Observing the Heavens at Jianguomen
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