithstanding in pre-modern European accounts of aurora, there are lots of related myths and legends associated with wars and epidemic diseases. There are similar counterparts in Chinese accounts, except that the later one was formed around the belief system and knowledge structure of Yinyang and the Five Elements theory. The paper provides a new explanation on the “intertwined structure” between knowledge, belief, and political order in East Asian literature. The pattern of aurora depicted in medieval China writings in particular, which links astrology, natural calamities and abnormal natural phenomenon with political event and progress, is also evident in Korea and Japan. It appears that there is a shared knowledge of aurora description and interpretation across East Asian sphere, and it played a vital role in politics, culture, and ideology in East Asia. The conception “East Asian augural sphere” can be conceived as a demonstration of the heavenly divination very different from its perception in pre-modern European cultures.