WHEN CIVILIZATIONS COLLIDE OVER THE STARS, THERE IS NOTHING LEFT TO DO BUT DECLARE BATTLE…TO THE DEATH!
knew that astronomy could be so dangerous? In the winter of 1668 to 1669, four European priests sat in a cold, prison cell in the imperial capital in Peking. The eldest, a German called Johann Adam Schall von Bell (汤若望), was unwell, having suffered a stroke after being sentenced to execution by slow slicing. His Flemish protégé, Ferdinand Verbiest (南怀仁), attended to the stricken Schall, while their two companions, Italian Jesuit Ludovico Buglio and Portuguese priest Gabriel de Magalhães, consoled themselves by writing letters they hoped would exonerate them and their Chinese colleagues, and spare them a gruesome fate.
For over 20 years, Schall had served as the Director of the Calendar Bureau— ever since he had refused to flee the capital during the Manchu invasion. Schall had updated an imperial calendar, which had not seen major revision in over 250 years, impressing the new Qing regent Dorgon (多尔衮) with his mathematical prowess. Over time, Schall became a favorite of Dorgon’s nephew, the young Shunzhi Emperor (顺治皇帝), who saw Schall as both teacher and friend, bestowing imperial titles and ranks on the foreign missionary and even, according to some sources, referring to Schall affectionately as “Grandpa.”
But the Shunzhi Emperor died of smallpox in 1661. His son, the Kangxi Emperor (康熙皇帝), was still only a boy and his regent, Oboi (鳌拜), dominated the court much as Dorgon had done in Shunzhi’s early years. Oboi was suspicious of Schall’s influence and sympathetic to officials who were concerned about having a foreigner in charge of something as important as the calendar. Sure, Schall was good with mathematical tricks, but how could he understand the ritual and cultural significance of auspicious dates for important events like weddings and funerals? Moreover, Schall and his assistants were Christians.
Schall also had his own troll: Yang Guangxian (杨光先), who was a scholar of sorts, a former guardsman and self-taught astrologer with aspirations of serving at the Qing court. He wrote several memorials to the throne accusing Schall of high treason, of being the leader of a heterodox cult, and of making critical errors in selecting auspicious dates. Yang and his supporters charged that Schall had chosen an inauspicious occasion for the burial of an infant prince who had died in 1658. This lapse in astronomical judgment was then blamed for the untimely death, two years later, of the child’s mother, the Consort Donggo, who had been a favorite of the Shunzhi Emperor.
In November 1664, Oboi ordered Schall removed from his post, stripped of all titles, and imprisoned, along with his three fellow Jesuits and their staff, to await execution. After a lengthy winter incarceration, the court took mercy and commuted their punishment to banishment. Oboi, in the market for a new astronomical bureau chief, appointed Yang Guangxian to take the place of the disgraced Schall, who died soon after.
But it didn’t take long for Yang’s incompetence to catch up with him. In 1667, Yang brought back a flawed traditional calendar for what would be the Roman year 1668 and made revisions that even the 13-year-old Kangxi Emperor could see were a bit off. The Emperor defied Oboi, and invited Verbiest, Schall’s principal assistant, to the court to inspect the calendar. The Kangxi Emperor subjected Verbiest and Yang to a series of tests over who could produce the most accurate calendar for the coming year. Ultimately, Verbiest’s calculations were chosen and promulgated throughout the empire. Yang was removed from office and condemned to face his own grisly execution. Eventually, the emperor settled for dismissing Yang and sending him home in disgrace, though he died enroute.
Verbiest was appointed to the Calendar Bureau, although at a lower rank than Schall once held, continuing a tradition of Jesuit astronomers serving the Qing court that would last until 1805. - JEREMIAH JENNE
He knows everything, people say—you only have to ask. “Is this fungus edible?” “What’s the name of that insect?” “Are these fish male or female?” Whether the subject is entomology, zoology, botany, or even epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), Weibo users have been saying it for years: “Bowu Jun (博物君) has the answers.”
Bowu Jun, or “Man of Natural History,” is the nickname given to “Natural History Magazine,” a socialmedia account that has probably done more to help popularize science education than a dozen state-sponsored exhibitions, documentaries, or publications. With over eight million followers, Bowu Jun cuts a scientific swath through the usual clutter of Meitu-enhanced selfies, self-conscious jokes, and celebrity sponsored content that populates Weibo, China’s blend of Twitter and Instagram.
To many, Bowu Jun is a walking encyclopedia, an omniscient “god.” On China’s most popular Q&A platform Zhihu, the question “How does Bowu Jun know everything?” has triggered heated discussion, with over 180,000 views. Some claim with certainty that there is no Natural History Man, and the account is run by the entire staff at Natural History magazine.
But Bowu Jun is, in fact, one man: Zhang Chenliang, a 29-year-old editor at Natural History. “Except for an intern who helps me to collect the questions, the account is just run by me,” says Zhang, who holds a master’s degree in agricultural entomology (he adds that a friend occasionally takes over the account when he’s away on business).
Growing up, Zhang used to catch and observe insects, and make his own specimens. “Later, I also fell in love with plants and animals,” he recalls. “I can’t say when this fondness started, just like you can’t tell when you first began to
love music or movies.”
He considered an academic career, but felt the climate in China wasn’t good enough, and the work too dry anyway. In 2011, Zhang began interning at Natural History and was assigned, in time-honored intern tradition, to run their Weibo account, which had about 20,000 followers at the time. “I was just told to post routine stuff, like promoting our new issue,” says Zhang. “But I thought that I should try to attract more followers.”
He experimented with a few ideas, but realized that in order to provoke interest in scientific knowledge, it was important to be engaging. “In many cases, even when a science writer feels what he’s written is already very easy to understand, it’s still not approachable enough,” Zhang explains. “You need to write about things relate to people.” The late essayist and short-story writer Wang Zengqi is a figure Zhang admires, because he could make any topic seem interesting. “Wang would write about something like growing grapes,” says Zhang, “and you never felt that he was writing a ‘science article.’ But after you read it, you’d learn something.”
Before long, Zhang figured out his approach: Solicit questions— on almost any topic related to the magazine—and publicly answer them. The first, he remembers, was about a lizard. “I didn’t answer very well,” he says. “I gave the Latin name and introduced its living habits in detail. The answer was very long, leaving no space to forward. Until now, that post has not been shared or commented on much.”
Answering questions helped him shrink the distance from his audience. At first Zhang tried to appeal to “cuteness,” which helped him communicate, but also undermined his sense of authority. “So I turned to a ‘cold and elegant’ style,” says Zhang, “which means I just talked normally, as in daily life. Surprisingly, people liked it.”
In 2013, Zhang had a hit. A series of viral photos appeared to show small animals behaving like humans—a frog using a leaf an umbrella; a gecko seemingly dancing—and delighting many netizens, who tagged Zhang’s Bowu Jun account for his opinion. Zhang quickly determined that the photographs, by photographer Shikhei Goh, were almost certainly staged using wire and photo-editing software. “It was apparent to me that those animals were forced to pose, in a cruel way,” says Zhang. He collected the pictures, and published a longform Weibo post, revealing how the pet-store critters were mistreated and accusing the photographer of animal abuse. Titled “Indefensible Indonesian Photographer Staging Pictures,” the viral post was shared more than 500,000 times, doubling Bowu Jun’s following from 50,000 to 100,000.
Zhang began publishing a “Weibo phenology” series, which focused on
seasonal subjects and plant life—the yellow-flowered Oriental Paperbush in February, magnolias in March, the smoke tree whose shrubs have a pink “puffball” appearance in May before turning a smoky red-orange in autumn. As Bowu Jun’s popularity grew, sales of Natural Magazine soared from some tens of thousands of copies in 2011 to a steady circulation of around a quarter-million. In 2016, Zhang published Notes on an Illustrated Handbook of Marine Animals, which became a bestseller.
Though Zhang has yet to acquire the reach of American popularscience celebrities like Bill Nye or Neil degrasse Tyson, he’s kept busy working as a full-time editor, writer, and proofreader for scientific papers, and has less time for being Bowu Jun than he’d like. “In the past, I always tried to answer all the questions I received, like some type of OCD. But now it’s impossible,” Zhang says. The account receives hundreds of questions every day, so Zhang has to choose to answer what he thinks will be most relevant to readers: “It should be some common, representative species that others feel that they can encounter in real life. Also, it’s best to have accurate and detailed descriptions [in the question], with photos, or I can’t figure out what they’re talking about.”
Submissions can range from the mundane—“a picture of an earthworm, or a pigeon”—to the absurd. “Someone told me that he saw the Tian’anmen Rostrum floating in the air,” says Zhang. “I really don’t know what that was.”
Some netizens didn’t really care about science: In 2013, Zhang wrote that popularizing natural science in a food-obsessed country was not for the faint of heart, because no matter how hard he tries to present knowledge in an interesting way, some people always want to know, “Can you eat it; is it tasty; how do you cook it?”—comments he summarizes by their initial characters, “能好怎” (“Can? Tasty? How?”).“i don’t like to see so many comments having nothing to do with science on my Weibo,” admits Zhang. But for such a popular account, “it’s unavoidable; just because they follow [my account] doesn’t means they are really my ‘followers.’”
Popular science has a long way to go in China before it can match the levels of enthusiasm shown elsewhere, and many believe Zhang, with his “Big V” profile and following, can do more. But the man behind Bowu Jun wants to keep his feet firmly on the ground he so enjoys examining. “Maybe even after Weibo has disappeared, when people look back, they will say ‘Bowu Jun was a good account. I learned some knowledge from it,’” he says. His own goals are also modest: “to do more work, whether writing or translating. Maybe in the future when people talk about good books they read in their childhood, some will be written by me. I want to leave something to this field, and live up to my identity as a science practitioner.”
A Panthousexcellens Stål, taken in Medog County, Tibet, 2011
Specimens of Utriculariasandersonii and Drosera carnivorous plants
A portrait of Johann Adam Schall von Bell
A five-horned rhinoceros beetle, taken in Tangmai, Tibet, 2011
Zhang taking photos of lichen on Mount Rainier in the US, 2017