Astronomy in China: The Pekin Observatory, 1888


Observatoire de Peking (c. 1790).

Work this week has necessitated going through more 19th-century journals. For a while now I’ve had some downloaded copies of Scientific News, a kind of London equivalent of Scientific American, but I hadn’t noticed this particular article until I had to look through it again. The uncredited piece describes the ancient astronomical instruments at the observatory in the heart of Beijing, China (or “Pekin” as they have it here). Armillary spheres always catch my attention, and the Beijing ones are splendid examples supported by ornamental dragons. The text is informative but also mildly condescending as most discussion of China or Japan at this time tended to be. The piece includes some nice engraved illustrations of the instruments (scroll down), all of which can still be seen today surrounded by a city which the Chinese of 1888 would no longer recognise.

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VICE-ADMIRAL MOUCHEZ has just received from Pekin, for the Astronomical Museum which he has founded in connection with the Observatory of Paris, a series of photographs representing the Pekin Observatory and the instruments there erected. By the courtesy of our contemporary La Nature we are enabled to place these curious views before our readers, and thus give them an exact idea of the present state of astronomy in the nation which has cultivated it with the greatest zeal, for the longest time, and among whom it has received the most remarkable developments.

Astronomical functions have not ceased to be held in honour in China, and the Observatory of the Celestial Empire is at present under the direction of an uncle of the Emperor, who ranks as the fifth prince of the blood, and bears the title of Chancellor.

The number of persons attached to this establishment is more considerable than that at Paris. It amounts, including students, to 196. The chief functionaries after the Chancellor are a Chinese director and a Tartar director, having the right to wear a button of a precious stone, and to bear on the chest the image of a sea-raven. Then follow two sub-directors, one Chinese and one Tartar, and two assistants entrusted with calculations. These latter, prior to the expulsion of the Jesuits, were always foreigners. Two other functionaries require to be noted. The first is the keeper of the buildings, and the second the custodian of the water-clocks, as chronometers have not been as yet introduced into the observatory, any more than have telescopes.

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