Institute of Archaeology


Chinese astronomical systems in the south pacific

10:00 am to 12:30 pm, 04 June 2018

CCHS seminar by Frederick Damon (University of Virginia)

Event Information

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Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL, Room 20, Wilkins Building (South Wing)

Frederick Damon (University of Virginia) will give a seminar organised by the Centre for Critical Heritage Studies at UCL on 4 June.


This presentation is a progress report on a comparison between a representative South Pacific social system the speaker has been studying since 1973 and a synthetic view of China. Research conducted during the summer of 2017 revealed unexpected correspondences between how China conforms itself to its idea of heaven (Tian/天) and a local Melanesian cosmological system. Although the resemblances are most exact concerning respective understandings of the Milky Way (天河/银河), more interesting questions concern possible similarities between China's 28 Mansions (Xiu 宿) and what first appear to be navigational understandings among the islands of the Kula Ring in what is now eastern Papua New Guinea. There people understand every island to be under a star.

How does this understanding relate to the transformation of the 28 Mansions over a model of China, a formulation which also positions every place under a star? Among other things the Chinese practice was one of many ways Chinese culture totalized its spatio-temporal realities. What were these systems? How did they work? And how were they transposed to the new environments the peoples of East Asia, insistently searching for new crevices of life, have sought to occupy over the last 6000 years? Although the textual study of Chinese astronomy only extends back about 4000 years, an implication of this study is that fundamentals of what we know of the Chinese system were in place by 6000 years ago, when the Austronesian expansion began from what is now Fujian Province.


Frederick Damon earned his PhD in anthropology from Princeton University and has been teaching in the University of Virginia's Anthropology Department since 1976-77. Altogether he has carried out 49 months of residence/research on Muyuw, or Woodlark Island, in eastern Papua New Guinea and close to a year in China, mostly in the vicinity of Quanzhou in Fujian Province. Although he is formally a Melanesianist, he has participated in UVa's China interests since an original MOU was established between UVa and the Yunnan Nationalities Institute in the 1980s. His current research started in 1991, the year of his first visit to Taiwan and Yunnan. His environmental research during the 1990s pulled him closer to East Asian and Pacific history, eventually to the Austronesian expansion out of south-eastern China, and from that to Quanzhou, a proximate location for continuing East Asian thrusts into the Pacific. Although his Chinese research was originally conceived as a separate project, as Chinese scholars pulled him into the centers of Chinese culture and its history unavoidable similarities between the two regions came to light. The last chapter of his 2017 book, TREES, KNOTS AND OUTRIGGERS, "Geometries of Motion," shows how the paramount conceptual structure that is an outrigger boat ties together earth and heaven in a way similar to most Chinese temples.