This Wiktionary article mentions that the term for “planet” is 行星 and that it was “[c]oined by Alexander Wylie and Li Shanlan in 1859,” from characters meaning “travel” and “star,” which makes sense as planets are, to the eye, “traveling stars”—their position changes (slowly) from one night to the next.

I find odd, though, that—if we take the article at face value—there would not have been any word/expression for “planet” before these authors’ work, or even before European contact. Chinese astronomers of long ago saw and reported on their observations of planets—there is, for example, a report of Gan De in the fourth century BCE having observed Jupiter—so they must have used a common word to describe them all, and not just each one by its proper name.

My question is: Was there an earlier word/term/expression that just got “replaced” by 行星? What was it? And how would it translate to English?

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    Just for the record: 行星 is a calque from European languages – the word ‘planet’ itself is Greek (πλανήτης planḗtēs) and means ‘wanderer’, derived from the verb πλανάω planáō ‘wander’. The reason behind the name is as you say, but it was named that way by Ancient Greek astronomers who made the same sort of observations the Chinese did. Commented May 14, 2023 at 2:31
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    could refer to -->philpapers.org/rec/CULUTP-2 Commented May 17, 2023 at 13:05

3 Answers 3


Was there an earlier word/term/expression that just got “replaced” by 行星?


first of all, stars were named “恒星” or “經星” in ancient china

in 公羊傳 莊公七年


the annotation is “恆・常也・常以時列見”

in 穀梁傳 莊公七年


the annotation is “經,常也,謂常列見”

then, the 5 visible planets: venus, jupiter, mercury, mars, saturn (without telescope, naked eyes observation), were named “五星” or “五緯”

“五星”, means five [star|point of light]

“五緯”, means five weft

the metaphor is: in weaving, the warp (經線) is the threads which are held in a frame, while the weft (緯線) is the threads which are passed sideways across the warp

that, primitive observation would be: the five visible planets moved forward, stationed, or backward amongst stars, which are “fixed” on the night sky.

btw, there’s another term “七曜”, roughly “seven shines” to describe sun, moon, venus, jupiter, mercury, mars, saturn together.

have fun :)

  • Your answer seems to sort of contradict your initial statement, in that all the words you give for planets are specifically words for the five visible planets as a whole, not words that actually mean ‘planet’ as such. None of the words 星, 纬 and 曜 on its own means ‘planet’ specifically (as distinct from ‘start’, ‘weft’ and ‘shiny one’) – they only take on that meaning in specific contexts. 行星, conversely, always means ‘planet’. So really it seems to me your answer is that while yes, Chinese had words used to name/describe the known planets, no it didn’t have a word for ‘planet’ as such. Commented May 14, 2023 at 2:42
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    @JanusBahsJacquet, well, “planet”, it means “large, round object in space that moves around a star”. that, in our solar system, earth is also a planet. in ancient china, there’s no notion that earth is a planet. so, “行星” is a translation with modern, scientific meaning. the op asked about “ Was there an earlier word/term/expression that just got “replaced” by 行星? “ the terms provided in my answer are “五星”, “五緯” & “七曜”, chopping them into “星”、”緯”、”曜” and then to comprehend; is inappropriate. reading classical / literary chinese, the context is really important in comprehension, imo 😸 Commented May 14, 2023 at 4:11
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, for comparison, let’s say “i ate a hot dog for lunch”, then, someone chop the “hot dog” into “dog”, and make accusation upon eating dog meat. isn’t it, . . . ridiculous? Commented May 14, 2023 at 4:39
  • could refer to --> philpapers.org/rec/CULUTP-2 Commented May 17, 2023 at 13:06
  • the earliest known surviving Chinese document⤴️ to give a substantive account of the apparent motions of the five visible planets (五星) Commented May 17, 2023 at 13:20

Before the Chinese knew what 行星 was, planets like Jupiter were just 星宿 or simply 星(star) to them.

Before the Chinese knew what Supernova was, they called it 客星 (guest star), and in modern times 客星 was replaced by the direct translation 超新星


Star is 恒星. 恒 means constant, not changing. It says, these 星's relative position to others do not change.

On the contrary, 行星, 行 is walking, ext. to moving. It says, these 星 are "moving" across the sky, compared to the stars.

Before ancient astronomers realize that they are behaving different, they are both called 星, which are those twinkle twinkle things on the night sky, usually also translated to star as of today unless specifically says 行星.

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