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An anecdote from the 3rd century about the Northern and Southern Dippers


On a visit to Pingyuan,[1] Guan Lu [209-256] noticed that Yan Chao’s physiognomy showed signs of premature death. Yan’s father begged [Guan] Lu to extend [his son’s] life. [Guan] Lu said, “Go home and find a bottle of clear liquor and a catty[2] of venison jerky. On the day of mao,[3] under a big mulberry tree in the south of reaped wheat fields, there will be two men playing Go. Just serve your liquor and jerky. Refill their cups when they are empty until your liquor is finished. When [they] question you, just prostrate yourself without a word. There should be someone who saves you.”


Yan [Chao] went there as instructed and indeed saw two men playing Go. [He] served them jerky and liquor. Absorbed in the game, the two men simply drank and ate without looking [at him].


After several games, the man sitting on the north side suddenly noticed Yan [Chao] was there and shouted, “What are you doing here?” Yan [Chao] simply prostrated himself before them. The man sitting on the south side said, “Just now [we] enjoyed his drink and jerky, how can [we] be so unsympathetic?” The man on the north side said, “The register is final.” The man on the south side said, “Let me have a look.” Having seen that [Yan] Chao’s life would end at the age of nineteen, [he] took a brush and reversed the number,[4] saying, “[I] save you so that you live for ninety years.” Yan [Chao] paid his respects and returned.


Guan [Lu] said to Yan [Chao], “[They] helped you a great deal, and [you] are lucky enough to have a longer life. The man sitting in the north is the Northern Dipper,[5] and the one in the south is the Southern Dipper.[6] The Southern Dipper registers lives, whereas the Northern Dipper controls deaths. All mortals conceived pass from the Southern Dipper to the Northern Dipper, and all their requests are directed to the Northern Dipper.”

* From Gan Bao 干寶 (d. 336), Soushen ji 搜神記 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979), 3.33-34. For an alternative translation, see Kenneth J. DeWoskin and James I. Crump, In Search of the Supernatural: The Written Record (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 32f (

[1] Pingyuan county was located in the modern province of Shandong. [2] A jin 斤 (catty) was about 220 grams at that time. [3] Mao 卯 is the fourth element in the dizhi 地支 (Earthly Branches) system. The traditional Chinese calendar uses a sexagenary cycle created by combining the ten Heavenly Stems (tiangan 天干) and twelve Earthly Branches (sixty possible combinations in total) to tell hours and dates. [4] As in Arabic numerals, the word nineteen in Chinese, shijiu 十九 (ten [and] nine), can be easily changed to ninety, jiushi 九十 (nine tens), by reversing the two component numerals. [5] The Big Dipper is commonly known as beidou 北斗 (Northern Dipper) in East Asia. [6] Nandou 南斗 (Southern Dipper) refers to douxiu 斗宿 (Mansion of Dipper), one of the twenty-eight mansions in Chinese constellations. It is composed of six stars located in the Western constellation Sagittarius.

A relief carving from a Han dynasty tomb excavated in Henan, showing the six stars of the Southern Dipper on the left end and the seven stars of the Northern Dipper on the right end.

Figures in this image:

God of the moon White Tiger Huangdi/Yellow Thearch Azure Dragon God of the sun

Image from Huang Yafeng 黃雅峰 ed., Nanyang Qilingang Han huaxiangshimu 南陽麒麟崗漢畫像石墓 (Xi'an: San Qin chubanshe, 2008), Plate 63.


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