As­tron­omy Domine


The World of Chinese - - Cover Story -


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

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