The upcoming total eclipse has people in a frenzy — with airfares spiking to total eclipse zones and “eclipse sunglasses” selling out — but we’re far from the first ones to be fascinated by the obscuring of the sun’s rays. A 15th- to 16th-century Chinese manuscript compendium, currently available for purchase from Jonathan A. Hill, Bookseller, records prognostications related to astronomic phenomena, including the possible meanings of eclipses.
The compendium, entitled Yu zhi tian yuan yu li xiang yi fu (“Essay on the Astronomical & Meteorological Presages by Emperor Renzong of Ming Dynasty”) spans more than 800 pages and 10 volumes, with the pages filled with illustrations documenting these phenomena. Besides eclipses, the pages contain comets, fish rain, flames coming out of the earth, dragons in the sky, and the moving of mountains. More mundane entries can also be found, including the movement of the plants and the locations of constellations in the sky. Many of these illustrations depict pastoral landscapes marred by an impending cosmic calamity, while others seem prescient of the aesthetics of centuries later — one page, depicting “concentric haloes,” calls to mind the atomic diagrams and Op-art of the mid-20th century.
The manuscript was prepared for the Emperor Ming Renzong (or Chu Kao Chih or Zhu Gaochi) (1378–1425), and was intended for circulation among his high officials. Ming Renzong had a reign of only nine months, but was considered an enlightened leader who established a legacy of improvements in that short time. The prognostications on these pages were written by Zhu Xi (Zhu Wengong) (1130–1200), a thinker considered second only to Confucius in Chinese history, and other Confucian scholars.
Founded in 1978, Jonathan A. Hill, Bookseller is based in New York City and offers books from the famous and canonical — in the past, they’ve sold first editions of texts by Aristotle, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein, among others — to the unusual and esoteric.
Particularly fascinating are a set of diaries that chronicle the lives of four members of a prominent Bavarian family, among them a notorious libertine. Joseph von Chlingensberg auf Berg (May 26, 1777–May 24, 1830), the son of prominent lawyer Joseph Maria Bernhard von Chlingensberg (1749–1811).
The younger Joseph recorded the last 30 years of his life in his diaries, often recording multiple entries in a single day. All details of his life are faithfully recorded — from the mundane goings-on of running a household, to his prodigious sexual escapades, which were coded in cipher. His exploits are recorded in pornographically crude language — yet he also had a sentimental side. “I had time to leisurely take my leave amid 100 kisses from the woman who is so eternally and unforgettably dear to my heart, and who alone could be my happiness on earth,” he wrote on September 7, 1807. (There are also plenty of diary entires that are not about kissing.)
Visit Jonathan A. Hill, Bookseller’s website to explore their full catalogue of fascinating offerings.