On the Reliability of Han Dynasty Solar Eclipse Records

David W. Pankenier
Astronomical History and Heritage, 2012 vol. 15 no 3 pp. 200--212

The veracity of early Chinese records of astronomical observations has been questioned, principally based on two early studies from the 1950s, which suggested that political motives may have led scholar-officials at court to fabricate astral omens. Here I revisit the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) solar eclipse reports to determine whether the charge has merit for those first four centuries of the imperial period. All 127 dated solar eclipses reported in the official sources are checked for accuracy against the “Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses” produced by Espenak and Meeus (2009). The Han Dynasty records prove remarkably accurate. Copyists‟ errors do occur, but there are only rare instances of totally erroneous reports, none of which is provably the result of politically-motivated manipulation.