The Ancient and Modern Chinese Universe

See the project's overview page for a full description.

Observing the Observatories

My time in China has been nothing short of amazing and fascinating. Being able to visit so many historical sites such as the Forbidden City and the Presidential Palace was something I had only dreamed of. The highlight of the trip, however, was the invaluable opportunity to visit the space observatories of old and new in China.

The first observatory we visited was the Ancient Beijing Observatory (ABO). As the name implies, the observatory is no longer functional, but was built in the 15th century during the Ming Dynasty, and was further expanded during the Qing Dynasty. It underwent a major facelift when the Jesuits came to China in 1644, introducing many more new, accurate astronomical instruments. With a history of over 600 years, the ABO is one of the oldest observatories in the world. Instruments, which included the astronomical sextant and azimuth theodolite were stolen by the Eight-Nation Alliance during the later stages of the Qing dynasty, and were only returned near the end of World War I.

The second observatory we visited was the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory (SHAO). Functioning as both a museum and an actual observatory, its pride and joy is the 65m Sheshan Radio Telescope, otherwise known as tianma (天马), which has been operating since 2012. Fourth largest in the world and largest in Asia, the telescope scans the sky to observe radio wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum from space, obtaining information about cosmic objects such as black holes and quasars. Currently, the astronomers are studying pulsars, radiation emitted from black holes, in hopes of calculating the mass of black holes. The SHAO museum is also home to a 1.65m optical telescope, given to the Chinese by Jesuits. It was in operation until pollution and weather conditions in Shanghai made studying the sky with it untenable.

The Purple Mountain Observatory (PMO) in Nanjing was the final observatory we had the chance to visit. Established in 1934, it is known as the “cradle of modern astronomy in China”, an accolade it bears as the first modern astronomical institute in China, and subsequently originator of most sub disciplines of Chinese astronomy. Many original ancient tools, such as the gnomon and the armillary sphere, peppered its grounds. Of note, the observatory is home to more than a hundred asteroids, which we had a chance to study. PMO is heavily involved in the research of high-energy astrophysics, solar physics and space space exploration technology. At the end of this year, PMO plans to launch China’s first astronomical satellite to study the mysterious dark matter.

The three observatories truly live up to our Week 7 project title: The Ancient and Modern Chinese Universe. Across the three observatories tell a story of the Chinese advances of astronomy and cosmology; beginning with Beijing, we see the ancient Chinese methodologies and equipment, far advanced for their age, leading to many accurate observations about the sky. The Suzhou Star Chart, for instance, accurately maps the locations of the stars vis-a-vis the Chinese sky.

In contrast, Shanghai represents the modern frontier of astrophysics in China; the 65m radio telescope is one of China’s proudest achievements to date. Linked together with three other satellites in the country, China is able to make fascinating discoveries of the modern universe.

If Beijing is the ancient world and Shanghai the modern, Nanjing is, quite fittingly as the old capital of China, the synthesis of the two worlds. Home to many of the ancient equipment utilised by the Chinese, Nanjing is also the birthplace of many new advances in modern Chinese astrophysics, painting an inspiring picture of present astronomers drawing ideas from their predecessors.


“About Us—-Purple Mountain Observatory, CAS.” Purple Mountain Observatory, CAS. Accessed October 5, 2015.
“History—-Shanghai Astronomical Observatory,Chinese Academy of Sciences.” History—-Shanghai Astronomical Observatory,Chinese Academy of Sciences. Accessed October 5, 2015.
“Royal Commonwealth Society : Sir Henry Norman Far East Collection, circa 1890.” Cambridge Digital Library. Accessed October 5, 2015.

Ancient Chinese astronomy

I went to China for my week 7 project. ‘ So you are going back?’, lots of people did not quite understand why this program was my first prioritised choice. There are in fact a few reasons. I am interested in astronomy and I want to know how the Chinese astronomy evolved from its ancient period to the current status. Also, I want to see China from a different perspective. I am really curious how China and the Chinese culture are viewed by the outside world.

Our trip started on Sep.22. The first city we headed for, Beijing, was one of the most historical cities in China. I am not the sentimental type but Beijing gave me a nostalgic vibe as soon as I got there. Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven… all those names reminded me of the summer I spent there when I was young. But I knew this trip was going to be different from any of the other trips I had before, since I was with people of the smartest minds in the world.

At Forbidden City, Beijing

We visited the Forbidden city and Temple of Heaven on the second day of our trip. And I was so thrilled to learn about the connection between the ancient Chinese architecture and the Chinese astronomy. For instance, the name of the purple forbidden city, “Zijincheng” in Chinese, is related to the Ziwei enclosure in Chinese constellation, where the emperor of the heaven lived.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

 To understand more about the ancient Chinese’s belief in Heaven, we also went to visit the Temple of Heaven. In the tradition of ancient China, people believed that the universe or the heaven was of vital importance that it had the power to change the fate of a single person, a family or even a country. The ancient Chinese people took observing the sky as a way to understand the divinity of the heaven. The emperors of ancient China believed that if there were something unusual in the constellation, a great event was sure to occur, either a boon or a catastrophe. So the emperors would hold ceremonies at the temple of Heaven to show respect for the sky. It is very intriguing that in the temple of heaven, the numbers of different objects all enjoy some special meanings. For instance, in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, ‘Qiniandian’ in Chinese, there are 4 immense pillars, symbolising the four seasons. And there are also 12 different sections in the hall, representing the 12 months of the year and the 12 time divisions of the day and night.

image by microfotos
image by microfotos

Also, the triple-eave roof, each covered with blue, yellow, and green glazed tiles, represents the Heaven, Earth and the mortal world. So in the temple of Heaven, everything was intentionally built for some religious purpose, showing a very strong belief in the Heaven. And such belief, resulted from the Taoism, is so deeply rooted that it still can be seen in today’s Chinese culture.


Modern Chinese Space Exploration and Dark Matter

The launch of the DAMPE satellite and its significance in China.

My week 7 group to Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing had the invaluable opportunity to be a part of a historical moment for China in the field of space exploration – the official launch of the naming ceremony of China’s first Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE). In the same ceremony, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing announced a global competition to name to DAMPE satellite, which is expected to be launched from the Jiu quan Satellite Launch Centre by the end of this year.

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A group of Scientists and experts in the field of Astronomy delivering opening addresses

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Yale-NUS students signing on the backdrop for the event

At a press briefing on 30th June this year, Chang said that the DAMPE satellite would have the widest observation spectrum and highest energy resolution of any dark matter probe in the world. Considering China’s relatively new space exploration programme, the launch of this satellite is indeed a historical moment of China.

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Artist’s rendering of DAMPE satellite. Image Credit:

The DAMPE satellite was made to detect and potentially identify the dark matter in space, which would help us understand the 27% of material existing in the universe that scientists have been fascinated with and baffled by since its discovery in 1932. Dark matter has evoked the curiosity of scientists all over the world since it is one of the greatest mysteries of space that has yet to be understood and defined. Accounting for over a quarter of the universe’s mass-energy balance, it can only be observed indirectly through its interaction with visible matter.

Consistent with their traditional observation-based method of scientific inquiry, Chinese scientists have taken scrutiny of the subject a step further in being the first to launch a satellite solely for the purposes of gathering concrete data in order to study the matter more closely. According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China built the probe in collaboration with the University of Geneva (Switzerland) and Italian universities in Bari, Lecce, and Perugia, indicating its openness to collaboration with other nations in the study of space. This step forward signals China’s ambition in pursuing a rigorous exploration program, and highlights the changing initiative for collaboration between key countries that have large-scale space projects, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia, amongst others.

The atmosphere of strict formality that enshrouded the ceremony quickly dissolved with a spirited presentation on dark matter and the progressiveness the DAMPE satellite would bring to China’s space exploration. The slides were interjected with images of Sheldon of the Big Bang theory scribbling equations on dark matter, eliciting laughter from reporters and students alike.

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An overview of why dark matter and the DAMPE is increasingly relevant to space exploration

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A presentation slide outlining how the DAMPE will gather information

The launch is not only a hugely significant milestone for Chinese space exploration, but is also instrumental in the development of dark matter theory which will trigger revolutionary progress in man’s understanding of the space phenomena and physics. The DAMPE marks China’s first foray into an observation-based, direct engagement with dark matter. A successful DAMPE mission would undoubtedly lay the groundwork for China’s continued development and understanding of dark matter, as well as grant them the status of pioneers in procuring new knowledge on the subject.

– Marissa Foo

Art and Astronomy

I had an amazing time in China.

It was my first time in China, and I was going to three major cities with my CIPE Week 7 group — Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. I did not know anything substantial about these cities, and I chose this Week 7 project because I thought it would be a good starting point in getting acquainted with China.

It was fascinating to see how ancient and modern China dealt with the innate human curiosity about the cosmos, and how advanced ancient tools such as the Chinese armillary sphere were. However, what struck me most was how astronomy influenced art and architecture. The Armillary Sphere, for example, wasn’t just an astronomical tool, as it was in the Western world. The English Copernican armillary sphere, for example, simply served as a model of the celestial sphere, used as a teaching tool to show the position of celestial bodies around the Sun.

Image from Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

The Chinese armillary sphere, on the other hand, was not just a tool, but a work of art. It did not just serve as a tool for locating different celestial objects and determining their relative coordinates, but also told a tale based on Chinese folklore.

at Purple Mountain Observatory, Nanjing

The ancient Chinese believed that the world can be likened to an egg, in which the Earth is the yolk, and the Heavens are contained in a shell around it. In the armillary sphere, we can see four dragons holding this egg up, with a mountain behind each dragon, marked with a symbol from the Book of Changes, each standing for a direction such as towards Heaven.

It’s impressive how intricate the design of the Chinese armillary sphere was, and how advanced their workmanship was. It is impressive, how the ancient Chinese merged science and art in their armillary sphere. I wonder what the relationship between religion and science was like in ancient China; the Chinese armillary sphere certainly suggests a kind of consonance between science and tradition, which is a refreshing implication, especially in comparison to the relationship between science and religion in the Western world, with the Church objecting to various scientific discoveries, such as the Copernican theory that the Sun is the centre of the universe.

Another significant example of the relationship between astronomy, mythology and the human world being manifested is evident in architecture. For instance, taking the two tallest towers in China, the Shanghai World Financial Centre and the Shanghai Tower, the former has been designed to evoke images of the moon, with a trapezoidal hole at the top. It was originally supposed to be a round hole, but it was later changed because it would have looked like the Japanese flag.

Shanghai World Financial Centre illuminated at night

The Shanghai Tower, on the other hand, was designed in the form of nine cylindrical buildings stacked on top of each other, as per the Chinese myth that the Dragon King had nine sons.

Shanghai Tower soaring above Lujiazui. Image from Gentler Design.

The mythological and historical influences on art and architecture never fail to amaze me, and seeing how intricately interwoven Chinese cosmology is in both ancient and modern China was immeasurably fascinating for me.

– Paul Maravillas Jerusalem