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Orion’s love affair, Shen Xiu’s long-distance friendship on Taiwan’s winter sky

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Orion chases the moon as it sets in the horizon. (P.K. Chen GIF)

Orion chases the moon as it sets in the horizon. (P.K. Chen GIF)

The most obvious and easily recognizable constellation in winter’s night sky is Orion. As long as one can find a location away from air pollution or street lamps after dark, one can find the hunter-shaped bright stars in the southern sky.

In Greek mythology, the personified hunter falls in love with the moon goddess Artemis, but offends the queen of the gods, Hera, for boasting of invincibility. Hera thus sends Scorpius to assassinate him.

Imagine lying on the beach of Kenting on a winter night, watching the moon inch more and more towards Orion, as though making love to him. Every night, the two get closer to each other due to the moon’s orbital path around Earth before gradually separating.
Orion’s love affair, Shen Xiu’s long-distance friendship on Taiwan’s winter sky
In this image, the moon is three days from meeting with Orion. (P.K. Chen photo)

Yet just before dawn, when Scorpius pokes its head out from the eastern horizon, Orion rushes to clean up and leave, hiding behind the western horizon.

Interestingly, a similar story was told in ancient China. The Greek constellation Orion is called “Shen Xiu” (參宿, “The Three Stars”) in China; “Shen” or “three” refers to the three stars on Orion’s belt, while “Xiu” or “place for rest” refers to where the moon remains fixed and “rests.”

Du Fu (杜甫), a renowned Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty once lamented not seeing a friend for several years by writing, “We are separated in life, like the constellations Shen and Shang (商) rising and falling against each other.” The constellation “Shen” refers to Orion, while the constellation “Shang” is the equivalent of Scorpius.

The fact that ancient people from both the East and the West personified and told stories about the two constellations makes such an intriguing coincidence.

Now, when you look up to the sky and see Orion shining above, you can imagine the dashing hunter and how flustered he becomes as he makes his exit at dawn. Or, you can see Shen Xiu and engage in an exchange with a poet across a millennium.

Orion’s love affair, Shen Xiu’s long-distance friendship on Taiwan’s winter sky
Orion makes its way toward the western horizon. (P.K. Chen GIF)

Orion’s love affair, Shen Xiu’s long-distance friendship on Taiwan’s winter sky
The Big Dipper points to and revolves around Polaris. (P.K. Chen GIF)

(Translation by Stephanie Chiang)

Chen Pei-kung (陳培堃), known among amateur astronomers as P.K. and children as Star Peter Pan, is a renowned photojournalist and astrophotographer. His writing and photography have been frequently featured in the American Sky & Telescope Magazine, the Japanese Tenmon Guide, and major Taiwanese newspapers and magazines. In 1985, atop Jade Mountain, he became the first person in Taiwan to photograph Halley’s Comet.