Ob­serv­ing the Heav­ens at Jian­guomen

China Today (English) - - CHINA WATCH - By BRIAN SAL­TER

THE walls at Jian­guomen Sta­tion give you a hefty clue of what at­trac­tions are in the area be­fore you’ve even ex­ited the train. In com­mon with many other sub­way sta­tions in Bei­jing, you can get a pretty good idea of what fa­mous mon­u­ments are close by, sim­ply by look­ing at the tiles or mo­saics that dec­o­rate the plat­forms.

A passer-by might be sur­prised to see an an­cient ob­ser­va­tory sit­u­ated on the top of a fort-like build­ing at Jian­guo Gate, with some ar­chaic in­stru­ments clearly vis­i­ble on the sky­line; but the Bei­jing An­cient Ob­ser­va­tory is a pre-tele­scopic ob­ser­va­tory lo­cated just around the corner from Exit C of the sta­tion.

In 1421 the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644) moved its cap­i­tal to Bei­jing and the ob­ser­va­tory was built along the city wall the fol­low­ing year. As the Em­peror was re­garded as the Son of Heaven, the move­ments of the heavenly bod­ies were highly sig­nif­i­cant, so the ob­ser­va­tory was built to serve the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) as­tronomers in their star-gaz­ing re­ports that they pre­pared for the Em­peror.

Another of its func­tions was to as­sist with sea nav­i­ga­tion, and to this end, Mus­lim schol­ars were re­cruited for their ex­per­tise. How­ever, in the mid-17th cen­tury, af­ter win­ning an as­tron­omy con­test, the Je­suit Fer­di­nand Ver­biest (1623-1688) was awarded com­plete charge of the ob­ser­va­tory by the em­peror. In 1673, he su­per­vised the re­build­ing of some of the in­stru­ments; and he and other Je­suits helped to fur­ther de­velop the ob­ser­va­tions of the stars and plan­ets.

Ac­tu­ally, the orig­i­nal name of this place was the Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Heaven Ob­ser­va­tory. It was changed to Con­stel­la­tion Ob­ser­va­tory (or lit­er­ally “Plat­form of Star Watch­ing”) in 1442 by Em­peror Ying­zong of the Ming Dy­nasty and known sim­ply as the Ob­ser­va­tory in the Qing Dy­nasty. The name was fur­ther changed to “Cen­tral Ob­ser­va­tory” af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1911.

The Jian­guomen ob­ser­va­tory is the only sur­viv­ing ex­am­ple among the sev­eral ob­ser­va­to­ries con­structed dur­ing the Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming, and Qing dy­nas­ties. The ob­ser­va­tory it­self is lo­cated on a 15 me­ter high brick plat­form of about 40x40 square me­ters, which is one of the few sur­viv­ing por­tions of the old Ming-era city wall that once en­cir­cled Bei­jing. Eight huge, but or­nately carved, bronze as­tro­nom­i­cal in­stru­ments can be found on this plat­form, while oth­ers are lo­cated at ground level. All have been well pre­served since the time of the Qing Dy­nasty. You can clearly see the con­flu­ence of cul­tures of ori­en­tal crafts­man­ship and Euro­pean Re­nais­sance in the de­sign of th­ese in­stru­ments, which in­clude a ce­les­tial globe, a dragon quad­rant, an eclip­ti­cal armil­lary sphere, and an az­imuth theodo­lite.

The Quad­rant, built in 1673, was used to mea­sure the al­ti­tudes and

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