Ancient Observatory 古观象台

Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s coverage of North and East of the Imperial City

Chinese observations of the heavens go back as far as 1300 BCE, and recordings of supernovae and the passage of Halley’s Comet are still being used in astronomical research today. Accurate clocks, essential for proper astronomical and calendrical calculation, were also invented in China, the escapement mechanism being known from at least the 8th century CE. The method of giving co-ordinates to stars, universally used today, is one invented by the Chinese, which superseded in the West a different technique invented by the ancient Greeks. Nevertheless, by the end of the Míng the Chinese were still unable accurately to reconcile the 29½-day lunar month and the 365¼-day solar year. The calendar was a mess, and help was needed from more accurate Western instruments and more advanced mathematics.

The observatory can claim to be one of the oldest in the world, having been established around 1279–96 during the Mongol Yuán dynasty using instruments brought to the city during the Jīn dynasty (1115–1234), nearly 300 years before Europe was to have a similar institution. When the Míng established their capital in Nánjīng in 1368 the instruments went there, but when the Yǒnglè emperor returned the capital to Běijīng he thought it would be disrespectful to the first emperor, buried in Nánjīng, to bring the instruments back. He therefore had copies of some of them made in wood, which then served as the models for new bronze versions. The current observatory is of approximately the same size and scale as a building erected on the same or nearly the same site during the Míng, probably around 1522.

Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) was the first Jesuit to receive permission to reside in Běijīng. Sympathetic to Chinese civilisation, he acquired a detailed knowledge of classical and spoken Chinese and impressed the emperor and Chinese intellectuals with his prodigious memory and scientific skills. He won imperial favour through his map-making and clock-regulating, and imported Western clocks and other high-tech items to use as gifts and to get him past hostile eunuchs.

Adam Schall von Bell, who took over from Ricci in 1622, correctly predicted the 1629 solar eclipse and was appointed to the Board for Calendar Regulation. Although the Manchu Qīng conquered the Míng in 1644, Schall remained in favour and was appointed president of the Board by the first Qīng emperor to reign from Běijīng.

Kāngxī, his successor (reigned 1661–1722), having been taught by Schall, appointed another Jesuit, Ferdinand Verbiest, to assist in reforming the calendar. According to some accounts, when the matter was debated before the emperor by ministers and princes, the Manchus were in favour of Verbiest, while the Chinese officials would rather have had a faulty calendar than one tainted by foreigners (an argument that must have needed tactful phrasing to present to the foreign Manchus). To correct the calendar, Verbiest had to cut out a month, which provoked widespread anti-foreign feeling at its supposed theft.

Verbiest was in charge of the Imperial Astronomical Bureau from 1669 to 1688, and supervised the construction of a collection of Western measuring instruments, which remained with their Chinese counterparts at the observatory until after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

Following the occupation of Běijīng by foreign powers, the French suddenly remembered that some of the instruments had been given to China by Louis XIV and proposed to take them away as spoils of war. The Germans objected, as the observatory was in the ‘German sector’, and insisted that the instruments belonged to them. In fact Louis had donated just one, an altazimuth, but in the end five went to the French Legation until the French were shamed into returning them in 1902. Six went for display in Potsdam, half-scale copies having been made and left in their place.

One minor benefit to China of the Treaty of Versailles, which marked the end of the First World War, was the instruments’ return in 1921. Half of them were to make yet another journey when they were removed to Nánjīng by the Nationalists in 1933 to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Japanese. Although Nánjīng itself was later overrun, they are still on display there.

The remaining instruments stand on a 17m-high plinth once reachable by a link from the now-vanished Tartar City wall. The building is now entered at ground level, and a right turn brings you to a courtyard with reproductions of early instruments. The first hall on the right has a well-displayed exhibition of early Chinese astronomical observation with English explanations. The instrument platform is reached by a brick staircase opposite the courtyard. Eight of the massive bronze instruments remain, up to 2m in diameter, including an ecliptic armilla, altazimuth, quadrant, azimuth theodolite, sextant, and equatorial armilla. Each has an explanation of its purpose in English, and all are impressive due to their size and decoration, their supporting struts often cast as writhing dragons.

Gǔ Guāngxiàngtái, Jiànguó Mén Dōng Biǎobèi Hútòng 2, t 6524 2202,, 9am–4.30pm, Tue–Sun. ¥20. m Jiànguó Mén (Lines 1 & 2) exit C. b to 北京站口东: 1, 特2, 37, 52, 90电车内环, 99, 120, 126, 420, 637, 666, 728. Rather more high-tech displays of current knowledge of the heavens and the machinery for obtaining it can be seen at the Běijīng Planetarium. The bilingual tombstones of Ricci, Schall, and other Jesuit advisors to emperors can be seen at the Jesuit Cemetery.

Next in North and East of the Imperial City: CCTV Headquarters
Previously: Ancestral Temple of Yú Qiān
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.