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July 29, 2016

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New museum: sky gazing never loses its appeal

A telescope in the hand of a statue of Xu Guangqi attracted the attention of my four-year-old son during a visit to the newly reopened memorial hall honoring the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scientist. My son peered into the telescope and asked what the bearded grandpa was looking at with it.

This is no ordinary grandpa. Xu is often called the “Francis Bacon of China” or “the first Chinese who opened his eyes to the world” and the downtown area of Xujiahui is named after him. He was born in Shanghai in 1562, living in an era when interest in practical science was declining in China.

In 1600, on a trip to Beijing, Xu met the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and converted to Catholicism. Ricci was a Renaissance man of his time and shared his knowledge across a spectrum of science and humanities subjects with Xu.

Together, they translated several ancient Western texts, most notably part of Euclid’s “Elements,” into Chinese. Xu became a scientist and scholar in his own right. He set up Western astronomy instruments in Beijing, experimented with cultivation of sweet potatoes in Shanghai to feed the starving, helped organize self-sufficient military settlements in Tianjin and authored many books on practical science, from agriculture and hydraulics to the significant “Chongzhen Almanac.”

When he died in 1633 in Beijing, Xu held minister-level positions and was buried in farmland in what was then western Shanghai. His descendants eventually settled there. The name Xujiahui means “gathering of the Xu family.”

After Shanghai opened its port in 1843, the Jesuits returned to Xujiahui in 1847 largely due to Xu. Xujiahui became a hub for the spread of science and culture. It was the home of China’s first library, its first Western-style middle school, its first museum, its first modern publishing house, its first observatory and three of Shanghai’s most important universities.

Today, some historical buildings from the “Xujiahui era” still exist and even newly open to the public.

Thinking of my son’s question, it occurred to me that the spirit and scientific curiosity of “Shanghai Xu,” never taken seriously in his lifetime, should rightly be revived today as Shanghai strives to become a global hub for science, technology and innovative thinking.

Maybe what the bearded grandpa was gazing at through a 17th-century telescope was our future in the 21st century.

So this time, let’s embark on a journey to Xujiahui.

THE Xujiahui Observatory was regaled as “having an immense horizon and wonderfully pure atmosphere” by novelist Jules Verne in his 1886 adventure novel “Robur the Conqueror.”

“That it appeared in a 19th-century French novel shows the international status of Xujiahui Observatory at that time,” says Jiang Xiaoyuan, dean of the Science History Department at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “It was indeed hailed by the international astronomical community as the most important observatory in the Far East.”

The red-brick observatory in the heart of Xujiahui was built by the Jesuits in 1872. After restoration, it was reopened to the public this summer as a meteorological museum.

“Though founded in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Shanghai observatory was entirely different from Qin Tian Jian — the Imperial Board of Astronomy in Beijing, which was responsible for editing the emperor’s almanac,” Jiang says.

“The Europeans set up meteorological stations across the world as they expanded their colonies,” he explains. “They picked Xujiahui and Sheshan Hill (in suburban Songjiang District) to set up stations to study meteorology and astronomy in the Far East.”

One of Jiang’s students, scholar Wu Yan, traced the origins of the Xujiahui Observatory to 1841, when Jesuits Claude Gotteland Francois Esteve and Benjamin Brueyre departed from the French port Brest for Shanghai. They carried with them four astronomical instruments, hoping to revive the 17th-century tradition of Italian Jesuit Ricci Mateo, whose missionary work and scientific endeavors had been helped by a government official named Xu Guangqi, for whom Xujiahui is named. The instruments including a telescope granted by French Queen Marie-Amelie.

In 1872, the Jiangnan Society of Jesus hosted a meeting in Xujiahui — or Zikawei, as it was known in Shanghai dialect — to establish a scientific committee to oversee the founding of a museum, a history and geology research center, a scientific publishing house and a meteorological station.

According to the book “Zikawei in History,” the Jesuits started meteorological observations in Xujiahui that same year and built the observatory a year later. In 1880, two floors and a tower were added.

In 1901, the observatory that survives today was completed just 100 meters west of the original site. The three-story, Roman-style building was embellished with an arched gate, red and gray bricks and vase-shaped stone railings. The wind tower rose 40 meters atop the building and was graced with a huge clock donated by a French patron. In 1910, the wooden tower was replaced with an iron one.

In her book about the observatory, Wu says the Jesuits chose Xujiahui as the site of the observatory because the area was a religious center imbued with the cultural environment of the nearby French concession at the time. Two small rivers, the Zhaojiabang and Puhuitang, provided easy access to the Huangpu River.

The observatory’s director Marc Dechevrens conducted an influential analysis of a typhoon that hit Shanghai in 1879, and thereafter, the observatory began publishing weather forecasts in local newspapers.

“The greatest end that meteorological observations would serve out here in the Far East would be to furnish data requisite to foretell changes of weather, to give storm warnings and to put the mariner on his guard so as to minimize risk to both life and property,” the Shanghai-based English newspaper North China Herald reported in March, 1882.

“Weather bulletins are a recognized want of civilization.”

Wu adds that the observatory’s “hotline” was always busy.

“Father Ernesto Gherzi, who answered the hotline, recalled being asked if the weather would be good for loading 40,000 bags of rice on a boat or for painting a British navy cruiser with a new coat of gray,” Wu wrote. “On a typhoon day, an old woman frantically sought advice on whether she should bring her pet dog indoors.”

The century-old observatory still reports on weather conditions for Shanghai. The iron tower, demolished in the 1970s, has been restored according to historical photos.

“We demolished more than 200 square meters of added architecture to revive the building to its original beauty,” says Yang Yang from the meteorological bureau, who participated in the restoration.

“We maintained all the original wooden beams, a section of original wooden staircase and the purple red terrazzo on the walls,” he says. “The ground floor is paved with white hexagon mosaics, according to pieces of old mosaics we found during restoration.”

The Xujiahui Observatory had two stations — an astronomical observatory atop Sheshan Hill and a white semaphore tower on the Bund.

The latter tower is showcased in an exhibition room of the new museum. A moving ship model recreates the scene of an old Shanghai sailor watching the semaphore tower from his ship to ascertain the weather conditions.

A rainbow of 19th-century thermometer, barometer and humidifier, collected from antique shops around Europe, are also on display in the museum, along with archival photos and the famous 1879 typhoon account of Dechevrens.

During the restoration, Yang and his colleagues happened to find an old photo showing part of the observatory director’s office, with a dark, round table in the center.

“We did find the round table later, and it is displayed along with this photo,” Yang says.

The plot of “Robur the Conqueror” includes a three-week airborne trip in a propeller-driven contraption. In it, Verne wrote about a fictional director at the Xujiahui Observatory, who spotted an object in the air and surmised it was a flying machine, much to the scorn of Western astronomers who had also seen it and dismissed that idea as impossible.

“The director’s opinion proved to be right, but it was regarded as incredible because he was, in Verne’s words, a ‘chinaman,’” Jiang says. “Verne made a big mistake there. The directors of the Xujiahui Observatory in that era were always European Jesuits, not Chinese.”

However, Verne was correct in writing that the observatory rose “in the center of a vast plateau less than 30 miles from the sea,” Jiang says.


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