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In Chapter 64 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon, there is a humorous telling of a story about ancient Chinese astronomy. In this story, two imperial astronomers, Hsi and Ho, embarrassed the Emperor by failing to predict a solar eclipse. For this neglience, they almost got themselves executed.

A quick Google search found several western references to this story. The Pynchon wiki, for example, cites a French source. So Pynchon didn’t make it up. But I was still not satisfied. Where can I find this pair of unfortunate astronomers in a Chinese document?

I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about Chinese history to figure it out, but a friend quickly pointed me to《尚書》(also known as Book of Documents in English). Interestingly, this book of ancient Chinese history is sometimes claimed to be one of the earliest written records of solar eclipses in human history (specifically, the eclipse in the year 2134 BC, during the reign of Emperor Chung K’ang). However, parts of the book have been found to be fabricated in the 3rd century AD, so that claim might be questionable. I personally don’t trust any history about the semi-mystical Xia Dynasty.

But anyway, let’s return to Hsi and Ho. In a chapter in《尚書》called 《胤征》, we have



So, indeed, a man named 胤 led a troop to kill 羲和 (Hsi-Ho), because this 羲和 was too drunk to pay any attention to the skies. What’s strange about this passage is that 羲和 seems to be the name of one person. I don’t see any references to two astronomers!

Further googling (for example, I found this article) suggested that the idenity of this Hsi-Ho is quite complicated. It appears that in a different chapter in《尚書》, 羲和 is said to be two brothers who were commanded to be in charge of astronomy by the mythical king 堯. These two gentlemen are said to be stationed at different locations, so they couldn’t really goof around together in the capital city as described in the novel. But in other Chinese sources, 羲和 is one person - the Chinese version of Apollo. 羲和 can also refer to a goddess - the mother of the Sun. In some Chinese dynasties, it can also refer to one or two two government positions.

This is all pretty obscure. I certainly had never heard of it before reading Mason & Dixon. I don’t know how this story found its way to the west. Thomas Pynchon is obviously the master of all things obscure, but I still find it pretty surprising that he managed to weave 尚書 into an epic about American history.