Dōng 東 ‘East’ and the Chinese “Indian Circle”

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Jonathan Smith



The Chinese character ⟨東⟩, writing a word meaning ‘east’, is shown here to have arisen in connection with the use of the vertical gnomon in the determination of cardinal direction. The simple geometric procedure involved—by Al-Bīrūnī (973–1048) termed the “Indian Circle”—is attested across a number of other early cultural contexts, and has a Chinese history traceable from classical-era technical treatises such as the “Kǎogōng jì” 考工記 to sixth-century commentary to the mathematical text Shùshù jìyí 數術記遺 . Evidence offered below constitutes the first direct indication for such a practice in second-millennium BCE China .

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