China photos – The Ancient Observatory

Posted by jerry on January 4th, 2005 — Posted in History, Journal, Travel

Continuing my series of photos from the band’s tour to Beijing Nov/Dec 2004, I thought I’d post these…

On 4 December it dawned foggy in Beijing. We took the opportunity to visit the Ancient Observatory. It resides on part of the Beijing City Wall and is topped by several armillary spheres and azimuth instruments in bronze, built by the Jesuits in the 17th century.

Ancient Observatory Beijing
A surreal sight in modern Beijing

The observatory dates back to Kublai Khan’s days when it was situated north of its present location. The Chinese have a long tradition of astrology and consequently have long been keen observers of the heavens.

Ancient Observatory Beijing
Ancient carving depicting a comet

The present observatory was built in 1442 (the 7th year of the Zhengtong reign of the Ming dynasty) to facilitate both astrological purposes and seafaring navigation (the book 1421 discusses the remarkable accuracy of Chinese navigation of the period.)

Ancient Observatory Beijing
Armillary sphere – 1439

The Jesuits were present in the capital from 1601 when Fr Matteo Ricci’s group was allowed to work with Chinese scientists. But the most remarkable of the Jesuits was a Flemish priest called Fr Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) who arrived in Beijing in 1659 as a special advisor to the Qing court to assist in the delicate task of correcting the Chinese calendar.

Ferdinand Verbiest

Shortly after Verbiest arrived in Peking the Jesuits were accused of teaching a false religion and were imprisoned and tortured, pending execution. But in a dramatic reversal of fortune, an earthquake destroyed the part of the palace chosen for the execution, and seen as an omen, the sentence was not carried out and the Jesuits were released. The emperor Kang Hsi later ordered a public debate to ascertain the relative merits of Christian and Moslem astronomy. The debate involved three tests: to determine the shadow of a fixed gnomon, to predict the position of the planets at a fixed time and to predict the exact time of a lunar eclipse which had been expected about that time. The challenge was between the Chinese Moslem, Yang, and the Christian, Verbiest. The Heavens would be the judge. Verbiest had the superior astronomical data and won convincingly – securing him the immediate appointment as chair of the Board of Mathematics.

Of the eight bronze instruments on display six were designed and constructed under Verbiest’s supervision. They were built between 1669 and 1673.

Ancient Observatory Beijing
Azimuth theodolite (1715) for measuring azimuth and altitude of celestial bodies

Ancient Observatory Beijing
Sextant (1673) for measuring angular distance between stars and angular diameter of the sun and moon – one of Verbiest’s instruments.

Ancient Observatory Beijing
Altazimuth (1673) for measuring azimuths of celestial bodies – Verbiest

Ancient Observatory Beijing
Ecliptic Armilla (1673) – another of Verbiest’s instruments – for measuring ecliptic longitude differences and latitude of celestial bodies.

Each of the instruments are supported on fantastic bronze dragons and delicate traceries:

Ancient Observatory Beijing

And here is a view of the observatory museum situated at the base of the observatory. Inside are bronze and brass navigation instruments, model clypsedra (water clocks) and some ancient pottery depicting celestial events.

Ancient Observatory Beijing

The museum also houses the ancient seismograph for registering the occurrence and direction of earthquakes. It was invented in 132AD by Zheng Heng of the Bast Han dynasty.

All in all this was one of the best museums we visited in Beijing – a real gem and well worth a visit!


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